Bleak and beautiful: a visual history of Leeds

Bleak and beautiful: a visual history of Leeds
20th century portrait — After moving to the city in the 1970s, photographer Peter Mitchell began shooting its rapidly-changing urban landscape.

“They’re not really nostalgia and they’re not really charming,” says Peter Mitchell, assessing his images of Leeds, a city he’s been photographing for over 40 years. “But people do identify with them.”

Arriving in 1972 from London where he studied at Hornsey College of Art – he’s originally from Manchester – the photographer got “stuck” in Leeds while visiting friends in the city. He quickly found a flat in Chapeltown, where he still resides today. 

Working various jobs, it was a stint driving trucks that first led him to explore the city’s landscape and establish his distinct visual perspective. Initially taking on photography as a vehicle for silk screen printing, in 1979 he exhibited his pictures at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery. The show, titled A New Refutation of the Space Viking 4 Mission, was the first exhibition of colour photography at a British photographic gallery by a British photographer, and was lauded by his contemporary Martin Parr.

“It coincided, just about, with Britain starting to appreciate photography,” Mitchell says today. “It’s always been backward – nothing like America or Europe – but the arts council started taking an interest in photography. They actually set up a staff and handed out bursaries.”

Queens Road LS6, Hartwell terrace Leeds

Queens Road LS6, Hartwell terrace

Roundhay Road Leeds

Roundhay Road

His practice has continued in much the same vein over the last four decades, studying the city and shooting buildings of interest (frequently rundown and close to destruction), alongside other work. Released this month, new book Early Sunday Morning is perhaps the biggest Peter Mitchell volume to date, and highlights the personal framing of his observations of the city.

Named by his co-editor John Myers in reference to the Edward Hopper painting of New York in 1930, the book is a considered portrait of the city featuring close to 100 images in full colour. “The colour of Leeds used to be black because it was so industrial,” he says. “They didn’t start cleaning it up until halfway through the ’70s, and it didn’t look right somehow.” In his images, any bleakness is softened with bright skies and pops of colour courtesy of painted window frames.

“It was fast, there were whole terraces demolished in a day,” he explains of how the images, shot during the ’70s and ’80s, took form. “I made a note of things because I would think, ‘that looks incredible but it would look great if the windows were smashed’. They were sort of spontaneous, but I did a lot of waiting, going there morning and afternoon. I suppose one of the universal things I saw about them, was all these places were vulnerable, they weren’t going to be there for much longer.”

Cloth Hill street Leeds

Cloth Hill street

Hyde Park Corner Leeds

Hyde Park Corner

Alea Stony Rock Westlock terrace Leeds

Alea Stony Rock Westlock terrace

Union Cross between Stocks Hill and Crab Lane

Union Cross between Stocks Hill and Crab Lane

Meanwood road off Cliffdale road Leeds

Meanwood road off Cliffdale road

Burley Road Leeds

Burley Road

Chapeltown Road Leeds

Chapeltown Road

Early Sunday Morning is out now on RRB books.

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