Photographer and lecturer Aaron Schuman guides us through the history and creativity of the diverse community he calls home
Bristol first registered on my radar when a friend turned up to our college darkroom with two new CDs: Portishead’s Dummy (1994) and Tricky’s Maxinquaye (1995). The albums, which served to define the Bristol-born genre trip-hop – an enigmatic fusion of hip-hop and electronica – conjured an image of a place that was both woozily atmospheric and curiously edgy. And one distinct from the manically hyperactive metropolis of mid-1990s New York, where I was living.
In my mind, Bristol was slow-paced, unpretentious and, at times, mournful yet pulsating with an intense creative energy that was dynamic, multicultural and politically charged. More than 20 years later, I was invited to develop a postgraduate MA in photography at the University of the West of England. I discovered a place that confirmed and exceeded these hazy expectations; a city with a fascinating complexity and burgeoning photo culture that stretched far beyond the paltry limits of my teenage imagination.
Straddling the River Avon in the south-west of England, Bristol developed into an important trading port in the 12th century. In the 1500s, it became a launching point for early exploratory voyages. By the 1600s, it was also well- known for the trade of illicit goods, but ultimately the city built its substantial wealth through the transatlantic slave trade. By the 1730s, an average of 39 slave ships left Bristol each year, a number that grew over the following decades. As slavery was gradually abolished, the city continued its economic expansion through the importation of tobacco. In the late-1900s, Bristol’s maritime industries went into decline, and the economy turned to aerospace, information technology, media and culture. Many of its post-industrial sites have been regenerated into cinemas, restaurants, artist studios and cultural institutions, where a vibrant and supportive creative community thrives.
Despite its deeply problematic history, today Bristol is one of the most progressive and politically active cities in the UK. This year’s Kill the Bill protests, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, culminating in the toppling of the Edward Colston statue, are recent examples. Alongside such activism, there is a robust arts scene with a longstanding history of experimentation – Richard Long and Banksy, among many others, hail from Bristol. The city’s photographic culture finds its origins in the 1970s, with Jem Southam and Paul Graham. While working day jobs at the Arnolfini gallery and elsewhere, the pair built and ran a cooperative gallery and communal darkroom: Photographers Above the Rainbow. It was there, in the cramped rooms above the Rainbow Cafe (now the vegan Eden Cafe), that contemporary British photo culture first flourished, and colour photography gained a foothold within British art. Over the following decades, the city became home to many more photographers, including Garry Fabian Miller, Peter Fraser and Martin Parr.
Almost 50 years later, Bristol is experiencing a photographic renaissance. Artists flock to the city, and in the last five years alone, a plethora of new galleries, festivals, publishers, educational programmes and community-minded initiatives have established a home here. Little did I know, back when I was agitating my developing trays to the slow-and-low tempos of this city, that my lifelong obsession with photography would eventually lead me to Bristol. At such an exciting and important moment, and among such a wonderful community of people who share this obsession, I am forever grateful that it did.
Based on the Knowle West estate, this charity works collaboratively with people from different backgrounds to create new models for achieving positive social change, as well as developing skills for them to become change-makers themselves.
Housed in a former 19th-century warehouse in Bristol’s ‘Floating Harbour’, the Arnolfini has served as the city’s international centre for contemporary art for 60 years. From the outset, long before photography was exhibited or even accepted into most British art museums and cultural institutions, the Arnolfini was giving emerging photographers some of their earliest shows in the UK. In the 1970s and 80s, these included Ed Ruscha, Daniel Meadows, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Josef Koudelka, Lee Friedlander, Robert Mapplethorpe, William Eggleston, Chris Killip and more.
Photography still plays a central role within the Arnolfini’s programming, with remarkable exhibitions by Hassan Hajjaj, Amak Mahmoodian , and most recently an extensive Jo Spence retrospective. On show as part of Bristol Photo Festival is a retrospective by Stephen Gill, featuring iconic series alongside new and previously unexhibited works.
For photobook aficionados, the Arnolfini Bookshop is a pilgrimage site. It was here in the late-1970s that a young Paul Graham, after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in microbiology, served as a “lowly bookshop assistant” (his words).
He immediately took charge of the photography section, importing obscure monographs from around the world and selling self-published editions of his own books. To this day, the shop continues to host a modest but well-curated photography section alongside an expansive selection of contemporary art, design, music, fiction and politics titles. It’s almost impossible to walk out without a new book in hand – often one that you didn’t know you needed in the first place.
In 1987, while in the midst of photographing his landmark project The Cost of Living, Martin Parr moved to Bristol with his family. He has championed the city ever since, and in 2017, three decades after first settling in the area, Parr opened the Martin Parr Foundation (MPF). Set within a creative quarter called Paintworks – a former paint and varnish factory – the foundation houses a gallery, which presents a programme of historical and contemporary exhibitions. It is also home to a library full of photobook rarities, a well-stocked bookshop, Parr’s office and studio, and an ever- growing collection of prints, book dummies, ephemera and archives.
It feels like a clubhouse as much as a foundation, and is a gathering place for students, friends, colleagues and many photographic heroes: Chris Killip, Susan Meiselas, David Hurn, Alec Soth, Bill Owens, Anna Fox and Joan Fontcuberta have all visited.
Less than 18 months after the MPF arrived at Paintworks, the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) – one of the world’s longest-running photographic institutions – opened its new headquarters next door, creating a mini photo-neighbourhood of sorts. The RPS has an impressive gallery that hosts a dynamic programme, including the annual International Photography Exhibition. Held almost every year since 1854, it is the longest-running show of its kind, and has exhibited some of the world’s most eminent photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand.
