Urbis’s latest city-themed exhibition offers a peak at the startling beauty of some of Manchester’s neglected vistas. Photographer Andrew Paul Brooks has sought high and low for scenes of enchantment tightly woven into the city’s fabric. The result is an impressively presented, if slightly blinkered, survey of hidden Manchester.

With his camera, Brooks has documented urban territories that few knew existed and that even fewer have seen. The exhibition vividly exposes a hidden side to familiar landmarks like Manchester Town Hall and the Arndale Centre. Images of an elaborate network of subterranean streets feature alongside those of underground canals and disused service tunnels captured using a singular technique especially suited to illicit exploration.

Brooks uses small hand-held lamps to dress his shots then enhances tones and textures using a slow-exposure technique called light painting – this allows him to carry the minimum of equipment. The majority of the work takes place back in the safety of the studio where he uses computer generated effects to draw a handful of divergent shots into a seamless montage. Imagine a photograph that somehow encompasses the view to the right, left; above and below the photographer as well as that in front of him and you’ll get some idea of the kaleidoscopic effect.

Generated from apparently impossible vantage points, these images are startling. Brooks’ technique aims (according to the exhibition catalogue) to “free both the viewer and the image from the enforced singular viewpoint of traditional photography”. Although his skill with a camera is occasionally overshadowed by the sheer complexity of the images he creates, the impression is simply unforgettable: hyper-real re-imaginings of cast-iron and stone which offer a new meaning to the expression ‘elegantly wasted’.

Lighting plays an important role here in the gallery. Scenes captured in daylight are lit from the front by studio lights, while the use of light boxes enables Brooks’ night-time panoramas to emanate the murky glow of the nocturnal cityscape. This presentational tool is so effective it cuts the exhibition in half in terms of its impact. The views from various towers (Brooks’ best images) imbue the city’s neon glare with a feeling of noir. A good example is ‘Angelic View’ in which one of the statues on the roof of Manchester’s gothic-revival Town Hall, an angel, broods over a luminous, light polluted sky.

My favourite is the infernal ‘Hidden Refuge’: the view down Oxford Road captured in inverse silhouette between the neon letters of the Palace Hotel’s enormous sign. The red glow brings out the gloss in the surrounding terracotta cladding, an architectural feature ubiquitous in Manchester. Topped off perfectly by the barely visible spider web between the letters, it is the most evocatively lit and skilfully composed image in the collection.

Unfortunately the second half of the exhibition is less successful. The photographer goes underground where the scenes he sets up become less interesting and, in its attempt to arrest the viewer, the work starts to rely more and more exclusively on Brooks’ kaleidoscope technique. This problem is compounded by the exhibition commentary’s sudden and bewildering attempts to profile Manchester’s ‘Urban Explorer’ community, which (fascinating though the topic is) serves only to distract the viewer just as his/her attention begins to falter.

That said, this exhibition is definitely worth seeing for the two images mentioned here alone, along with plenty of other back-lit wonders. It continues on Urbis’s top floor until the 5th of July.    

Simon Richardson

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