Photography, especially when it's presented in the bold contrast of black and white, offers heightened snapshots of what's around us. It often points out something that's obvious, but we might have missed the significance of somehow.
A retrospective of Guardian photography celebrates the newspaper's staff photographers, who were based at the Guardian's Manchester office. It starts with the Guardian's first staff photographer, Walter Doughty, who was appointed in 1908 and continues through the six staff photographers who came after him, ending with Neil Libbert. A historical aspect is given to the collection, which spans the twentieth century, by the inclusion of vintage photography equipment such as the Muirhead Wire Machine, which enabled photographs to be sent by fax.
Walter Doughty's photographs are strewn with the rubble of the early twentieth century, from memories of the first world war to the paranoia felt at start of the second, which is encapsulated in a shot of Manchester road signs taken down to confuse the enemy. Doughty's photos encompass major events of the twentieth century including the 1926 general strike and early aviators. 'Irish Civil War Dublin 1922' frames a man's rear profile, stood in darkness, in a murky window pock marked with bullets.
Denis Thorpe, who curated the exhibition, closes in on fleeting facial expressions, from rollerskaters to a bride on her big day. Tiny children are caught unaware learning the violin with the Suzuki method, and mid-yawn whilst eating toast and soup. Thorpe's camera engages with both personal issues, such as the tiredeness of a weary miner, and important events like the 1990 Strangeways siege.
Tom Stuttard keeps an eye on the bigger picture, showing Chamberlain and Churchill in the 1940s, as well as everyday people and their eccentricities. A wonderful portrait depicts 'Mr and Mrs Bromley, Clock Collectors, Derbyshire, 1959' in bed, fenced in by their collection of clocks. An aerial view shows the road from Manchester to Sheffield blocked by snow.
Bob Smithies too represents the political side of photography with his photo of a jaded man in a Manchester DHS office in 1970, as well as documenting confrontations between police and strikers in the 1970s and 1980s, a recurring theme in the exhibition, which is also referenced by Don McPhee and Graham Finlayson.
Don McPhee's political portraits set Enoch Powell and Nelson Mandela out against a black background. Enoch Powell is particularly striking, his hands raised in front of him. 'Boxing Day Cowboys, Salford, 1973', however, is the type of token that can be found in any family album, zooming in on two serious little boys dressed as cowboys in a timeless moment of childhood.
Often, the most enjoyable photos are chance snaps which elevate everyday life as we know it to a work of art, such as Don McPhee's snap of two farmers at a Yorkshire shire horse sale, clad in tweed, Wellington boots and warm woolen cardigans. Standing facing each other, hands in pockets, the shape between their two protuding, well-fed stomachs resembles an egg timer or the Rubin vase optical illusion.
The exhibition shows how much has changed between 1908 and now, not just in photography – almost all of the photographs on display are in black and white – and the political climate of the country, but Manchester and Salford. Doughty's misty shot of St Ann's Square in 1921 is almost unrecognisable, as are the rundown Salford streets seen through the doorframes of derelict houses.
A Long Exposure: 100 Years of Guardian Photography, the Lowry, Salford Keys, until 1 March 2009.
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