Creating stories and capturing relationships: ‘Portrait of Britain’ photographer Kate Abbey announced as Bradford Cathedral’s new Photographer in Residence.

Kate Abbey

Photographer Kate Abbey will soon be starting her new role as Bradford Cathedral’s Photographer in Residence. We spoke to her ahead of her starting date to find out more about how she started in photography, her recent award-winning shot of the cathedral’s Head Verger, and what we can expect from her twelve months residency. We began by asking her about why she first picked up a camera.

I first picked up a camera when I was 14 and started photographing my family. I grew up on a farm whereby there was a little show going on in the field next door and remember being mesmerised by my siblings who were driving around on some miniature motorbikes. And I remember just photographing them. It was a cheap camera – £2.99, plus two tokens off the back of box of Kellogg’s cornflakes! And that was my first connection with photography.

After that, I got my first SLR when I was 24, whilst living in Thailand. Everywhere I pointed the camera there was a beautiful photograph. I went around the markets and around the hill tribes, and there again, I was totally mesmerized by the people and the culture around me.

On your website it says that you’re always after the ‘real and authentic’. Why is that important to you as a photographer?

I’m always after the real and authentic, because that’s basically what interests me. I’m interested in seeing the true side of people’s personalities; those intimate relationships that happen between people that are connected. I enjoy photographing this intimacy. It’s about capturing those moments that make us feel alive and that make us feel individual and that are full of character.

I’m a commercial photographer working in advertising. My job is to create images of positive situations of people living their lives based around a product or a service, whether it’s a bank, or Building Society, or an airline, or some technology or phone manufacturer. Basically, I create the imagery that says if you buy this phone, if you use this airline, you can live this life. It’s all about people, it’s all about people enjoying their lives.

Away from your commercial work, what style of photography do you most enjoy?

My personal work is still about people and it’s still about enjoyment, but I do also focus on finding just real points of people’s lives. And sometimes it’s not always positive, so it’s about being real and it’s about storytelling, and finding the beauty in maybe mundane things.

What will your new role at the cathedral entail?

My aim is to photograph my interpretation and my view of what I see the Cathedral is, and it’s not necessarily about the stone, the architecture, and the altar and the sculpture. It’s about a lot more than that. It’s about the fabric of the Cathedral itself in as far as the people that built it; the people that commissioned it; the people that work there now; the people that support it; the people that volunteer there. It’s the people that maintain it, make it what it is: they are the life and soul. My plan is to initially come and observe and learn about what is happening in the Cathedral and the community of the Cathedral and absorb the life that is happening, with me capturing what I see. It’s quite an organic experience.

My role at the Cathedral will be to come on a regular basis, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for the day – on quite an ad hoc basis, because it will have to fit around my work, over the minimum of a 12 month period.

Do you sort of have plans of what you want to capture over the year or is it very much a blank canvas?

I will I imagine that I start shooting what I see in front of me and once I start, the ‘story’ will unfold before me. I’m just open to experiencing what is there and to be open with that experience so that it offers me a suggestion of what to shoot next.

The more I photograph, the more it will direct me what the next photograph will be. I would like to photograph inside the Cathedral and inside Bradford: showing the extended community of how the Cathedral expands into Bradford itself.

Do you think the new social norms of COVID-19 will have an impact on how your photography looks?

To be honest, my experience of how I approach the photographing Bradford Cathedral won’t really have changed with the new restrictions. And apart from the fact that I will be wearing a mask, I would have been keeping a social distance anyway. There’s no need for me to touch anybody, I would have to be a cameras distance away anyway, and so it won’t alter my practice.

What it will alter is what is in front of me when I photograph the events: the services, the meetings; the general day to day will be extremely different. And I think over the course of 12 months, hopefully, some normality will have returned, to what it was like before COVID-19.

Recently were one of 100 photographers in the Portrait of Britain 2020 awards including with a photo of David Worsley, our Head Verger, which was one of a set of images that you took of him. How did this submission come about and what was it like to be selected?

I entered the awards with a shot of David who is the head verger at the Cathedral. I visited him and noticed as he was in the building, how graphical he looked in his cassock; what an impression, visually that left on me. There he was in the soft black fabric of his attire against the very cold, pale stone of the Cathedral – it was very dramatic. I decided to return to photograph him resulting in various ‘posed’ portraits as well as capturing him just getting along with his business. I was eager to capture normality and to capture the day to day, and although sweeping a floor perhaps isn’t the most exciting event, it still has beauty in itself. I was very eager to capture the beauty in the everyday and in the mundane and that’s how it all started.

Finally, what message would you give to the staff, volunteers, congregation, visitors and those involved with the cathedral about your residency?

I will be starting to visit the cathedral in October 2020 and I would very much invite anybody who sees me inside the building with my camera to come and talk to me, and feel they can get involved. I would like to photograph anybody that is willing for me to do so, whilst also being equally respectful if people would prefer not to partake – I don’t want to infringe on anybody. However, I’m very eager to collaborate and I’m very eager to share.

I’ll be shooting digitally for the majority of my time so anybody involved will be able to see the images either on the camera or on my laptop. And I’m more than happy to share the images with anybody who’s interested, and as time goes by, there will be online presentations for the community to view. In the future, we would like to have an exhibition of some sort, and we’re especially eager for those people involved to be able to view the results, but also those who aren’t involved to be able to have access to my insight into a beautiful venue.

Kate Abbey will be the Photographer in Residence at Bradford Cathedral from October 2020. For more information visit our website, or find out more about her work at kateabbey.co.uk or instagram.com/kateabbey_,

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