Upon Location: Bristol

Reading Period: 8 minutes

Photographer and lecturer Aaron Schuman instructions us through the history plus creativity of the diverse local community he calls home

Bristol first registered on the radar when a friend resulted in to our college darkroom with two new CDs: Portishead’s Dummy (1994)  and Tricky’s Maxinquaye (1995). The cds, which served to establish the Bristol-born genre trip-hop – an enigmatic blend of hip-hop and electronica – conjured an image of the place that was both woozily atmospheric and curiously unquiet. And one distinct from the manically hyperactive metropolis of mid-1990s New York, where I was living.

In my mind, Bristol was slow-paced, unpretentious and, at times, mournful yet pulsating with an intense innovative energy that was dynamic, modern and politically charged. A lot more than 20 years later, I was invited to develop a postgraduate MUM in photography  at the College or university of the West of England. I discovered a place that verified and exceeded these hazy expectations; a city with a fascinating complexity and burgeoning photo culture that stretched far beyond the paltry limits of my adolescent imagination.

Straddling the River Avon within the south-west of England, Bristol developed into an important trading port in the 12th century. In  the 1500s, it became a launching point just for early exploratory voyages. From the 1600s, it was also well- known for the trade associated with illicit goods, but ultimately the city built its substantial wealth through the transatlantic slave trade. By the 1730s, an average of 39 slave  ships left Bristol each year, a number that grew over the following years. As slavery was slowly abolished, the city continued its economic expansion through the importation of tobacco. In the late-1900s, Bristol’s maritime industries entered decline, and the economy considered aerospace, information technology, media and culture. Many of its post-industrial sites have been regenerated in to cinemas, restaurants, artist studios and cultural institutions, in which a vibrant and supportive creative community thrives.

Despite its deeply troublesome history, today Bristol is among the most progressive and politically active cities in the UK. This particular year’s Kill the Costs protests, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, culminating in the toppling from the Edward Colston statue, are usually recent examples. Alongside like activism, there is a robust arts scene with a longstanding good experimentation – Richard Long and Banksy, among many others, hail from Bristol. The city’s photographic culture finds its origins in the 1970s, with Jem Southam and John Graham. While working day jobs at the Arnolfini gallery plus elsewhere, the pair constructed and ran a supportive gallery and communal  darkroom: Photographers Above the Rainbow. It was there, in the cramped rooms above the Range Cafe (now the vegan Eden Cafe), that contemporary British photo culture initial flourished, and colour photography gained a foothold within British art. Over the right after decades, the city became home to many more photographers, which includes Garry Fabian Miller, Peter Fraser and Martin Parr.

Almost fifty years later, Bristol is experiencing a photographic renaissance. Artists flock to the city, and the last five years only, a plethora of new galleries, festivals, publishers, educational programmes plus community-minded initiatives have established  a home here. Little do I know, back when I was agitating my developing trays towards the slow-and-low tempos of this city, that my lifelong infatuation with photography would eventually lead me to Bristol. At such an exciting plus important moment, and among such a wonderful community of individuals who share this infatuation, I am forever grateful that it did.

On our radar

Knowle West Media Centre

Leinster Avenue, Bristol BS4 1NL

kwmc. org. uk

Based on the Knowle West estate, this charity works collaboratively with people from different backgrounds to make new models for achieving positive social change, in addition to developing skills for them to become change-makers themselves.

Arnolfini/  Arnolfini Bookshop

16 Thin Quay, Bristol

BS1 4QA arnolfini. org. uk

Housed within a former 19th-century warehouse inside Bristol’s ‘Floating Harbour’, the particular Arnolfini has served  as the city’s international centre for contemporary art for 6 decades. From the outset, long before photography was exhibited or even recognized into most British artwork museums and cultural institutions, the Arnolfini was giving emerging photographers some of their earliest shows in the UK. In  the particular 1970s and 80s, these included Ed Ruscha, Daniel Meadows, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Josef Koudelka, Lee Friedlander, Robert Mapplethorpe, William Eggleston, Chris Killip and more.

Photography nevertheless plays a central function within the Arnolfini’s programming, along with remarkable exhibitions by Hassan Hajjaj, Amak Mahmoodian, and many recently an extensive Jo Spence retrospective. On show as part of Bristol Photo Festival is  a retrospective by Stephen Gill, featuring iconic series alongside new and earlier unexhibited works.

