Ian Beesley’s 45-year documentation of working life in Bradford

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Together with Bluecoat Press, the Bradford-born photographer is crowdfunding to publish his long-term documentation of the northern city

Ian Beesley has been documenting his home city of Bradford for over 45 years. His early work in the late-1970s captured the everyday lives of working-class people: kids playing street games, fans chanting for Bradford FC, and grafters working in vast Victorian factories. In the 1980s, he proceeded to document the demise of heavy industries such as mining, iron and steel production. 

Following his first ever career retrospective at Salt Mills in Bradford, Beesley is crowdfunding to publish the work as a photobook with Bluecoat Press. Here, he tells us more about his life’s work. 

How did you find photography?

My dad was a keen amateur photographer, so I used to help him develop films in our kitchen from an early age. I left school and worked in a series of labouring jobs, where my fellow workers encouraged me to find a career. Rather than getting trapped in a cycle of unskilled labour, I bought my first camera and went to art college.

How has Bradford changed over the last 45 years?

The city has struggled with the demise of the traditional industry, poor transport links and a lack of investment. It has slowly declined into one of the poorest areas in the UK, overshadowed by its more affluent neighbour Leeds. Over the last 45 years I have documented this demise of industry in the North, its impact on society, and the closure of the mills, mines and foundries. My work is part of the wider picture on how Northern industrial cities have been affected by the political and financial decisions made in Westminster. I find many of the photographic representations of these cities to be cynical, patronising and ill-informed.

© Ian Beesley.

Could you tell us the story behind the picture above?

I took this photo in the late 70s. I spent days walking the streets of inner city Bradford photographing children playing street games. This group of boys were playing marbles.Their mother came out to see what I was doing. I told her the purpose of the photos, and she was quite happy to chat. The boy at the back with his hands in his pockets got in touch this year after he saw the photo on the BBC. He couldn’t remember me taking the photo, but he can remember his mum speaking of a strange man with a camera, and how she saw him off with a yard brush. He always wondered if that was true as she had a copy of the photo on her mantlepiece. He came to the exhibition at Salt Mills in Bradford with his family and enjoyed showing his grandkids where he used to live. The boy on the bike also came to the exhibition. Through Facebook and Twitter they have managed to get in touch with the other children in the picture too.

Who do you take photographs for?

I take photographs for the people. I document the lives of working people, who are often overlooked. I always try to give people a print when I have photographed them. Having a connection with those I am photographing is at the core of my practice.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.