THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS AVAILABLE AS A LIMITED EDITION PRINT, AVAILABLE EXCLUSIVELY VIA SAUL HAY GALLERY
Fear comes with me when I work in the twilight. As I stand by my tripod, waiting for minutes to pass as I take my photographs, I’m as much engaged with risk, as I am with the scene before me, constantly casting around for signs of danger, animalistic instincts awoken by my isolation in darkened surroundings. In the stillness of half-light, everything is exaggerated. Sound, scent, shadow, movement. The power of imagination further fuels this, and sometimes trees, like a murmuring theatre audience, seem to whisper their judgement on my actions below.
In these moments, waiting for my exposure to end, my mind can drift, and sometimes I’ve seen myself as a peculiar moth, because my attraction is not to bright light, but to subtlety of shade and gentle luminance. Could this mean I would live longer than other moths, who I’d watch take their one way flight toward atrocious beams of light, glad that I was different. Either way, I’d still be a moth, drawn by curious instinct to light, no matter how changed. I’d be just as alone, just as vulnerable, always aware of life’s fragile aspect.
The fear has been too much for me recently. A disturbing incident one morning in Ardwick, and seemingly omnipresent young lads in black clothes and balaclavas, pulling wheelies, has dampened not my desire, but my will, to visit the stranger spaces of this city in the dimness of dawn and dusk. But within, there is that moth instinct, to travel towards the twilight, to create work that helps me make sense of the chaos that is urban life. And so I know that I must again flutter into the night.
But this isn’t Kafka, and I am not a moth. My metamorphosis would be more mundane, requiring only the renewal of courage.
A couple of weeks ago, at around 10pm, I’d gone out on a recce, first walking up through Clayton Vale, and then later down through old Ancoats, roughly following the direction of the River Medlock. A dank mist hung around old industrial spaces, now reclaimed by a wild nature, and thin drizzle soaked the ground. As I scurried into clumps of woodland, I felt like a field mouse trying to avoid the attentions of any lurking, vigilant predator. Somewhere nearby, I could hear the gentle call of a tawny owl, soft as a baby’s sigh.
Deep within this wintry murk, I stood on a deserted path in the Medlock Valley, amongst noisy trees. The faint glow of a nearby streetlamp slightly helped diffuse the dense shadows. I tried to imagine being there with my camera, committed to an opened shutter, which would render me unable to run.
To bring someone else out with me would change the process? Feeling fear is surely an essential part of my work? I began filtering the process through my mind and body, reasoning my thoughts out loud, trying to summon enough determination to consider returning alone. If anyone had overheard me, I’d have seemed insane. But I knew these spaces to be potentially dangerous, and should something happen, I’d not be near anyone who might help . My courage failed me, and so, a few nights later, I called on my close friend Andy, and asked him out to join me.
Several hours of working had passed by the time we reached the Ancoats Roundhouse on Every Street. The air was thick with cloud and spattering rain, and we were cold. There is often amongst Manchester architecture, the suggestion of mystery. In so many leftover spaces, there is speculation as to what something might have been and why it even still exists.
I’d passed the Roundhouse many times, and often had walked along its diameter, through the small gathering of beech trees. There is bramble and mulch, and if you choose to look to your feet, it’s possible to briefly dream you’re in a country lane, not a small circle of inner-city scrubland. On the bricks of the circular wall, all that remains of the old building, someone called Bof had scrawled his name in white paint, a familiar site on many surfaces around the local area.
Around the walls are gravestones. It seems to me that so much of Manchester’s green spaces are old burial grounds. It was difficult to read the inscriptions, but the name of Thomas, son of Thomas and Margaret Foster, who died when just six months old in 1831 was just about legible. Down the steep slope beyond this graveyard, following the muddy quad bike tracks, is Palmerston Street, named in honour of the British Prime Minister who banned children from working between 6pm and 6am. A union jack flag hung limp in the back garden of a nearby house.
Around the darkened oak tree on the nearby green, someone had been fly tipping. There was a single glove, some old grey envelopes, flared magenta leggings and plastic wrapping as if just opened, suggesting they were perhaps Amazon parcels stolen from the nearby flats. And there was a card with an illustration of the Earth, clutching a red heart, with the caption “The world needs more people like you”.
Here in Ancoats it’s not a stone circle that we have, but a brick one. But perhaps it’s no less powerful. In this moment it felt like a place of sanctuary, not danger. An amber glow hovered in the sky above this strange circle, and searchlights danced in the dense sky. The city is never truly dark. Andy disappeared into the copse to help me with my photograph, and, without complaining, sat for many minutes amongst the damp foliage, strangely content to be part of this process.
As an incentive to staying out, I’d promised Andy chips later, and now he was hungry. The shutter clicked for the last time, and Andy emerged from the enclosure, smiling. “Doing this causes you to have a very intense relationship with parts of the city most people wouldn’t notice or know about.” My fear began to evaporate. I remembered the joy in such discoveries, my love of this weird city. I felt a cloak of safety again around my shoulders. As we were leaving, I looked up and saw someone on a balcony across the road, a silhouette, smoking, and watching our every move.