by Maureen Jordan and Lyn Bannister, December 2009

The idea for this exhibition came from a discussion about the increasing number of empty shops on Market Street and how run down this made the town look and feel. We knew that there had been some government initiative to encourage local authorities to support artists and creative businesses to use these empty spaces for creative purposes. Our explorations uncovered both the vacant ‘Selling Houses’ shop and Karl Sinfield. The shop is now owned by the Revival Church in New Mills and Karl is a designer by profession who also takes beautiful photographs. There seemed to us something wonderfully ironic, subversive even, about using a redundant estate agents for an exhibition of images of the place we live in, our home. It seems that we have lost faith in markets, they have failed us and our communities ... we must think of regeneration not just in economic terms but also in terms of the soul. Karl Sinfield’s photographs lovingly depict our landscape, its landmarks and hidden details. They remind us of the beauty and mystery that is around us, of art as a way of seeing.


These images are a few of the results of five years of exploring my new home. I moved here with my family in 2005 when my daughter was just three months old. I had lived in London for twelve years, which was enough for me - I had grown up in a rural area and we wanted the same for our children. I had spent some time in Sheffield in my youth and subsequently spent a lot of my time in London wanting to be in the Peaks. When we were trying to decide on a new home town we looked at the map for places on the Manchester side of the Peak district, with good access to public transport. Immediately we saw a town where two train-lines intersected - perfect. With a bit of luck and good timing we managed to find a house we liked and that was it - we had started a new life, in a place where we knew no-one.
Thankfully, we have found New Mills to be not only a beautiful and fascinating place, but very friendly and welcoming too. Even for a soft southerner like myself (I should stress: I’m a real ale man, and I don’t like shandy at all). In London you hear of places in the North where everyone says hello as you walk up the street, and shopkeepers engage you in conversation while the queue grows longer and longer behind you. You presume they are mythical, like Narnia but with more emphasis on chips and gravy. But here we are, and so far we are having a great time being part of the community, doing what we can to help out whenever we can.
The toolbox: filtering reality through history
These days, taking a photo means pressing a button then tilting the camera (or phone, or mp3 player) to look at the pin-sharp LCD screen, and there’s your picture. But there was a time, not too long ago, that photography was a much slower process. You would go out, snap a few pictures, then put the camera away until your next trip. After a few months you might have used up the film, at which point you’d carefully remove it from the camera, seal it in a prepaid envelope, and drop it into a postbox. In a week or two you’d get back the photos. Opening that envelope was a thrilling thing. What had you got? If you could even remember what you’d been attempting to photograph, you’d have no way of knowing if you’d got the shot, or just the inside of the lens-cap or an overexposed blob until you opened that envelope.
The thrill and trepidation of that process is now mostly lost. But actually it’s still very achievable. In some ways, even more so. Film cameras can now be found for a handful of change at car boot sales and charity shops. Most were constructed in a era where build-quality and longevity were favoured over cheapness of manufacture. And there is a small vanguard of people who take these relics home, clean them up, put in a film, and are uniformly amazed at how well they still work.
It’s from looking at photos from vintage camera enthusiasts shared on photography websites like Flickr.com that first piqued my interest in rolling back the clock on the digital revolution. I’d see incredible images eked out of cameras older than me, with great depth and character and full of little quirks, accidents and complexities that have now been carefully eliminated over years of digital camera development. The photographers would always reveal the cameras and technical details of every shot (as I have done here), so inevitably I’d end up searching on eBay for similar equipment. In many cases, the cost of postage would be more than the cost of the camera.
The majority of these images are shot with cameras that are between thirty and forty years old. They were once the preserve of professional photographers and front-line photojournalists. While they were a fraction of the cost of a point-and-shoot digital camera, they give very different results. Maybe not perfect focus, maybe not flawless optically, maybe there are a few bits of dust and smudges that find their way onto the prints. But there is a certain something extra; you are doing more than just capturing the bare facts of the reality in front of you. The age of the equipment seems to filter through to the chemicals on the film, imparting character and depth into the images, and hopefully creating art rather than simple depictions of reality.
These are all local scenes. I am generally busy with my day-job and two small children, as well as helping out on local projects such as the New Mills Community Orchard as much as I can, so I don’t have time to travel far from home. While this might seem like an impairment to creativity, I find it is actually the opposite. I like the challenge of photographing familiar places, as it forces you to think about what you’re shooting; to look beyond the obvious tourist snap, and maybe to look for hidden details that aren’t normally noticed but maybe sum up that particular place or mood. And also to treasure unique atmospheric conditions, where the weather, light and time of day combine to create something that cannot be replicated. This happened for me a few years ago, when I took the shot of Rowarth, with the beam of light hitting the village perfectly through the clouds. All those elements, combined with having the right camera with the right film loaded, and to get the correct shutter speed and aperture to capture the shot, make these sort of images once-in-a-lifetime captures.
How we got here
Very much out of the blue, I was cold-emailed just a couple of months ago by Lyn and Maureen. They had found some of my images on the internet, and contacted me to see if I wanted to put on an exhibition. I was rather taken aback - I have been quite shy about putting the photos up on the wall at home, so this was a great compliment, an incredible ego boost, but also quite a challenge, and not much time to achieve it. We were fortunate to find a sympathetic ear from the Revival Church, who had the Selling Houses shop with a view to starting their own project, but weren’t planning to start for a couple of months. They like us, were keen to do something to help spark more activity in the town centre.
Also, this is part of a wider national movement to use these abandoned shops. There is a new Government initiative called the Meanwhile Project, which is trying to put a framework together to help people who want to do things like this exhibition. It’s still in the planning stage, but they are hoping to draw up a new kind of temporary lease agreement, and help with mediating between leaseholders and artists to make more of these things happen nationwide. Let’s hope they succeed.
Thanks from me mainly go to Lyn Bannister and Maureen Jordan. Without them, this would have been inconceivable, let alone impossible. I’m still not quite sure why they are doing this great thing for me - I am still expecting some elaborate practical joke at my expense. But it is more likely that they are just good people, with a genuine desire to continue the development of New Mills as a creative, cultural centre. So I thank them very much for choosing me to be part of their plan, and for all their hard work in helping me with the prints, preparing the venue, giving great advice, providing all the food and drink, and especially for giving me the confidence and fortitude to see this through, despite the practical difficulties and short timescale.
Many thanks to Peter and Janice and the Revival Church, who have been so generous and accommodating in donating the venue, and giving us the perfect blank canvas for this project.
Thanks to Angela Fuggle and everyone involved with New Mills Original for their support and encouragement, and generally for doing an excellent job of harnessing the creative energy in New Mills, and so making the atmosphere in which something like this could work and be supported so well.
And finally thanks to my family, Angela, Frank and Alice, for inspiring me every day, for keeping me busy, and for giving me just enough time for taking pictures.
Karl Sinfield, December 2009