It’s a theatre. It’s an allotment. It’s amazing!

The Artistic Director waters the garden

The Artistic Director waters the garden

“So what are all the baths for?” I asked Alan Lane, the theatre’s artistic director as he watered 20 or so baths of all shapes and sizes lined up in the yard outside the entrance “And why are they filled with soil?”

The answer was as surprising and as heartwarming as the Slunglow Theatre Company itself. The fruit and vegetables growing in the baths and huge plastic containers were to feed the theatre-goers. For free, or as much as they were prepared to pay. Clearly this was no ordinary theatre, though anyone approaching the five converted railway arches near Leeds’ red light area could have worked that out.

There’s no box office, because there are no tickets to sell. Instead, theatre-goers pay what they think the performance they’ve seen is worth and put donations in a jar. Beer’s just £1 a bottle, tea and coffee are free, play your cards right and there’s brandy-soaked Tipsy Cake, but only when Alan’s wife has leftovers.

The space Slunglow occupies in a not-very-well-heeled part of Leeds enjoys the name of Holbeck Urban Ballroom. Yes, technically a ball could be held there, but there’s no polished floors, no polish anywhere, really, but no-one’s complaining, other than the Guardian critic Alfred Hickling who was more than a little unkind. Now anyone wanting to go to the loo can find relief in the Hickling Wing. That’ll learn him.

“Some of the performances are fantastic, others are, well, crap,” said Alan as we warmed ourselves in front of the Aga where Slunglow soup is prepared. “But if you don’t like it, you don’t pay,” The average donation is £8 and proceeds shared equally. Alan gets the same as everyone else. So if there’s nothing in the jar, there’s nothing in the pocket.

I think I’d re-name it the Slunglow Sharing Collective, because that’s what happens. Their van is there for arty types to borrow, paying as much as they can afford and er, well, do arty things with. Yes, some do just use it to move house, though it could be argued that that is an art in itself, but they are in a minority.

Then there are the facilities, a place to write, a place to play, a place to perform, a place to photograph, a place to garden in the couple of dozen baths full of rather healthy-looking fruit and veg. The baths were cheap or free and the compost kindly donated by the cannabis growers who were doing their own cultivation in the building next door. The donation was indirect as the growers were busted by the police who destroyed the crops, but left the soil in a pile for the legal gardeners to help themselves. Waste not, want not, eh?

You’d think it wouldn’t work, but it does, people don’t take advantage, in fact they err towards the generous. I love it and am looking forward to photographing their next great idea with my mates from Exposure Leeds. That will be a modern-day Moby Dick. In the canal. With explosions. And a helicopter. And yes, it will be free. Watch this space!





Lots of snapping and a great big hug

All hail! Ben's pastiche for Shooting the Grown-Ups

All hail! Ben’s pastiche for Shooting the Grown-Ups

Grown-ups are all very mature, but if you want vivid imaginations, crazy ideas, wild, random and giddy running around and massive and uninhibited hugs, give me a bunch of kids any day.

It’s the school holidays and I’d volunteered to run a photography workshop for children at Leeds Museum. I’d already done a couple of workshops for the grown-ups, which were very civilized affairs, with some clever ideas and good technical skills, but now it was time to lose any inhibitions and that went for the children as well.

The youngsters were already bouncing off the walls with excitement and giddiness, no doubt fueled by over-enthusiastic Easter egg consumption. I whisked them outside to do the 20-step challenge. Easy peasy, walk 20 steps, stop and take a photo, not just any old thing, something different, they didn’t disappoint, and made rather a lot of noise about it too. They burst across Millennium Square and bothered workers escaping the office for a lunchtime read and a bit of peace and quiet, ha ha, some hope! I’m not even going to mention the chaos we caused in the Nelson Mandela Peace Garden, except that there was mass disregard for the keep off the grass signs, I think we got away with it…

I saved the best for last – shooting the grown-ups. The idea was to get the youngsters to art direct the adults, or make them stand in silly poses, whichever they chose. Noel refused me permission to post the photo of him doing passable Middle-Aged Man at C and A, though copies can be emailed on request. Mums and dads were made to do Elvis Lip, jump up and down, stand hand on shoulder and, pay homage to two of the grown-ups, producing a pastiche of an Old Master. Actually, I thought the children were rather restrained and very polite, the last time I did this with kids they made their parents pick their noses, their own noses, that it, anything else would have been gross.

