A photographer’s search for the Black Country

A photographer’s search for the Black Country

Tom Hicks’s long term photo project seeks to define what the Black Country is, through signage, fonts and words.

Nobody knows definitively where the Black Country is. While it still has a distinct working-class identity and dialect, the place itself remains elusive. It can’t be found on any official map and agreement on its precise borders has never been reached.

The general consensus is that it’s made up of the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton in the UK’s West Midlands. The Black Country exists in the region’s collective imagination and social customs as much as geographic reality. Battered chips, faggots and peas, pork scratchings and homely pubs are evocative hallmarks of its traditional heartland.

A vast coalfield fuelled the region’s rapid growth during the Industrial Revolution and over 500 furnaces and factories quickly sprang up. Being an engine of industry, soot, smoke and oil coated the landscape, bringing the Black Country name into popular usage during the 19th century. Much that was produced there, from heavy iron chains to delicate glasswork, was transported throughout Britain and beyond. Although its craftsmen once helped to construct new possibilities, the Black Country experienced a slow decline in manufacturing, leaving it uncertain of its place and purpose in the modern world. It has continued to trade on its famous past rather than redefining its present and future. At times, the region can feel trapped in nostalgic reflection as decay sets in.

Artist Tom Hicks addresses the current state of the area, capturing its essence in unexpected ways, through his sprawling photography project Black Country Type, which started in 2017. His images are wilfully mundane and gently humorous, but with a mournful edge. They show the Black Country as it is, proud and persistent despite decades of neglect. Images of chip shops, snooker clubs, warehouses, subways, tower blocks and garage doors abound.

Aged 50, Tom has spent most of his life in the Black Country. The great affection he feels for its many quirks and peculiarities comes across clearly in his work. A librarian at the University of Wolverhampton for more than 20 years, he has always been interested in art, design and social sciences. His work combines them all to great effect.

“The Black Country’s overlooked quite heavily,” says Tom, who lives in Kingswinford. “I think it’s quietly proud. It’s not a place that shouts about itself. That’s just in people’s nature. The humour’s quite dry and self-deprecating. It’s down to earth. It’s probably considered quite rough in places and there are reasons for that. Hopefully I’m bringing out some of the beauty of the place as well.”

Naturally curious, Tom’s instinct has always been to explore. Whether cycling or walking, he heads where the mood takes him, without a particular plan in mind, and takes pictures using his iPhone. “Cycling’s really immediate. The same with walking. You can go up alleyways or cut between trees. You never know what you’re going to see. When you feel lost, your eyes look at things in a fresh way,” he explains.

“I think I’ve just got this affinity to words.”

Tom Hicks

Tom identified a clear theme in his early work. Many photographs featured examples of typography – shop signs, graffiti or incidental wording glimpsed on his travels. “I’ve always been a big reader and that’s obviously influenced my career. I think I’ve just got this affinity to words.” Handwritten signs are a source of particular fascination. Their informality intrigues and amuses him. Each one is unique and hints at something about the person behind it. Misspellings and colloquialisms are common. Some are oddly verbose, others bluntly effective. They speak of self-reliance, an improvisational make-do-and-mend culture that prevails across the Black Country. Tom has shown traces of that spirit himself, learning on the go and making a virtue of certain limitations in knowledge or experience. Black Country Type started out as a hyperlocal Instagram account but soon grew in popularity, spawning prints, books, exhibitions and photowalks. Tom has also collaborated with poet Liz Berry and painter Mandy Payne to take his work in different directions. “It’s been surprising to me. I didn’t think there’d be the level of interest in it that there is.”

An initially haphazard approach has become far more methodical as a result. “I think it’s evolving. If you look at my early photographs, I’ve not even got off my bike. They’re taken in all weather conditions. There’s no real thought other than to say, ‘I like this sign’ or ‘Look at this bit of graffiti’. I’ve become more refined about what I’m doing. I was posting every day at one point, now it’s like once a week. It’s more considered. It’s exciting because it’s going in lots of different directions.”

Tom combines the drifting aimlessness of how he chooses to gather images with their precise presentation. Strong lines and warm colours are integral to his aesthetic. Each picture is cropped into a square, carefully framing the elements that caught his eye, like an album cover. This style, and the strong regional focus that underpins it, has resonated with musicians like Actress and The Twang, who have commissioned Tom for promotional imagery.

There is a compelling simplicity to his work. The way he captures the inherent grittiness of the Black Country through vivid contrast, with an emphasis on bright, bold signs and distinctive wording. Dilapidated urban landscapes are often juxtaposed with striking blue skies. There is beauty and humour in ordinary, unremarkable settings.

“I’m trying to present things as they are. When it’s sunny, it lights up all the surfaces as your eyes should be seeing them. I just think it presents things in stark reality and shows up colour really well,” Tom says. “I prefer head-on photographs where possible. Some of the angular ones are because I can’t get back far enough to get the structure in, like ‘Do Not Rush’. I love how, with photography, you can create an abstract pattern out of nothing really. It’s very flexible like that.”

Despite the studied precision of his images, Tom doesn’t describe himself as a photographer. An admirer of the work of photographers John Myers, Nick Hedges, Richard Billingham and Rob Clayton, he takes a similarly unvarnished approach to documenting the everyday reality of the region, including its evident shabbiness, albeit in more bright and playful fashion. Painter George Shaw and designer Ben Kelly are noted influences.

Awareness of Black Country Type continues to spread by word of mouth. Tom’s ever-growing collection of photographs resonates with locals but also outsiders, introducing them to the area and conveying what it represents through textured snapshots of urban life where people are conspicuous by their absence.

Tom Hicks’ photobook Black Country Type is published by The Modernist.

This piece appeared in Huck #80. Get your copy here.

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