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  • Writer's pictureBob McBurney

Sandford Taylor

55 years ago I worked with an extraordinary Bradford photographer, who is now, quite properly, becoming famous.

Having just left the army, and intending to become a photographer, I was looking for studio accommodation in Bradford. Prior to National service, my family lived on North Park Road near Manningham Park. As a teenager, and in order to save the bus fare, I had walked along Manningham Lane many times on my way into town. I remembered that there had been two photographic studios, both in the Bellevue area; one of those studios was closed, which left the one studio which was called Sandford Taylor.

I decided to try my luck and, on the day in question, I stood outside the studio looking at the rather drab window display. Though I wasn’t impressed I remember thinking, if not here then where? I entered through the glazed front door into the reception area and stood in front of the long counter, not quite knowing what I might expect. I explained that though I was inexperienced and didn’t yet have any clients, I was looking for a place from where I might work as a photographer, though I probably didn’t have the money to pay rent!

Tony Walker, the proprietor, and his sister-in-law who ran the ‘shop’ listened to me politely. I suspect that she would have sent me packing; I remember the look of doubt on her face. He, on the other hand, thought carefully for a moment or two and then said words to the effect that the studio was old-fashioned, that some new ideas would be welcome and that there was a room that I could have. As he mentioned ‘changes’, his sister-in-law looked even more doubtful and, as she was in charge of reception and the shop, I soon learned that modernising was out of the question. I did try, once. Having been there a week or two, I wondered if we could do away with the very old velvet drapes and the artificial flowers, but this prompted such a flurry of dusting and muttering that I never suggested such a thing again.

I stayed with Tony Walker for some time. I learned a great deal from him, much of which I didn’t appreciate until many years later when I was running my own studio. Tony, (I call him that now, though at the time I would certainly have called him Mr Walker) was a wonderful photographic craftsman. He had established a reputation as a photographer who specialised in photographing the Asian community. His client base, though essentially Bradford and district, reached as far as Manchester. It is fair to say that amongst Asians, at that time, he was famous. Because of the name over the door, his clients always called him Mr Taylor

Tony photographed his Asian clients as they would like to be seen. Though he did some hand colouring most of his portraits were black and white. Understandably, like most people, his clients chose to be flattered. They preferred their skin colour to be creamy, without shadows, and their hair to be black without highlights.

I saw glass plate portraits from 10 years previously. These would have included some of the first Asian men to arrive in Bradford. Some of them were standing in front of the union flag, one was holding a facsimile 12 bore shotgun, one was saluting. Even 10 years later, during the months that I was there, all of his portraits were of men. I imagine that many of these pictures were sent back ‘home’. They must have created a picture of Bradford as being a wonderful place to be!

During the evenings, Tony and I would sit in the darkroom talking whilst he developed and printed 35mm films, a service which he offered to his customers. On one occasion, he told me a story about some portraits that he’d taken a year or two earlier. It seems that a local religious leader had requested a passport photograph and a portrait. On his return from Mecca he came in to see ‘Mr Taylor’ and laughingly said that his passport photograph was ‘Wonderful, because no one recognised me!’ Later that week Tony printed and ‘hand coloured’ the portrait, and because the religious leader had been to Mecca, he indicated this by using some henna colouring. The following Saturday morning he put the portrait in the studio window. Word must have spread quickly because by mid-morning the police came to the studio and asked him if he would remove the portrait as the hundreds of people on Manningham Lane who had come to look at it were preventing the traffic from moving.

All of this was half a century ago, and I was surprised when a couple of months ago I was approached by a BBC researcher and asked if I could talk about these experiences. At the end of this interview I was asked if I would be prepared to appear in a BBC arts film about the Sandford Taylor studio. As a result, two weeks ago, Richard the director and a cameraman came to my house and filmed and recorded me as I tried to recall events of so long ago. In the afternoon we went to Bradford to look at the old studio which is now a smart and modern Islamic bookshop. I was introduced to Shanaz Gulzar who, I think, is going to present the programme. She was delightful; a confident and media savvy companion. We walked along Manningham Lane chatting and looking at photographs of the old studio whilst being filmed. At the end of our short walk we stopped in front of the window, now a bookshop, and I dutifully expressed astonishment at all the changes as if I’d stumbled across this building purely by accident. I thought I’d done quite well and I was relieved when the director said ‘Yes that’s really good.’ Unfortunately, he followed this by saying ‘Now can we do that again for a wide angled shot.’ This was followed by a third attempt where Shanaz and I were required to walk closer to the building. By this time, I was beginning to feel hysterical. Spontaneity is difficult to maintain. I hope that they were not recording sound because I think that I was beginning to talk gibberish.

Later we went into the shop and looked at what used to be the daylight studio at the back. I went downstairs to find the room which used to be mine. Everything had changed. I no longer felt sure of anything. I wished that I had taken photographs of my surroundings and the daily happenings so long ago. It really comes as something of a surprise when events of one’s younger life assume historical significance.

I understand that my contribution will form part of this film which will be completed later in the year and probably shown towards the end of this year or early next. I hope that collectively we do him justice. There is much that I have been unable to remember, but I will always remember Tony Walker standing by his old plate camera; the bellows covered in black cloths; holding the large pneumatic bulb of his camera release in one hand and saying with tremendous authority; ‘Stand still gentlemen’, followed by a squeeze of the bulb and a whispered count of an appropriate number of seconds, after which he would close the shutter and say ‘ Thank you gentlemen.’

And of course, this was just the beginning, because the magic which he exercised in the darkroom, using unique techniques which he had developed himself, is the magic which has marked him as someone quite special in the history of the medium.

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