They were a super bunch, very interested and interesting, and politely thanking me, which was lovely. Then Nathan, who has Down’s Syndrome and autism, his communicating hampered even further by deafness, gave me a high five and the best hug I’ve ever had. And just for good measure, he did it again.  I think I’ll build group hugs into all future workshops, and invite Nathan to show us how.

Standing in judgement

An eye on the Eye on Asia

An eye on the Eye on Asia

What makes a great photo? And who’s to be the judge of that? Well, let’s face it, we all know a great photo when we see one, it makes us look closely, then stand back, then look closely again, usually uttering, ‘I wish I’d taken that!’ But as for judging which is best, oh dear, that task fell to me today. The stress of it all!

With my Exposure Leeds hat on, I was invited to be one of the judges of the University of Leeds Department of East Asian Studies’ Eye on Asia photo competition, along with Prof Peter Buckley, Director of Business at the Confucius Institute. Staff, students and a few others had responded to the simple brief to submit a superb photo taken somewhere in East Asia. Of the 300 entries,  about 40 were chosen to be displayed in the Parkinson Building, which was where our judging came in.

It got off to a good start, there were cakes. Cakes always make for a good start in my book. These particular cakes were being sold for the Red Cross relief effort in the Philippines which ended up raising £109, from visitors to the exhibition.

Choosing three winners wasn’t easy, though we were unanimous in our first choice. And as they’re not going to be announced until the end of the month, I’m keeping quiet, which is a challenge in itself! If you’re in Leeds, pop in and have a look, it’s definitely worth the detour.

A model workshop

Creative photographers at work at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery

Creative photographers at work at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery

If you can’t be creative, you can’t really BE, as far as I’m concerned. So it was great to get the chance to provoke fellow photographers into thinking outside boxes and take the kind of photos they’ve never taken before.

With my Exposure Leeds hat on, I designed a couple of workshops to complement the collection and current exhibition at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. The lovely little Gallery, which houses Leeds University’s art collection, is tucked away in the Parkinson Building and, dammit deserves to be better known, used and visited.

The workshops Beyond Snapping and After Chen Man got people out into the gallery to take different photos, of the same exhibit, I had them taking so many photos they had to be creative. Some of the results were fabulous!

Chinese photographer Chen Man definitely thinks outside the box, the exhibition of her wacky photos and make-up work inspired make-up artist Faye Robertson to break out the pinks and the blues on the eyes of our volunteer models. Then when they discovered one of our models is a ballerina, they had her twirling and pirouetting all over the place. Talk about getting those creative juices flowing!

Great fun, but exhausting. So when are we doing it again, guys?!

The result

An arty temple – with a model railway

Great acoustics at Temple Works, though it's not necessarily all that safe!

Great acoustics at Temple Works, though it’s not necessarily all that safe!

There’s a vast temple in Leeds where art meets architecture, peeling paint provides an edgy backdrop for music videos, ghosts scare the zombies and the last tram from Headingley makes a never-ending journey on teeny tiny rails.

Temple Works is just that, it’s temple-like, imitating the ancient Egyptian style in a way only Victorians ever could, and it’s a works. It started life as a flax mill, spending some time as headquarters for a catalogue company, having a few years in the doldrums, when some bits fell off and is now housing art and artists, with a view to becoming a social enterprise and ooo I love it!

It’s a Grade One Listed Building, meaning it’s very important historically and architecturally and not to be converted into a retail park, car parts and repairs emporia, faffed with in any way or demolished. So that leaves anyone who wants to move in with a challenge, not least financially.

Since 2009, the two-acre site has been privately owned and run by a company of visionaries, enthusiasts and those prepared to clean the toilets, to establish it as a mixed mode cultural venue, which to you and me means it houses and produces art in many different forms with ambitions to make it bigger and better.

