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Brass and Glass by Phil Melia

We all share a passion and enthusiasm for photography, irrespective of whether we are full time professionals, part-time professionals or amateurs. Regardless of what genre(s) we love the best, we all love stories and have it within us to tell these visually through our photography. Recent events of lockdown and the BLM protests have illustrated both the need for and historical importance of visual storytelling.

For me, Brass and Glass was one of my first long-term story projects after spending the past 25 years as a commercial photographer on worldwide assignments in factories, offices, shops, studios, theatres, etc. On the one hand, I’m the first to admit that it can be a big mental challenge to get out of our comfort zone and photograph something completely different and new to us. On the flip side though, I’m also the first to admit that by doing so it can be massively rewarding mentally and a fantastic learning experience.

This is a social documentary story that celebrates The Boarshurst Silver Band’s 165 years of existence. I’m still blown away every time I hear that number; give or take 10 years, this brass band has been in existence as long as professional photography! Regardless of your favourite genre, if that isn’t a story worth shouting about and visually representing, I don’t know what is!

I’ve always loved classic documentary photography and admired the work of Cartier Bresson, August Sander, Walker Evans, Elliot Erwitt, Don McCullin and the Magnum Agency to name but a few. It was very important for me to get a lot out of the project mentally, I wanted the challenge of creating something new and doing something different from my commercial photography.

I decided to create the look of a classical documentary body of work in a similar way to that of August Sander and his ‘People of the 20th Century’ collection. Sander spent many years photographing people from every aspect of German society in the early part of the twentieth century. My aim was to create a historical document, both for the band and the people involved, so that future generations could see that their grandad or great grandma played the cornet in that period of the band’s history.

The project’s main element is individual, environmental portraits of every member of the senior band. These are supported by documentary photography of the band’s 165th Anniversary Concert, their annual Whit Friday Procession and the annual Saddleworth Band Contest. As part of the project required documentary photography of the concert and the outdoor performances, it was important to me that both the portraits and the documentary photography of the events, had the look of a single body of work.

All of the portraits were taken in the village of Greenfield, Saddleworth, home to both my studio and The Boarshurst Silver Band. Specific locations were chosen that were significant to the band in terms of their history or traditions, or at scenic, characteristic locations within the village.

Organising them was a challenge but my having a background in highpressure commercial photography definitely helped. I decided against using supplementary lighting for the portraits; somehow it would not have been visually right for the project or have been true to my ethos in relation to experiencing and creating a social documentary story.

Due to the working lives of the band members, I was given access to small groups of the band, based on their musical sections, for one to two hours at a time, just before their rehearsal schedules – usually in the early evenings. That meant that the location had to give me a different look for each musician, but it also had to be chosen with consideration of the size and weight of their instruments and how close we could park. For example, there was no way I could have asked B or E Flat Bass players to hike from the car for 30 minutes to a hillside location in the woods!

The choice of camera, the digital Leica M, was perfect for me. This manualfocus rangefinder with a couple of prime Leica lenses gave me the mental challenge and discipline that had long since drifted onto autopilot by shooting commercially with digital SLRs. The lenses gave me the highest optical quality to that I’ve been used to and they have a certain look to them. I also really liked the idea of myself using a ‘brass instrument’ as both the body and lenses are partly made of brass. I did consider shooting on film, but as this was purely self-funded, the cost was prohibitive.

Once everything was shot and edited, I created a set of about 50, A3 fineart prints and put together a self-published book using Blurb to complete my aim of creating a historical document for future generations to see. Sadly, the A3 prints were destroyed in a flood but the book lives on thanks to its digital origination and the advantages of print on demand.

Overall, the project took approximately a year to complete. Naturally this was purely part-time, so over the course of the year there were initial meetings with the club secretary, approval by the trustees, agreement by the band members, planning, location research, band history research, waiting for the events to happen, waiting for the band members to come back off their summer holidays, weather delays, processing, editing, printing and book editing. When you look at the project overall, you can see how much deeper and more involved it was to that of my typical commercial commissions.

Visually representing this story has been mentally rewarding on so many levels and the whole experience has been great for my professional development. As photographers, we see great stories made in remote places of the world and it’s easy to become envious. However, there are great stories all around us, where we live or where we work, it’s just a case of looking for them.

It’s really nice to go back and visit the band club, see the friends I’ve made and look at my book sitting in the trophy cabinet with other important items of the band’s memorabilia. The whole experience from start to finish and the knowledge that you have contributed a piece of history to the band makes the documentary genre so special to me and one that I can thoroughly recommend that you try for yourself.

Phil Melia MA FBIPP

Brass and Glass: https://www.philmelia.co.uk/brassandglass
Brass and Glass
The Book: https://www.blurb.co.uk/b/7075244-brass-and-glass

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