Photographs chronicling Sheffield’s post-industrial journey in the 1980s and 90s feature in a new exhibition at the city’s Weston Park Museum from October 23
For many people in Sheffield the last decades of the 20th century were a time of great upheaval and hardship; the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike was still being felt, the steel industry’s workforce had been decimated, and mass unemployment and dereliction were widespread.
But it was also a time in which the city began to imagine its future, one that would include the Meadowhall retail development, the transformation of the lower Don Valley, and the state-of-the-art facilities created to host the World Student Games.
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Recognising the significance of the time, Sheffield’s Untitled Gallery, now Site Gallery, engaged a series of emerging local and nationally-based photographers for The Sheffield Project, an ambitious visual survey which sought to document the changes happening across the city.
The works that were created were shown in a series of exhibitions at Untitled Gallery’s original home in Walkley and at the new premises on Brown Street, where Site Gallery is still based today.
Now this new exhibition at Weston Park Museum, curated by Matthew Conduit, director of Untitled Gallery 1985-88 and initiator of The Sheffield Project, revisits this remarkable collection of images to offer a window into a unique moment in the city’s past.
“The 1980s was a turbulent but exciting time in Sheffield. Whilst the dire economic climate wrought havoc on the local traditional industries and people’s livelihoods, the city was fighting hard to forge a new identity and future and was culturally vibrant,” says Conduit.
“It was one of the first cities in the UK to champion the development of the Cultural Industries, of which Untitled Gallery was a part. More than thirty years later, by anybody’s reckoning Sheffield is transformed.”
But in the late 1980s and 90s Sheffield had had only just begun its journey of regeneration and transformation into the city we know today. The first steps on that journey were documented by this group of gifted photographers whose work reflected both the hope and hard realities of the time.
Work by Mike Black, Matthew Conduit, Berris Conolly, John Darwell, John Davies, Anna Fox, Graham Gaunt, John Kippin, Kate Mellor, Ken Phillip, Tim Smith, Bill Stephenson, Ian Stewart, Patrick Sutherland and Adrian Wynn are all featured in the exhibition. Many of them were early in their careers but have now gone on to earn reputations for creating arresting social documents of time and place.
The compelling photographs they created during Sheffield’s pivotal moment brilliantly captured the often complex nature of change.
Subjects depicted span the steelworks’ furnaces firing for the final time, abandoned buildings soon to be demolished, and depictions of the changes to ways of life that the regeneration bought for the communities on its doorstep. The photographs also reflect the hope in this new vision for the future and the energy of the World Student Games and legacy it sought to leave behind.
“Revisiting these images has underlined that it was a city facing many severe threats,” adds Conduit, “but those threats were punctuated by a surge in cultural output and sound-tracked by home-grown synth-pop which became synonymous with Sheffield, all of which brought with it an incredible energy and sense of momentum.”
Today, as major developments in the city see its landscape continue to evolve, these original photographs chronicle a significant turning point for Sheffield and its people.
The Sheffield Project: Photographs of a Changing City opens on Friday 23 October 2020 and continues until 3 May 2021 – entry to the exhibition is free, but pre-booked visits to the museum are advised. See museums-sheffield.org.uk/visiting-weston-park
Museums Sheffield: Weston Park
Sheffield, South Yorkshire
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