For photobook aficionados,   the Arnolfini Bookshop is a pilgrimage site. It was right here in  the late-1970s that a young Paul Graham, after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in microbiology, offered as a “lowly bookshop assistant” (his words).

He immediately took cost of the photography section, adding obscure monographs from around the world and selling self-published editions of his own books. To  this day, the shop continues to  host a modest but well-curated photography area alongside an expansive selection of contemporary art, design, songs, fiction and politics titles. It’s almost impossible to go out without a new book in hand – often one that you didn’t know you required in the first place.

Exterior of the Arnolfini © Lisa Whiting.


Arnos Vale, Bristol BS4 3EH

martinparrfoundation. org
rps. org

In 1987, whilst in the midst of photographing his landmark project The Cost of Dwelling, Martin Parr moved to Bristol with his family.   He has championed the city ever since, and in 2017, three decades after initial settling in the area, Parr opened up the Martin Parr Basis (MPF). Set within a creative quarter called Paintworks – a former paint and varnish factory – the foundation houses a gallery, which presents  a programme of traditional and contemporary exhibitions. It is also home to a library filled with photobook rarities, a well-stocked bookshop, Parr’s office plus studio, and an ever- growing collection of prints, book dummies, ephemera and archives.

It feels just like a clubhouse as much as a base, and is a gathering location for students, friends, co-workers and many photographic heroes: Philip Killip, Susan Meiselas, Brian Hurn, Alec Soth, Expenses Owens, Anna Fox plus Joan Fontcuberta have all seen.

Less than 18 months after  the MPF reached Paintworks, the Royal Photo taking Society (RPS) – one of the world’s longest-running photographic institutions – opened  its new headquarters next door, creating a mini photo-neighbourhood of sorts. The RPS has an impressive gallery that hosts a dynamic programme, including the annual International Photography Exhibition. Held almost every year since 1854, it does not take longest-running show of its type, and has exhibited some of the world’s most eminent photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand.

Additionally , the RPS hosts a different range of artist talks, festivals and educational programmes throughout the year, with the admirable mission of creating an environment where people of all ages and backgrounds are inspired, connected, empowered and informed through photography.

On our radar


53 North Street, Bristol BS3 1EN

photographique. company. uk 

This is a top-notch independent photo taking lab providing professional movie processing, scanning and publishing services, as well as a wide selection of analogue products. They also produce limited- print runs of work by local artists.

Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Thames Log at the MPF in 2021 Images © Louis Little.

Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Thames Log at the MPF in 2021 Images © Louis Little.

On our adnger zone

Serchia Gallery

24 Elmgrove Road, Bristol BS6 6AJ


Launched in the summer of 2021, this brand new and ambitious gallery relies in the beautiful home of
its founder, Christine Serchia of Valentine Versions. Open daily by appointment, it shows exquisite work by contemporary practitioners.

True Photography Company

St Paul’s Learning Centre,

94 Grosvenor Road, Bristol BS2 8XJ

realphotographycompany. co. uk 

Based in St Paul’s Learning Centre,   inside one of Bristol’s most different and multicultural communities, the Real Photography Company is an effort aimed at making photography obtainable. It manages the Saint Paul’s Darkrooms, which offers community facilities for alternative development and printing processes at  a low rate. In just 4 years it has also offered tuition and exhibition platforms for groups who would not really normally have access to such possibilities, including over-50s, refugees and young asylum seekers. As well as free of charge experimental cyanotype, photogram and pinhole camera workshops, the particular initiative delivers a series of totally free lunchtime lectures and outside workshops on how to make pictures using plants and kitchen area tools.

Most recently, the company initiated the Windrush Neighborhood Project, combining photography, music and celebration. For October’s Black History Month, it really is publishing a book about Windrush elders living in Bristol, plus commissioning music by the Bristol Reggae Orchestra to coincide with its launch.

A community project in progress © Real Photography Company.

Bristol Photo Festival

bristolphotofestival. org

This season saw the launch of Bristol Photo Festival. Light emitting diode by a powerhouse duo – festival director Tracy Marshall-Grant and education director Alejandro Acín, founder and movie director of Bristol-based IC Visual  Lab – the display programme, themed A Sense of Place, is staggering.

The ambitious city-wide event provides platforms for both internationally renowned and emerging photographers, as well as an extensive engagement and outreach programme with the city’s schools and neighborhood groups. Stretching across seven  months (May to Dec 2021) the exhibition programme features a diverse range of artists, including James  Barnor, Debbie Waiswa, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Lebohang Kganye and many more.

