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New exhibition shines light on influential Bradford photographic studio

The new permanent Belle Vue Studio exhibition has now opened in the National Science and Media Museum’s Kodak Gallery.

Following more than six months of temporary closure, the National Science and Media Museum reopened its doors to the public earlier this month. As part of the museum’s exciting reopening programme, it has revealed a new permanent exhibit shining a light on Bradford’s influential Belle Vue Studio, where thousands of the city’s residents had their portrait taken between the 1920s and 1970s.

The project is in partnership with Bradford Council’s Museums and Galleries Service, who in the 1980s were able to rescue and acquire 17,000 glass negatives taken at the original Belle Vue Studio, which otherwise may have disappeared. In recent years Bradford Museums and Galleries, the University of Leeds and the National Science and Media Museum have teamed up to begin digitising the thousands of photographs so they can be made publicly available. Bradford Museums are also doing extensive research to uncover some of the stories of the people in the portraits, and in 2019 the photographs featured in a special BBC documentary, Hidden History: The Lost Portraits of Bradford.

Since 1989, the National Science and Media Museum’s Kodak Gallery has been home to the Daylight Studio, a replica of a portrait photographers’ studio from the 1860s. The new exhibition has been produced as part of the Bradford’s National Museum research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and showcases a recreation of the Belle Vue Studio. It tells the fascinating story of Bradford’s very own photographic history and the important role of the studio in documenting the lives of the city’s inhabitants during a century of great societal change. In the new exhibition, visitors even have the chance to take their own photographic portrait, set against a backdrop inspired by the original studio.

Phillip Roberts, Associate Curator of Photography and Photographic Technologies at the National Science and Media Museum, commented:

“Remaking this space as Bradford’s Belle Vue Studio helps us to inject a compelling local story into our photography gallery and to tell a more in-depth history of Bradford’s people and the ways that photography has been used to help foster transnational communities. Bradford once had over 50 portrait studios, and the best loved of all was the Belle Vue Studio. This was a place where everyone was welcome, and its legacy endured long after many other photographic studios had closed.”

The Belle Vue Studio opened in 1926 on Manningham Lane in Bradford and was first run by owner and photographer Benjamin Sandford Taylor. The studio operated in the city for half a century, and the portraits taken there form a unique record of a British industrial city in a time of great change in the middle of the 20th century. From the studio’s first customers, who were largely from Britain and Ireland, to new arrivals later in the century from the Asian subcontinent, the Caribbean and Europe, the portraits trace the growth of industry in Bradford, as well as the impact of the National Health Service and expanding public transport networks which provided huge opportunities in the region. Many visitors sent their portraits home to their families abroad, with the images providing an aspirational projection of their success and wealth—though this was not always reality.

Racism in the UK meant that many people were turned away from commercial properties, and it was not until 1965 that the Race Relations Act banned racial discrimination in public places. However, the Belle Vue Studio had a reputation for its openness, with one customer commenting of the studio’s second owner Tony Walker: “I’m going places and they’re telling me that it’s bad for business because I was Black, it will lose customers... And then I saw this studio [Belle Vue] and I went in and saw Mr Walker, and he says ‘You can have your picture right away if you want it’... and it ended up that I noticed that most of the Black people went there, to that particular studio.”

In the 1950s, as portable cameras became more widely available and affordable, many photographic studios began to close due to a loss of customers. However, the Belle Vue Studio managed to survive because of its welcoming attitude to all customers and its unique use of traditional methods of photography. The studio’s original owner Benjamin Sandford Taylor enjoyed using an old Victorian glass plate camera, which did not move until the studio’s closure in 1975. His successor, Tony Walker, worked alongside Taylor for many years and carried on his legacy of traditional methods of photography, using daylight to take photos instead of electric light.

Councillor Sarah Ferriby, Bradford Council’s Executive Member for Healthy People and Places, said:

“The photos in the Belle Vue Studio Collection tell the stories of countless families from across our district’s recent past. We are pleased to have partnered with the National Science and Media Museum to give a city centre presence to one of our most important collections. We’re excited to be working in partnership on this project and will continue to develop this collection and its stories through ongoing community, partnership and project work. We have managed to trace many of those featured in these images and this exhibition is another great opportunity to explore the collection and discover more about the history of the studio, its techniques and the people who visited to have their photographs taken.”

Phillip Roberts added:

“These images tell the story of Bradford, its people, and the whole region’s transformation into the diverse and industrious place that it is today. And [the display] tells the story of photography and its power to represent people, their hopes, and relationships with one another. I am proud to find a place for the Belle Vue Studio in our permanent photography gallery. Our visitors can step back inside this lost studio and see the people that lived in this city many years ago. Some might see old friends looking back at them from another time. Visitors can also learn how wet plate photography worked, stand behind a grand old camera, and even peek inside a darkroom.”

The Belle Vue Studio at the National Science and Media Museum is open now. You can explore more of Bradford Museums and Galleries’ Belle Vue Studio collection in their online photo archive.

In line with the government roadmap out of lockdown, the National Science and Media Museum reopened to the public on Wednesday 19 May 2021 and Pictureville Cinema reopened on Friday 21 May 2021. Visitors are asked to book a free ticket in advance to manage the number of people and flow through the museum, ensuring safety and comfort for all. Tickets are now available to book through the museum website, where visitors can also find useful FAQs and details of the upcoming events and exhibitions programme.

ENDS

Notes for editors

For further information, images or interview requests, please contact Katie Canning, Press and PR Manager, National Science and Media Museum: katie.canning@scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk / 01274 203 027

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire, opened in 1983, and has since become one of the most visited UK museums outside London. The museum explores the science and culture of image and sound technologies, creating special exhibitions, interactive galleries and activities for families and adults. It is home to three cinemas, including Europe’s first IMAX cinema screen and the world’s only public Cinerama screen outside the USA. Entry to the museum is free.

The Belle Vue Studio exhibition has been produced as part of the Bradford’s National Museum research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Part of the Science Museum Group