Manchester photography: Red Saunders’ digital “tableaux” of a political past

Julia Coulton

A new exhibition at the People’s History Museum uses digital trickery to recreate democratic trouble.

Red Saunder’s new show at the People’s History Museum may have more of an art gallery feel to it than you might expect of this otherwise historic institution, but it’s an exhibition that nevertheless sticks to what the People’s History Museum is all about, namely telling the story of ordinary Britons’ struggle for democracy.  In Hidden, Red Saunders uses digital photography to create a series of re-imagined historic moments involving people whose stories are often overlooked.

So we see figures such as the parliamentary reform group the Chartists, the radical “hedgerow priest” and roving preacher John Ball, and father of the American Revolution Thomas Paine, all placed inside Saunders’ huge, dramatic photographic images. His technique is the very opposite of spontaneous photography. It involves superimposing separate images on top of each other in order to build up a picture of tremendous detail, in which everything is in sharp focus. And he undertakes detailed research to get the period details as historically accurate as possible, right down to the tiniest of costume finishes.

His technique is the very opposite of spontaneous photography

“I am a photographer who is overwhelmed by history and the knowledge and curiosity it gives you,” says Saunders. “My hope is that these images can give new life to these important episodes of working people’s history.” A couple of his tableaux really stand out. The first, The Leveller Women from the 1647 English Revolution, or Civil War, shows a conspiratorial meeting deep in the forest, where women took advantage of the radicalism created by Cromwell’s New Model Army to debate the struggle of women for gender equality with the Roundhead soldiers. It is a vibrant scene, vividly portraying the danger and urgency of their cause. The second depicts the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler; it is a violent and bloody dramatic image of rebellion, with the Tower of London forming a glorious backdrop.

Some images make more of an impact than others. The portrait of campaigner for the education of women, Mary Wollstonecroft, with her affluent North London acquaintances and their piles of expensive books and fine clothes, felt a little out of keeping. The Manchester radical Christobel Pankhurst might have been a better subject, but then perhaps she is not really “hidden”.

Saunders has an interesting background, and combines his professional photography with political activism. He cites an eclectic range of influences, from American Pop Art, Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus to Brecht, reggae and punk. He was a founder member of Rock Against Racism in the 1970s, and his inspiration for Hidden initially came from Marxist historian Sheila Rowbotham, whose work involves telling a very different version of our common heritage than the one we usually get to hear.

There will be plenty for families to get involved with: a dressing up box, examples of Saunders’ costumes and props to look at, a blackboard to draw your own “hidden” images on, and an evidence room with a behind the scenes documentary and original rough sketches by the photographer. In hosting this exhibition, PHM is aiming not only to display Saunders’ work for a wider audience to appreciate, but to increase the general awareness of key moments in the 200-year struggle for British democracy. Interestingly, there’s also a campaign to find out which other “hidden” historic events the public would like to see given more prominence in this way – a wish list will be published online during the exhibition run. It’s an idea we’d like to see more of at PHM: the people’s history, as told by ordinary Britons themselves.

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