THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS AVAILABLE AS A LIMITED EDITION PRINT, EXCLUSIVELY VIA SAUL HAY GALLERY…
When is dusk? For me it’s a period of time that can last for over an hour. If you’re staring at a darkening sky, searching for the last of the light, it’s a state of mind as much as anything else. There was a sign on the railings that quite clearly stated that the park would be locked up at dusk. The winter sky was awash with fading streaks of yellow and orange and rich, slate blues, and the density of trees in Whitworth Park had already cast the grounds deep into shadow, surely dusk? But the park was still open.
I was photographing an empty bandstand, bereft of performers or audience, backlit by floodlights from a nearby football venue. Above me were trails of fireworks. Bonfire Night celebrations had already begun, with a pugnacious commitment to noise, the crisp air allowing explosions and shrieks from all across the city to echo unhindered through lamplit streets. I kept glancing back to the gate, keeping an eye out the park keepers, should they arrive.
And then, from the rear of the Whitworth Gallery, I heard shouting and laughter. I turned and saw two hooded figures, play fighting like kids in a playground. Above them was a large light sculpture, a series of coloured bulbs spelling out the words ‘Gathering of Strangers’. The men, as if possessed by some instinctive sense, then became quiet, and disappeared into one of the building’s many crannies. They’d somehow heard the footsteps and voices of two security men from the University of Manchester, who were now walking towards me.
“Am I ok to be taking photographs, or are you locking up?” I asked.
“No, you carry on, you’re fine mate” one of them replied.
They moved swiftly in the direction where the two hooded men had been, and one of the guards took out a torch, swooshing it back and forth as he patrolled the path. Briefly, it felt like watching a spy drama at the cinema, and I wasn’t sure who to root for.
The two hooded men remained undiscovered, and once the patrol was complete they reappeared, like elves, ready to play once more, giggling as they pushed each other around in the glow of the artwork. In the distance I could now see several people, no more than shadows, walk confidently along the paths between the trees. A cyclist went by, and then a couple, speaking gently in German, and holding hands. The closing of the gates at dusk seemed nothing more than an empty threat, given the motley crowd that seemed to be criss-crossing the various paths.
This sense of reassurance caused me to move further into the park, walking over muddy ground, my feet kicking through Autumn leaves, my breath forming plumes of steam, and in the moment I was a young boy again, wishing I was playing football, or watching fireworks in the back garden with my mum. A cool draft of melancholy touched my skin, as if carried on the breeze, and I felt alone.
Emerging onto a path near the football pitches I looked to my left and simply gasped at the thrilling scene before me, a vision reminding me of a landscape painting from the 18th century, with lush trees tumbling over a split path, the floodlights causing an almost celestial glow through the branches. Despite it being a chill Autumn evening, the trees looked summery in their remaining green splendour.
Each exposure lasted several minutes, and as I waited, I listened to the game now underway just beyond the trees. The ball would occasionally thud against the fence, causing a dense, vibrating rattle. The players called out encouragement to each other, and by the time I’d finished taking my photographs, I felt I knew them a little. Wardy seemed particularly talented.
When I got back to my car, as I opened the boot, an African woman, dressed for church, and her daughter approached me, asking if I knew where they could park for free.
“I guess you can park here” I said, “I’m going now”.
I got into my car, and once more glimpsed through the trees the lights forming ‘Gathering of Strangers‘. A group of teenagers arrived. One, a girl, wearing thick eyeliner, her hair heavily back combed, looked over at me, before they went through the gate, and disappeared into the dark. The park was still open.