THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS AVAILABLE AS A LIMITED EDITION PRINT EXCLUSIVELY VIA SAUL HAY GALLERY
It’s not the clock that sets our feelings towards any particular space, it’s light, or its absence, setting that particular agenda. And now that it’s winter time, when dusk falls across the end of the working day, our familiar paths home become shrouded in darkness, altering our perceptions of known places. And so we tend to gather around around light.
On a recent Friday tea-time, I’m parked outside Tony’s chippy near the Ashton canal. Tony’s clock says it’s a quarter to five. I devour the scent of fish and chips, and listen to the clank of metal as Tony lifts piles of freshly cooked chips out of fizzing hot oil, which soon find their way into wrapped trays. It is a place entirely lit, and full with life, with splendid normality, safety, with bubbling conversation, with warmth and community. A Friday evening spent feasting on beloved food at the end of the week. I watch people leave the cafe, rubbing their filled bellies like Tudor kings, chatting and smiling, ready for the rest of the night.
I feel separated from this scene, despite me being only the width of a pavement away, as I know I have to work. I take my gear out of the boot, and disappear round the corner, descending down old stone steps onto the canal towpath below. I glance instinctively skywards and, as the twilight begins to fade, register patchy cloud and glorious, deep blues.
From one of the old mill buildings, dark bulks in the late afternoon gloom, I hear the sound of someone sawing. Someone else is drumming an irregular beat on a snare drum. I bob my head down, and pass under a low, small bridge designed for horses, but now carrying tons of rush-hour traffic. Coming out on the other side, I feel as if I’ve passed through a portal.
The noise from the streets above falters and fades. In this new quiet I hear a squadron of Canada geese pass close overhead, their wings softly beating a constant rhythm. The leader cries out with a rasping honk, and the sound echoes across the still water, touches the ragged brick walls opposite and, like a swimmer turning in a race, comes straight back.
With the last of the light, I hear a blackbird briefly sing, but it too soon becomes quietened. A firework booms in the distance, and I consider how constant during the night hours this sound is in Manchester. There is a tense peace in the air, and I’m slightly on edge, the path doesn’t feel safe, I feel too secluded in these shadows. To cheer myself up, I think of chips, and set out my tripod, readying myself to photograph.
Footsteps come quickly from behind and I turn, ready to defend myself. But it’s only a woman, sprinting in short bursts. As she comes close to my camera, she turns, smiles and says something in an eastern European accent, before speeding away. Soon there are very few people to disturb me, and those that do pass by whilst I’m taking my pictures will not appear on the image, as the exposure is too long. I like this notion, that the camera has captured people, and yet they can’t be seen. Invisible souls, ghosts within the frame, and for a few seconds I feel connected to everyone that has ever walked this ancient towpath.
Whilst I’m taking one particular picture, I notice the inside walls of the bridge become illuminated, and so guess that there’s an approaching cyclist, and decide to leave the shutter open. As the bike appears, I point my light at my tripod, so that he can see as he goes by me.
But as he comes closer he slows to a halt, and says
“This is a bit inconvenient isn’t it?”
“Well, not really” I reply.
“What you taking pictures for at this time anyway?”
“I’m taking night time photographs”
“Well, maybe you should do photographs in the dark when people can see you.” And sets off again, repeating his observation that “it’s a bit inconvenient isn’t it?”
“You’re right!” I call after him, “and I apologise”.
He again slows down, as if expecting to hear an insult and wanting to take it further, but rides away once he’s considered my reply. I check the back of my camera. His bike has left a trail of light on the picture. I’ve accidentally captured this soul. Satisfied with this thought, I pack up and make my way back to Tony’s.
So many people are now inside, that the queue has spilled onto the pavement. Delivery guys on bikes are packing large bags with orders. No-one pays me any attention. So unseen, I wonder if I actually exist. I notice the clock on the wall above the fryer. It is only a quarter to six. I feel as if I’ve been gone far longer, and travelled much further away.