Inside story: The photographer Greg Leach spent three months as artist in residence at Strangeways. Dominic Cavendish examined the evidence

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If Greg Leach wanted to shock people, he has been given ample opportunity to do so. As 'artist in residence' at HM Prison Manchester (Strangeways) for three months last year, the local photographer was given an unprecedented insight into the day-to-day life of inmates and staff at one of Britain's most notorious jails.

It would have been easy to capitalise on the media interest in Strangeways which has continued ever since the 25-day siege in 1990. Leach's daily visits from September to November coincided with both the last stages of the prison's pounds 62 million refurbishment programme and the first, controversial attempt at prison 'market testing' (putting the service out to tender). But as soon as you walk into the city's Holden Gallery, one of three sites at which Leach's Form is being displayed, you are struck by his distaste for topicality.

Those seeking menacing black-and-white images of men behind bars, of latent confrontation between inmates and 'screws' will be disappointed. Were it not for the central installation, a mock-up of a wall-less cell complete with security camera, you might be forgiven for momentarily wondering whether you had the right place.

Unusually, Leach has opted for colour. He magnifies the mundane: a red hairbrush, a discarded chickenbone, a brillo pad or rancid-looking butter. There are the quasi-intrusive close-up shots of inscrutable faces, the tight lips and stubbled cheeks of I wing's convicted prisoners. Although the form of these portraits is repetitive, the subjects remain resolutely individual.

'When I started, it was amazing how many people came up to me and asked 'What are they like?', as if they were a different species,' says Leach, 32. Anxious to show them as 'people first, inmates second', he only dwells on the dehumanising routine by means of a non-stop soundtrack recorded by an inmate: '10am buzzing, 11am pissed off . . . 10pm stoned, 11pm brewing, 12am cruising, 8am same again.'

It is the pictures playing on an exaggerated relation between the prisoner and ordinary items (the objects that prison routine causes them to cherish) which best conveys Leach's grim thesis that there is a 'shift of priority and value inherent in prison confinement'. In a shot of a man inhaling a roll-up, he focuses on the cigarette rather than the smoker, and the resulting softening of the features expresses a welcome, if fleeting, diversion.

By contrast the picture diaries by six prisoners are refreshingly cluttered. Although the accompanying texts are often bitter about the tedious jobs that fill the day, the Kodak snapshots speak of the bonds formed with cellmates. Beneath a picture of the television room prior to the final qualifying rounds for the World Cup, one writes: 'If you could capture the passion in this room tonight it will be as good as any pub in the country'.

By 'walking a tightrope between staff and inmates', Leach could be accused of producing over-cautious material. But he knows what one of the diarists, Tom Cawley, affirms: 'It's easy showing it on camera, but you'd have to live here day in day out to know what it's really about.'

'Form' to 13 Feb (see listings)

(Photographs omitted)

Comments