Alison Jones takes a snap shot of an exhibition by influential British portrait photographer Brian Griffin.
Fans of photographer Brian Griffin’s work have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected.
Right from the very early days, back in the ‘70s, when he was working for Management Today, instead of taking stiff shots of boardroom suits he was manipulating his subjects into uncharacteristic poses with a twist of wit.
Described as “the most unpredictable and influential British portrait photographer of the last three decades”, he has captured musicians, movie stars, men at work and the teams delivering the 2012 Olympics.
His latest exhibition is his most personal yet. The Black Country is a reflection of his childhood growing up in Lye between 1948 and 1969 – and once again he has brought his unique perspective to bear.
A picture entitled Black Country Woman shows a careworn figure in an overall with a viscous black liquid covering her hands. In an image of his elderly Aunt Else and Uncle Fred, Fred’s left hand creeps forward, black oil dripping from his ring finger.
Brian has dedicated The Black Country to his late mother. She worked packaging headless nails at William Foxhall & Sons in Lye while his father was a horizontal borer.
“The working woman is the hero,” says Griffin. “The whole show is about my mum and dad and my grandparents, who were chainmakers.
“The oil is obviously a symbol of industry. However, deep inside I feel its also something to do with human mortality.
“It is far deeper than going back to old haunts and photographing them as they are now, it is a real art piece.”
Pictures were taken at locations in Lye and Cradley Heath including Solid Swivel, Boro Foundry and Holtite Ltd. He dressed actors to play some of the roles, including that of his late mother while Griffin himself stood in for his late father, whom he closely resembles.
This tribute to his parents is particularly poignant given that as a teenager it was they who quashed his creativity, dashing his hopes of furthering his education after school by forcing him out into the blue-collar world.
“They had spent their lives in factories. That is what they understood and they needed some money coming into the house.
“We were really working class, bottom rung income level really. Terraced house, no bathroom, behind the factories, and they needed my money.”
When, in his early 20s, he did go to photography college in Manchester they were horrified, but he discovered his years at work had give him common ground with the industry managers he was soon to be photographing, making it easier to bend them to his will.
“It seemed like my parents were stultifying my progress at the time yet looking back they actually enhanced it, so I have like really mixed feelings about it.”
Other pictures show Cradley Heath speedway riders. Speedway was another great passion of Griffin’s when he was teen, and another ambition that his well-meaning parents frustratingly nipped in the bud.
Griffin’s love of painting and the history of painting is clear to see in the unusual composition of the photographs.
A picture entitled The Boro Foundry, showing a rather uncomfortable looking businessman having his personal space invaded by two period figures, was based on Caravaggio’s Cardsharps. The Black Country was developed for Collège de Bernardins, Paris, (as a country France is a leader in photographic appreciation). Because of this Griffin says it made sense to him to shoot the work in the style of religious paintings.
“They showed me this beautiful 15th century chapel in this big ecclesiastical building next door to Notre Dame and said ‘We’d like you to put on an exhibition here. What would you like to do?’ I just said I would like to do my childhood in the Black Country and they said fine. I think they liked the title, the ring of it.”
* The Black Country is on at The New Art Gallery, Walsall, from April 8 to June 19.