Copper Horses is not what you might expect. If I told you it was a show about the photographer’s relationship with his dad, I’m guessing you wouldn’t count on seeing photographs of large hunks of metal, drill bits and machine innards… How about pictures of peas?
In the heat of the summer I met a hot and sticky film crew and drove from Bradford to Chesterfield. Inside an unassuming unit on an industrial estate we found Chris Harrison, the 16th Bradford Fellow in Photography.
He’d been there a few hours already and was deep in concentration. His large-format digital camera was set on a tripod pointing at what looked like an engine attached to a looming grey, featureless box. The radio was playing and an engineer worked away next to Chris on another huge machine with big, red and very tempting DO NOT TOUCH buttons. I tried really hard all day not to press them…
We set about trying to capture the sights and smells of the factory, but most importantly, the vast presence of this thing—the machine—the harsh, heavy, industrial metaphor for Chris’s witty, bright, intriguing, intimate story.
Chris is a really nice bloke to be around; he is personable, funny and tells a great tale. As far as I can tell, he takes after his dad, the inspiration behind the exhibition. The shoot on that hot summer day was to capture the central character in the story—the machine model his dad spent his whole working life operating.
Chris’s idea was to break down the machine in order to understand his dad a little better. I can relate to much of what Chris says, and I’d love to try and understand my own dad in a similar way,
“When you’re 8, everything’s great and dads are amazing people—if you’re lucky. I was lucky, my dad was amazing… As I’ve gotten older I realised that he was under an awful lot of pressure, because of the job.”
Chris’s experiences echo my own—I bet there are a million awful tales my dad has never told me about trying to keep our family together, or difficult days at work, but he’ll reminisce about the days when everything turned out okay in the end, or the times we all laughed about something for ages. Chris has represented the same kind of tall tales told by his dad in a series of still lives.
Instead of interrogating his dad about the harsher truths, Chris has interrogated the machine—the thing that made his dad tired, sweaty and quiet in the evenings; the thing that stopped him being the lively energetic dad he was on holidays.
I’ve got to know the project as Chris has shot it. I’ve seen the photographs come in and we (along with curator Brian Liddy) have worked together to shape them and their associated stories into an exhibition. It’s been a revealing and thoughtful process, but I haven’t always liked the images.
It took me a while to appreciate how pieces of machinery could portray such an emotional and personal story. Though when you look at the care and consideration that has gone into the shots—they are technically ‘as perfect as [Chris] can get them’—and hear him talk about what he’s doing and why, it reveals itself. It’s lovely, it’s thoughtful, it’s touching, and it makes you feel as if you’re peeking through the living room door watching this man and his father bond.
I won’t tell you any more about the exhibition as you should come and experience it for yourself, but apparently Jack Harrison (Chris’s dad) is ‘chuffed’ with it. It’ll make you think about your own family relationships, I think—and wonder what you could do to show your appreciation.
Copper Horses by Chris Harrison opens on Friday 15 November 2013 and our free Breakfast with the Artist event takes place at 10.00. Chris will also be signing copies of his new book, I Belong Jarrow.