Earlier this year, North West based photographer, Simon Bray, worked alongside Martin Parr on a commission set by Manchester Art Gallery. After studying Photography at Manchester Polytechnic in 1970-1973, Manchester Art Gallery brought Martin back to work on a series of photographs which would sit alongside work he made in Manchester whilst studying. Although a photographer himself, Simon Bray was invited to work as a producer on the project. We wanted to find out about the role and what it entailed.
Hi Simon. You’re a photographer based in Manchester who works primarily on your own projects and commissions. How did this come about?
Photography sort of found me when I moved to Manchester 12 years ago. I’d grown up in a smaller more rural setting, and photography was the thing that allowed me to assimilate with my new surroundings, I would walk everywhere and take pictures. I worked in the music industry for a long time, which gave me a good understanding of how to begin, fund, develop and deliver a project, collaborating with others and then releasing something into the world. I’ve applied this to my photography, working on a range of projects, the most significant of which is called Loved&Lost, which invites participants to explore their experience of loss and grief through the re-staging of a family photograph and a recorded interview. My aim for the project would be that it would encourage people to talk about loss, and it’s already been featured on BBC Breakfast TV, the BBC News front page and The Guardian, so my hopes that it would reach a broad audience are being realised.
As part of my development over the past few years, I’ve engaged with a photography network in Manchester called Redeye, enrolling on their Lightbox course in 2015 and working as part of a collective, resulting in an exhibition of new work at Brighton Photo Biennial. I think they suggested my name to the curator at Manchester Art Gallery and so one day I got a phone call asking to produce Martin’s new commission and I said yes right away!
You were asked to work as a producer on the project, something that a photographer might have never thought about as an option before. Could you tell us what the role entailed?
The producer’s role is to arrange all the shoots, something which a photographer would usually sort for themselves, but when you’re working as hard as Martin is, it’s very helpful to have someone else making plans so that you can just thinking about making the images. Martin was commissioned by the gallery to make a portrait of Manchester in 2018. I spoke with him and the curator at the gallery and we compiled a huge list of places that we could visit to photograph across the 4 or 5 trips that Martin was going to take throughout the year. It was then my job to arrange access and schedule visits to all of these locations, places like the BBC at MediaCity, Manchester United, Manchester City, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Graphene Institute, Manchester University Manchester Central Mosque, Pride, Irish parade, sports and exercise clubs, Mackie Mayor, Bury Market and a girl’s 21st birthday party at Nawaab in Levenshulme! Some institutions took a lot of arranging, hassling, phone calls, and others we just turned up at when we had a gap in the schedule.
Was working as a producer something you’ve done before? It’s a vital part of any huge commission, although it may not feel like it when the photographer is getting all the recognition. Martin mentioned you in his talk at the gallery, but how did it feel this time to be more “behind the scenes” than the main photographer?
I’d not worked as a producer before, but the skills learnt from years working in music management were very applicable, taking care of artists, their plans, priorities and enabling them to create what they want to make. Even though Martin did acknowledge me in his talk, I was very happy to be behind the scenes, as an early-career artist, it’s not often that you not only get to work with, but also inform the creation of the work of someone like Martin who is internationally renowned and whose work is recognisable by so many. We often hold artists up in high regard as these incredible individuals, and don’t get me wrong, Martin is an extremely talented and driven individual, but behind most established artists is a team of people enabling them to make their work. Whether that’s permanent, like Martin’s team at his foundation in Bristol or transitory in the form of curators and producer teams at festivals, there’s always a huge amount of work that goes into allowing the artist to produce their work. I had great support from the curator and we worked well together as a team to succeed in meeting the objectives we originally set out, although there are numerous places that I wish we could have shot that we ran out of time to visit!
How did you find working alongside a well-established photographer like Martin? Did it inspire your own photography in any way?
It took a little while for the dynamic between us to settle, as it would for any creative people working together. Martin certainly doesn’t really need looking after, but as I was representing the gallery and knew we needed to make a significant amount of images, I wanted to get it right! On the first morning I asked him if he was happy with what we’d done, at which he told me he was never going to happy because there’s always another photograph around the corner! I quickly understood that what he wanted was to be productive and efficient, so I ensured our schedule meant we always had somewhere to be shooting, plus backup options if those didn’t work out.
In terms of how it’s inspired my work, Martin’s confidence is something to be admired. He’ll walk into a room with his camera out and start making images. I think photographers often feel the need to grant themselves permission to make images in different contexts, even on the street where it’s a complete free-for-all, we still feel intrepidation about making photos. I like to work in a similar way to Martin in that I want a simple camera in my hands and to be on my feet, constantly moving and observing, but I’m working on the confidence element, it’s certainly growing having seen Martin at work!
Was there a place you took Martin and knew instantly that he was excited about being there? Knowing his work and what he likes to capture, was there a place you took Martin that you thought would be perfect?
There were a few places that I wanted to take him that I knew he’d connect with. He was very keen to photograph the BBC, and we spent a whole day going around the various aspects of what they do at MediaCity, the news, sports and radio teams, but also 6Music and CBeebies which was a lot of fun. He was like a kid in a sweet shop, there was always something going on, some ageing decor, a folded Brompton bike or something appearing on a screen that needed to be captured. Somehow we walked in on 6Music live broadcast and got interviewed by Mark Radcliffe, which is one of many things I hadn’t anticipated!
The place that was absolutely perfect was Bury Market. It was a bizarre experience, a fascinating place with lovely people, but it felt like I’d gone back in time into a Martin Parr photobook from the 80’s or 90’s, everything seemed like it was perfectly set out for him to make images in his typical manner. In contrast, he loved Mackie Mayor, apart from the fact he got a great lunch every time we went, the difference between the old Manchester in Bury and the new Manchester in the Northern Quarter was significant.
For me, one of the most interesting locations was Manchester Central Mosque in Rusholme. We went during Friday Prayers, so it was packed, but everyone was so welcoming and for someone who used to walk past it everyday but never set foot inside, it was a real insight into the faith and their devotion to their religion. We were also invited to share them breaking their fast in the evening as part of Ramadan, the whole community sat sharing a meal together, wonderful.
If anything, what would you say you’ve learned from the process of working as a producer?
I’ve learnt a huge amount, and it will take time for it to manifest itself in my own practice, but certainly being part of such a significant body of work that so many people will see, has given me belief in how I focus on my own work and deliver it to an audience. The element of scale as well is very impressive. Martin makes pictures in abundance, which isn’t everyone’s preferred method, but you can always make an edit out of what you’ve shot!
There’s also a lot to be said for working hard and keeping on moving, which is a large part of why Martin is so productive, because he doesn’t stop. I’d have to take a day off after spending 4 days together and yet he’d be off around the world on a shoot for Gucci, absolutely relentless!
It’s also been a privilege to work with Manchester Art Gallery, to be part of the inner workings of such an institution and know that these images will hold significance for so many people in the years to come. The older work in the exhibition is so interesting, some of it unrecognisable as Martin’s, particularly the black and white work, the images from Prestwich Mental Hospital are very affecting. The work from the 80’s is of the world I was brought into, yet feels a millions miles from where we are today. Those images have gained some much gravity and interest over those 30 years, I can’t wait to see how people will be reflecting on this new set of photographs in another 30 years.
ALL IMAGES © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket GalleryApart from * June Street which is by Martin Parr and Daniel Meadows.