The exhibitions are presented at some of Bristol’s major cultural institutions – the Arnolfini, Bristol Art gallery & Art Gallery, Royal Photo taking Society and Martin Parr Foundation – as well as in smaller venues and alternate spaces, including the historic boatyard Underfall Yard,   the Georgian landscape park Royal Fort Gardens, and the long-established cooperative gallery Centrespace.

Furthermore, its revenue and education programme will be maintained even in the biennial’s ‘dormant’ years. This is greater than a festival – it is a motion; one that is situating photography at the core of the city’s ethnic identity, and placing Bristol at the forefront of each national and international contemporary photographic culture.

On this radar

Cube Microplex

4 Princess Row, Bristol BS2 8NQ

cubecinema. com

This non-profit cooperative cinema and performance space, established in 1998, specialises in independent, politically engaged, avant-garde films and events.

ames Barnor at the studio Agfa-Gevaert, Belgium, 1969 © John Barnor.

On this radar

IC Visual Lab

St Paul’s Negotiation, 74–80 City Road, Bristol BS2 8UH

icvl. co. united kingdom

The socially minded
studio that aims to overturn the traditional relationship between the artwork object, the artist as well as the audience through collaborative projects, workshops and events.

Bob Hoare/  Amak Mahmoodian

chrishoare. org    

amakmahmoodian. co. uk 

There is an astounding array of excellent photographers based in this relatively small city – Lua Ribeira, Jessa Fairbrother, Samuel Fordham, Jamie E Murray, Sadie Catt, Jessie Edwards-Thomas, Bnar Sardar plus Sophie Sherwood are just a couple of. But from my viewpoint, Chris Hoare and Amak Mahmoodian eloquently represent two sides of the diverse plus multifaceted spectrum of picture taking that’s currently coming out of Bristol.  

Bristol born plus bred, Chris Hoare’s lyrical-documentary approach draws inspiration from your best of the genre’s longstanding history. At the same time, it contains a freshness, depth and true sense of empathy, account and connection with his subjects. Ever since he was a teenager, Hoare has been pounding the particular pavements of his hometown on an almost daily basis. I’ve rarely met such a committed photographer who’s itching to obtain out there with his camera initially light. Both his personal knowledge of and profound love for the city, its people, its communities and its complexness, offer a truly unique and informative perspective.

Iranian-born artist and photographer Amak Mahmoodian is a beloved member of Bristol’s picture community. Her conceptually powered, intimate practice often interweaves images with research, archival imagery, sculpture, poetry and much more. Bridging the space between the private and political, she “explores the effects of exile and range on memory, dreams and daily life”. In recent years, Mahmoodian has published two critically acclaimed and heart-wrenchingly beautiful books – Shenasnameh (2016) and Zanjir (2019) – which speak to her existing while longing for her past. Her solo show in the Arnolfini in 2020 has been one of the last exhibitions held in Bristol before the pandemic took hold. It brought cry to my eyes back then, plus memories of it still do even today.  

From your series Zanjir, 2019 © Amak Mahmoodian.

On our radar


miniclick. co. uk

A UK-wide organisation whose Bristol-based arm gifts artist talks, discussions, activities and exhibitions throughout the town.

RRB Photobooks

rrbphotobooks. com

Founded in 2008 simply by publisher and antiquarian guide dealer Rudi Thoemmes, Bristol-based  RRB Photobooks began like a specialist bookseller. In 2015, it established a publishing arm, focusing on overlooked or even forgotten British photographers from the 1970s and 80s, since well  as some of nowadays most exciting contemporary professionals. Exquisitely designed and sumptuously printed, recent releases include Niall McDiarmid’s Town to Town (2018), Czesław Siegieda’s Polska Britannica (2020) and Chris Hoare’s Growing Areas (2021), plus publications drawn from the archives of Ruben Myers, James Barnor, Jo Spence, Tom Wood, Ashton kutcher Grant, Markéta Luskačová and much more.

Additionally , if you are on the hunt for publications from the German Democratic Republic, or 20th-century protest and propaganda publications, Thoemmes is likely to have got what you’re looking for, and when not,   he will understand where to find it. RRB Photobooks certainly knows how to find out genuine photographic treasures, whether they are new or have been buried for decades.

On our radar


Paintworks, Arnos Vale, Bristol BS4 3EH

BOP (Books On Photography) is an annual photobook event bringing together over 40 writers, booksellers and photographers from across Europe alongside discussions, book signings, street food, coffee and beer.

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