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By Emma Thom on

Simon Roberts: ‘We English’

Photographer Simon Roberts visited Bradford to finish the photographic series created for his exhibition We English. We joined him on his search for the perfect shot.

The upcoming photographic exhibition Simon Roberts: We English, opening on 12 March 2010, explores national identity and people at leisure in England’s rich landscape. The project was developed from Simon’s childhood memories, and the range of associations and images they evoke, how landscapes formed an important part of who he is, and a fascination with ideas of belonging and memory, identity and place.

As part of the exhibition, the museum asked for suggestions from the public for an outdoor leisure activity or event in the Bradford district which could be photographed by Simon Roberts and included in the show. We wish to thank everybody for their suggestions, and for providing us with so many possibilities—it was impossible to visit every event, but all the suggestions received were greatly appreciated.

In August 2007, Simon—intrigued by the tradition of the road trip in photography—took to the road in a motorhome, along with his daughter and his then-pregnant wife, in search of landscapes and depictions of the English at leisure. It is this subject that led to him touring the Bradford district on a cold weekend early in December, with a dedicated team from our Exhibitions department joining him on a search for the exhibition’s final photographic work.

The team set off on Saturday morning at 09.15. After venturing to Lister Park in Bradford to observe the Saturday morning power walkers, the next port of call was the Cow and Calf rocks on Ilkley Moor. In Simon’s words:

I was pleasantly surprised to discover a crisp winter’s morning when we headed out to Ilkley Moor. On arrival, I saw a group of fell runners on the horizon, unfortunately too far in the distance to work in a photograph. The [moor’s] rocks themselves were very photogenic and offer spectacular views of Ilkley, and I could see a lot of potential for photographs in the summer months when there would be hordes of people clambering over the rocks, picnicking and hiking. Alas, there were only a few walkers about. As the rain set in, I ran for cover, and headed back to Bradford.

The next stop was Myra Shay Park, home to BD3 United FC, where that afternoon the under-13 boys’ team had their training session photographed under the watchful eye of coach Michael Purches, who married into the city’s Pakistani community and now goes by his Muslim name of Abu Bakr. Simon first came across this location several weeks ago and was struck by the excellent panoramic views of the Bradford skyline, including the chimney stacks of Lister Mills, once the largest silk factory in the world.

Simon and the team headed towards Haworth in search of Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse and popular walking destination, said to have been the inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. As the light faded across the Yorkshire moors, our team disbanded for the day, ready for round two the following morning.

Of the second day, Simon reported:

On a bright and sunny Sunday morning I photographed the first half of BD3 United’s match against Calverley United at Priesthorpe School. No exciting views this time, however I was able to shimmy on top of a Portakabin to get a good vantage point over the pitch. Calverley United’s supporters turned up with a sandwich toastie maker, and were doing a good trade in bacon butties. BD3 won 4-2.

Aside from the obvious advantages of a clear vantage point at a football match, Simon explained that photographing from elevated positions enables him to get a greater sense of people’s interaction with the landscape and with one another.

Sunday was certainly a game of two halves. Sandwiched by a brief journey to Five Rise Locks in Bingley, it was back to the football pitch, this time to watch the second half of Second West versus New Tyke Rangers at the Carr Bottom Stadium off Little Horton Lane, just up the road from the museum.

Simon said:

There was an excellent vantage point from a bridge overlooking the game, which was part of the Bradford Sunday Alliance Football League. The pitch was nestled in the centre of a small housing estate. Well I say pitch, it was more of an undulating quagmire with 22 men sliding about and shouting obscenities! Second West won 4-1.

The museum’s own winning team concluded the weekend with a well-earned meal at the Karachi restaurant, finishing the day’s film interviews (to be included in the exhibition alongside footage of Simon on location around the Bradford district).

On her return from the weekend trip, I spoke to Exhibitions Organiser Ruth Haycock, who told me that having stood for hours in the cold that weekend, she really admired Simon’s complete commitment and passion for the project—in fact, that of his whole family. Not only in dealing with the weather conditions (which, on this particular weekend, were somewhat fitting considering Simon’s road trip in 2008 was undertaken during one of the wettest years on record, and therefore this final piece was shot in similar conditions to those he endured a year ago), but his incredible level of patience in waiting for just the right moment to take the shot, capturing ‘We English’ enjoying our most cherished and loved pastimes.

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