With that wonderful left-field thinking and spectacles tinted every hue of the rainbow, the ‘Templars’, as I’m sure they aren’t known, have built up a steady portfolio of events and exhibitions, film sets and zombie dens, so much so that they are self-financing, but only of they do all the minor DIY themselves and, I suspect, don’t pay themselves huge wages. There’s also a number of artists working from what were small offices and toilet blocks. Seriously! Personally as someone who knows the location of every toilet between here and Chamonix, having the option of conveniences in my own workshop would make me sign on the dotted line immediately.

Some of the arty folk are very arty indeed, some of it I liked, such as the stained glass work, screen printing and photography, others, well, let’s leave it at that…Though the artists themselves are the real treasures. One had undergone gruelling treatment for cancer and, now in remission, with the love and support of her partner, was taking time out to do the art she’s always wanted to do – and very good it was too.

Phil Kirby, one of the Templars and a leading figure on the local arts scene, editing the city’s most popular blog, Culture Vulture, is wonderfully honest about Temple Art.

“Some of it’s great, but some of it isn’t, we don’t pretend it is, but we encourage and learn – and try. That’s what makes Temple Works different and special,” he said on a guided tour I gatecrashed, wearing my Exposure Leeds hat.

So with all this out-there arty stuff going on, it was a surprise to walk into a room of whirring and clicking with a steady background thrum of tiny engines. The Leeds Model Railway Society moved into one of the large, well-lit spaces, out from under the feet of patient partners who are no doubt glad they can have their spare room/attic/lounge back. A crazy mix, but somehow it all fits together.

For me and my arty farty photography, I homed in on the huge cavernous main room where flax was spun and light beamed down through dozens of glass domes on the roof. Fantastic light, great acoustics and if they ever re-make Blake’s 7, a gritty British sci-fi, thumbing its nose at the sanitised Star Trek, it has to be one of the sets.

More photos on my Flickr stream.

Coffee and A Little Retail Therapy

Ooo look, I have a picture in an exhibition!

Ooo look, I have a picture in an exhibition!

The task was simple. All I had to do was to turn up at the White Cloth Gallery and review the exhibition, our exhibition, There was absolutely no need to get involved with the coffee-making. But I did and it ended with one of us being sprayed with cappuccino froth.

I’d arrived slightly early, very excited to see Exposure Leeds’ collection of images from the streets, backstreets, markets and yards of our lovely city taken by fellow local photographers.   The gallery is one of the city’s newest, focusing on photography and film, my favourites, with the added benefit of coffee and something a little stronger.

There was a meeting going on in the area I wanted to review, but with a top-of-the-range Rancilio, big brother to our own humble home coffee machine, sitting proudly behind the bar, I was as happy as a pig in muck made from coffee grounds. I could wait, I said.

University student Georgia, who helps out at the Gallery, confessed that as a non coffee-drinker, she couldn’t promise caffeinated perfection. That’s OK, I told her, we have one like this at home, I can help. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s all in the tamping, I told her. Good pressure on the grounds leads to a thick crema. And indeed, that was the case, she knew that, but was too polite to say so. The frothing was trickier, I gave unsolicited advice on nozzle positioning and jug angle. Just a little more, I told her. Ah. Not quite that much, as the froth left the jug and settled on her cheek. Maybe I’ll just leave you to it……. She was very sweet about it, though. And the coffee was excellent.

By this time, the meeting had broken up and I could view and review. It was good to see images in a gallery setting. I took mine when I spotted a tourist holding their cameraphone high to capture the magnificent ceiling in the Victoria Quarter, a photo of a photo, taken with my very favourite 50mm f1.4 prime lens.

Just a Little Retail Therapy runs until 8 April.


A clickiness of photographers

Photographers photographed

There’s something rather wonderful about spending an afternoon with a bunch of photographers intent on doing creative stuff. With my Exposure Leeds hat on at a jaunty angle, I set off to lead a street photography workshop in Bradford city centre.

This was this third workshop I’ve run with the lovely people at Impressions Gallery. They were so popular, all the places were filled as soon as the workshops were announced, which was encouraging.

There are some magnificent street photographers, capturing people, shapes, patterns, light, shadow, movement and anything else on the street. We set out to take photographs of pretty much anything that moved – and plenty of things that didn’t.

The results are here . I have to confess to being rather chuffed with the photos they took.