FROM the 1950s to the 1970s, photographs taken in a modest Manningham studio were cherished by families around the world.
The Belle Vue photographic studio at 118 Manningham Lane was the place to go for families new to Bradford, who wanted portraits taken to send them ‘home’.
These photographs – seen as a sign that they were doing well in their adopted city – were sent to relatives in Ukraine, Latvia, Poland, the Caribbean, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
The studio closed in 1975 and a decade later 17,000 glass negatives, which had been dumped in the cellar, were destined to lie idle until they were recovered and acquired by Bradford Museums and Galleries. The footage dates back to the early 1900s when the studio first opened.
Nearly half a century after its closure, what stories have been uncovered about the characters in the portraits?
Next month, John Ashton, Archivist of the Bradford Museums Photographic Archive, will offer insights and share photographs and artefacts recovered from the Belle Vue Photographic Studio at a show-and-tell event at Impressions Gallery.
Feed Your Mind: Belle Vue Studios is part of an ongoing series of informal lunchtime discussions inspired by the venue’s exhibition program. It will take place in the gallery where Invisible Britain: This Separated Isle presents a contemporary range of diverse photographic portraits of people from across the UK.
Belle Vue studio, which was recently featured in a BBC documentary, Hidden History: The Lost Portraits of Bradford, was opened in 1902 by photographer Benjamin Sandford Taylor and established on Manningham Lane in 1926. After his death in 1953 , his darkroom technician, Tony Walker, took over.
Until the post-war period there were over 50 photographic studios in Bradford. When handheld cameras became more widely available in the 1950s, most studios closed, but Belle Vue managed to survive, in part because it offered a warm welcome to newly arrived migrants in the city. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Belle Vue was widely used by people from the Asian subcontinent, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.
The portraits were in the formal Victorian style, with people posing in front of a heavy curtain, often holding props to display success. The reflection of a watch under a shirt sleeve meant good pay. A briefcase or a row of pens in a pocket foreshadowed a professional aspiration. A book showed an education. The bus drivers were photographed in their uniforms. Mill girls wore fur stoles.
“All of the Belle Vue portraits were taken with a single camera in a single location in the studio, which has never moved in 50 years,” Bradford photographer Tim Smith told the T&A. “Tony continued to use daylight and the same backdrop until 1975. Nothing changed in the studio – but outside the city was changing. From a single plate camera of Victorian glass in a back room, this studio told the story of extraordinary post-war change.
Tony closed the studio in 1975. Thousands of negatives lay forgotten in a cellar until 1985 when he came to empty the building and began to throw the archives away. The man who was buying the building spotted them and contacted Tim at the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit.
“I was expecting endless wedding and baby pictures on rugs, but he brought a few dozen and I thought, ‘Wow, these are amazing,'” Tim said. “Not only are these archives of these migrant people, but they are beautiful images. There is a stillness about them, a timeless quality.
The images, stored in the Bradford Museums Archive, are a fascinating snapshot of people who have come to Bradford from all over the world. Some of the portraits are on display in a recreation of the Belle Vue studio as a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Science and Media.
The museum has partnered with Bradford Museums and Galleries and the University of Leeds to digitize the thousands of photographs. Visitors can enter the “lost studio” – some may see relatives or old friends looking at them from another time – and learn about early 20th century photographic techniques.
The Belle Vue portraits trace the growth of industry in Bradford, as well as the impact of the NHS and the expansion of public transport networks. Phillip Roberts, Associate Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the National Museum of Science and Media, said: “These images tell the story of Bradford, its people and the transformation of the whole region into the diverse and industrious place that she is today. And the exhibition tells the story of photography and its power to represent people, their hopes and their relationships with each other.
* Feed Your Mind: Belle Vue Studio is at Impressions Gallery, Centenary Square, Bradford on Thursday 22nd September from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. The event is free but booking is recommended at (01274) 737843.