A national collection of 377 images that tell the stories behind the shopfronts on the English high street.
Picturing Chester with Suzanne St Clare, Photographer in Residence
During a 2-year Picturing High Streets residency supported by Open Eye Gallery, photographer Suzanne St Clare worked with independent business owners from a trading area commonly known as the Rows in Chester, north-west England.
Picturing Chester Rows collection
Photographs for Suzanne St Clare's Chester Rows residency have entered the Historic England Archive, the nation’s archive for England’s historic buildings, archaeology and social history. They are part of the new Picturing High Streets national photography collection.
Year 1: exploring traders' stories
Initially, Suzanne started discovering how business owners came to Chester, their community, challenges, the quirkiness of independent trading and their love and passion for this beautiful, historic city. She recorded interviews with the traders and began to make work with them.
The traders were shown the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, who shot using black and white film with little regard to composition.
The traders did not have much spare time, and most were not familiar with using a camera, so by using disposable film cameras, there was no pressure to ‘examine’ what they were photographing.
The traders photographed their working lives and businesses in a similar style to Daido Moriyama.
Traders' images inspired by Daido Moriyama
Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.
Capturing the essence of high street trading
Suzanne had not intended to use the audio she recorded during interviews with the traders. She had just wanted an accurate record of what had been said.
On playing them back, however, she discovered that the interaction with customers, the background noise and the shop doorbells conjured up such a sense of independent trading in England that she decided to use the audio to accompany the traders' photographs and create six films, one for each trader from the:
- health food shop
- model shop
- world curiosities
The films depict each trader’s personal story, images from their businesses and the authentic interaction with customers, which conveys the essence of independent high street trading.
Year 2: positive portraits
In the second year, Suzanne took inspiration from photographers such as Gregory Crewdson and Julia Fullerton-Batten, known for their cinematic style and use of studio lights. Together with traders, she created a series of portraits that document the characters who make up the shops on the Rows.
Most of those who took part would often speak of their dissatisfaction relating to what they felt was a lack of support and how powerless they felt to be able to trade profitably. Yet they were the captains of their business, and from the outside, they appear to be in positions of power. The intention of these images was to portray the traders in a way that acknowledged that status, where they looked powerful and showed the beauty of the Rows retail space and the detail of their surroundings in a positive and authentic way.
Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.
I have really enjoyed taking part and we were pleased to have the chance to tell our story, and have it told in such a creative way. At the end of the project, we feel we have an accurate representation of our business and the challenges we face.
Suzanne's photographs were exhibited in Chester. Please click on the images to enlarge.
Traders' wishes for the future
The final aspect of the project was Suzanne's work with the traders and their customers to explore what they would like to see for the future of the Rows.
The shortlist of wishes included:
- The revival of greengrocers in the centre
- Reinstatement of antique shops
- Restoring missing flooring and flaking paint
- Adding effective signage
- A ‘gated’ element to the Rows for good security at night
- For those sleeping rough to be accommodated
Key areas were photographed that highlighted the issues that the Rows continue to face. These areas were then removed in Photoshop with the traders' wishes drawn in by local artist, Cathryn Lowri Griffith.
The photographs accompanied by original drawings on fine art paper bring together the
customers’ aspirations and traders’ visions for the Rows.
Suzanne St Clare
Suzanne St Clare is a socially engaged artist and photographer whose practice centres on the exploration of memories and urban photography; seeking beauty in the impermanent, imperfect and incomplete which her works with independent retailers on Chester Rows depicts beautifully.
It has been a pleasure to work so closely with the traders on the Rows and they have embraced the photographic challenges that were at times out of their comfort zones. Together we feel we have created an authentic and creative representation of their lives and experiences.