by Susan Burns

I’m delighted to be invited to guest blog for Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. I’ll begin by saying up front that I’m only going to blog about things I like. Leave the ranting and sneering to others. Call me indulgent, but if I don’t like it, I won’t cover it. This is not entirely altruistic. I live in the town and it’s a small town. I don’t want to be behind someone in the queue at the post office, having trashed his or her interactive installation on the love life of nettles. There are only so many hours in the day.

This year’s festival looks brighter and cooler and more accessible than ever and it’s especially pleasing that once again the work of local professional artists is prominent. I’ve been talking to featured festival artists, beginning with photographer Paul Floyd Blake.  If you hadn’t noticed, it’s Olympic year and London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games opens next month. It’s been a magnificent year for Paul, with 2 major exhibitions and a new book out – not surprising as sport has been a theme of Paul’s. Not a topic you immediately associate with Hebden artists, but then Hebden artists are more diverse than outsiders believe.

If you want to dip your toe into the festival before it opens, and especially if you think contemporary art is not for you, then make a start at Paul’s ‘Different Strokes‘ exhibition, showing at the Festival shop on Albert Street.   This exhibition achieves that rare thing, it is both entertaining and provoking: timeless and of the moment.  Photography is one art form that shapes lives through its effect and this work invites you to look a little closer at, delve a little deeper into, what we mean by disability.  Spend a while in the company of these portraits and the world becomes truly a better place. I must confess at a connection. Aside from the fact that our grown-up children are pals, I was involved in commissioning this exhibition for ‘Extraordinary Moves’ a Cultural Olympiad project for imove, Yorkshire’s arts and culture programme for London 2012.  Below is an interview I undertook with Paul about his work last month. Before we come to that, I asked Paul what he liked about Hebden Bridge. (Paul moved here from Haringey, London, in 2001, with partner Leila and children Jamie and Callum). ‘It’s so young’ was his surprising answer.  I ask him to elaborate. ‘Look around; there’s so many young people. I walk along my street, Palace House Road in Fairfield, and there’ s house after house, family after family, each one with a young couple and a few kids. It’s full of life.  I love that. Look around – there’s young people everywhere.’ It’s Sunday and we’re sitting in the late afternoon sunshine drinking beer with our families outside Moyles and yes, suddenly the street is full of older teenagers and young adults, talking on their phones, hurrying to meet their friends. More on what’s in the festival for our young people in my next post. Meanwhile, here’s my interview with today’s featured Hebden Bridge artist.


Paul Floyd Blake is a distinguished Jamaican-English photographer, based in the UK, whose work explores identity through documentary and portraiture. He won the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009 for his picture of Rosie Bancroft and, over the past few years, has been working on several projects linked to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Between 2010 and 2012, Floyd Blake was resident artist with Chol Theatre and Sheffield Hallam University, as part of imove, a cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire exploring the ‘art of movement’.  His solo exhibition ‘Extraordinary Swimmers’ at Mercer Gallery, Harrogate, contained new and ground-breaking images of 3 women swimmers. In 2012, Dewi Lewis publishes his first book, ‘Personal Best’ in association with Impressions Gallery. I spoke with Paul at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in May 2012.

SB: How do you describe what it is you do?

PB: My artistic practice focuses on the intricacies of ordinary life, using a mixture of portraiture and landscape that blend classical compositions with contemporary issues.  My themes are the new cultures and identities born out of an era in which we are no longer defined purely by our race or class, but have multiple identities that change according to environment and context.

SB: Why sport?

PB: I have always preferred photographing things that are close to me and my experience as I found that it was a better way of expressing myself. I can’t tell you how important sport was to me as I grew up.  When things were not going well in the home (and that was quite often) I escaped by playing football in the car park across the road or went off to White Hart Lane to watch Spurs. Sport was sanctuary for me and I revelled in its physicality and movement. This made it a natural subject for me to explore photographically.

SB: I would characterize your work as ‘painterly’. How do you achieve that?

PB: If you look at the great painters from the past you will see that in most cases they were working with natural light, they probably had no choice. As a child I painted and drew; and around the age of thirteen, I was drawn to and tried to recreate Vermeer’s Milk Maid and that aesthetic has stayed with me. Photographically I make portraits under the same conditions that the painters painted, not using flash and working with the natural light in the space, and this inevitably leads to a similar look and feel.

SB: Your recent work has connected in a big way to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. How did you get into this?

PB: It is not that I am a big advocate for the Olympic Games. I am not sure that I believe in them in their present over-commercialized form — the level of professionalism, the science and technology behind them that give the richer more developed nations an advantage, the poaching of talented athletes from one country to another. I also have problems with all the talk of legacy — getting more young people involved with sport — when previous Olympic games have shown the opposite has happened.

The aim of my project, ‘Personal Best’, was to see how young athletes coped in the intense professionalized world of sport today. It involved photographing sixteen potential Olympians from 2007 up to the games. Their journeys have been mixed.  While some will be performing at the Olympics this summer, others have chosen different paths, and some have been treated very badly by the sporting bodies as the government prioritizes the sports that will win medals over the mass participation they originally talked about.

SB: Your exhibition ‘Extraordinary Swimmers’ is concerned with perceptions of disability and you have created astonishingly intimate portraits of three female swimmers. I want to ask how you avoid accusations of voyeurism?

PB: When I am photographing people I try to do it in a collaborative way with the subject. I almost always go into their environment, which I think helps them relax and give a little more of themselves, and I talk with my subjects discussing how we might approach the shoot.

When speaking to Danielle’s mum before making the portraits for ‘Different Strokes’, she summed up something that I was inarticulately trying to say. She said that ‘disability’ was rather a harsh word and that ‘differently abled’ would be a better term. That’s how the title for the project evolved

Through the images, I have not tried to hide the disability but nor have I used it as a way of defining them. The use of text written by the subjects, and the way I have photographed them is more of a dialogue with them and I hope offers the viewer a chance to join our conversation.

SB: Apart from sporting subjects, what else do you photograph?

PB: I will photograph anything really but, as I said earlier, it has to be something that is close to me or that I want to explore and learn about through photographing it. I am part of a group called The Bradford Grid and we are engaged in a topographical study of Bradford’s urban and rural areas. For this project I am producing a mixture of landscapes and portraiture, wandering around the city and surrounding areas for hours at a time. It is a very therapeutic way of working and let’s me see where I live from a different perspective. I also work a lot commercially for newspapers and magazines, but am lucky enough to be only asked to do the kind of work that fits my style.