Additionally, the RPS hosts a diverse range of artist talks, festivals and educational programmes throughout the year, with the admirable mission of creating an environment where people of all ages and backgrounds are inspired, connected, empowered and educated through photography.
This is a top-notch independent photographic lab providing professional film processing, scanning and printing services, as well as a wide selection of analogue products. They also produce limited- print runs of work by local artists.
On our radar
24 Elmgrove Road, Bristol BS6 6AJ
Launched in the summer of 2021, this new and ambitious gallery is based in the beautiful home of
its founder, Christine Serchia of Valentine Editions. Open daily by appointment, it shows exquisite work by contemporary practitioners.
Based in St Paul’s Learning Centre, within one of Bristol’s most diverse and multicultural communities, the Real Photography Company is an initiative aimed at making photography accessible. It manages the St Paul’s Darkrooms, which offers community facilities for alternative development and printing processes at a low rate. In just four years it has also provided tuition and exhibition platforms for groups who would not normally have access to such opportunities, including over-50s, refugees and young asylum seekers. As well as free experimental cyanotype, photogram and pinhole camera workshops, the initiative delivers a series of free lunchtime lectures and outdoor workshops on how to make images using plants and kitchen tools.
Most recently, the organisation initiated the Windrush Community Project, combining photography, music and celebration. For October’s Black History Month, it is publishing a book about Windrush elders living in Bristol, and commissioning music by the Bristol Reggae Orchestra to coincide with its launch.
This year saw the launch of Bristol Photo Festival. Led by a powerhouse duo – festival director Tracy Marshall-Grant and education director Alejandro Acín, founder and director of Bristol-based IC Visual Lab – the exhibition programme, themed A Sense of Place, is staggering.
The ambitious city-wide event provides platforms for both internationally renowned and emerging photographers, as well as an extensive engagement and outreach programme via the city’s schools and community groups. Stretching across seven months (May to December 2021) the exhibition programme features a diverse range of artists, including James Barnor, Sarah Waiswa, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Lebohang Kganye and many more.
The exhibitions are presented at some of Bristol’s major cultural institutions – the Arnolfini, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Photographic Society and Martin Parr Foundation – as well as in smaller venues and alternative spaces, including the historic boatyard Underfall Yard, the Georgian landscape park Royal Fort Gardens, and the long-established cooperative gallery Centrespace.
Furthermore, its commissions and education programme will be maintained even in the biennial’s ‘dormant’ years. This is more than a festival – it is a movement; one that is situating photography at the core of the city’s cultural identity, and placing Bristol at the forefront of both national and international contemporary photographic culture.
On our radar
4 Princess Row, Bristol BS2 8NQ
This non-profit cooperative cinema and performance space, established in 1998, specialises in independent, politically engaged, avant-garde films and events.
On our radar
IC Visual Lab
St Paul’s Settlement, 74–80 City Road, Bristol BS2 8UH
There is an astounding array of excellent photographers based in this relatively small city – Lua Ribeira, Jessa Fairbrother, Samuel Fordham, Jamie E Murray, Sadie Catt, Jessie Edwards-Thomas, Bnar Sardar and Sophie Sherwood are just a few. But from my perspective, Chris Hoare and Amak Mahmoodian eloquently represent two sides of the diverse and multifaceted spectrum of photography that’s currently coming out of Bristol.
Bristol born and bred, Chris Hoare’s lyrical-documentary approach draws inspiration from the best of the genre’s longstanding history. At the same time, it contains a freshness, depth and true sense of empathy, consideration and connection with his subjects. Ever since he was a teenager, Hoare has been pounding the pavements of his hometown on an almost daily basis. I’ve rarely met such a committed photographer who’s itching to get out there with his camera at first light. Both his intimate knowledge of and profound love for the city, its people, its communities and its complexity, offer a truly unique and insightful perspective.
Iranian-born artist and photographer Amak Mahmoodian is a beloved member of Bristol’s photo community. Her conceptually driven, intimate practice often interweaves images with research, archival imagery, sculpture, poetry and much more. Bridging the space between the personal and political, she “explores the effects of exile and distance on memory, dreams and daily life”. In recent years, Mahmoodian has published two critically acclaimed and heart-wrenchingly beautiful books – Shenasnameh (2016) and Zanjir (2019) – which speak to her present while longing for her past. Her solo show at the Arnolfini in 2020 was one of the last exhibitions held in Bristol before the pandemic took hold. It brought tears to my eyes back then, and memories of it still do to this day.
Founded in 2008 by publisher and antiquarian book dealer Rudi Thoemmes, Bristol-based RRB Photobooks began as a specialist bookseller. In 2015, it established a publishing arm, focusing on overlooked or forgotten British photographers of the 1970s and 80s, as well as some of today’s most exciting contemporary practitioners. Exquisitely designed and sumptuously printed, recent releases include Niall McDiarmid’s Town to Town (2018), Czesław Siegieda’s Polska Britannica (2020) and Chris Hoare’s Growing Spaces (2021), plus publications drawn from the archives of John Myers, James Barnor, Jo Spence, Tom Wood, Ken Grant, Markéta Luskačová and more.
Additionally, if you are on the hunt for publications from the German Democratic Republic, or 20th-century protest and propaganda publications, Thoemmes is likely to have what you’re looking for, and if not, he will know where to find it. RRB Photobooks certainly knows how to uncover genuine photographic treasures, whether they are new or have been buried for decades.
On our radar
Paintworks, Arnos Vale, Bristol BS4 3EH
BOP (Books On Photography) is an annual photobook festival bringing together over 40 publishers, booksellers and photographers from across Europe alongside talks, book signings, street food, coffee and beer.