Saffron Walden shopkeepers exhibition opens

PUBLISHED: 16:18 11 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:34 11 September 2015




An exhibition opens this week of portraits of Saffron Walden shopkeepers. ABIGAIL WEAVING spoke to photographer Paul Guyver about why he spent nine months taking pictures of them and hearing their stories.

The Mad Hatters Vintage Emporium shopkeeperThe Mad Hatters Vintage Emporium shopkeeper

Since holding its first market over 850 years ago, Saffron Walden has always been a champion of independent trade. The secret of this success as photographer Paul Guyver discovered, lies at the heart of the town with its shopkeepers.

These high street heroes have refused to let the community stray from its traditional market-town roots, and it is this integrity which Paul sought to capture.

From fishmonger to butcher, florist to key-cutter, the photographer has created 20 images and his work will be on show at the Urban Picnic Gallery from Friday (September 11).

Game on shopkeeperGame on shopkeeper

He said: “We are lucky that we do not have a standardised high street that you see in many places, where you could be anywhere in the country. We don’t have that. “We have something unique and I wanted to champion that.”

Paul asked each shopkeeper to hold the same pose, one which not only symbolises pride, but also unity, and each figure stands in front of their products, looking into the camera with a straight face.

He says: “They are not some glossy, smiley, promotional lifestyle-type images. They are saying: “This is what is here,” and I wanted a sense of pride to come through.”

This pose not only captures solidarity between the present shopkeepers, but also with those of the past, making history and heritage a theme of the project.

“People have fairly straight faces, deliberately so, and it is reminiscent of original photographs of 100 or so years ago.

“If you see the original Sainsbury’s shop, you see the shopkeepers standing outside and they are relatively formal with a straight face, but there is a pride and I wanted to reflect that because the town is old as well.”

After gathering his 20 images, Paul decided to add something else to the project. The time spent chatting during the shoots made him realise that each shopkeeper had a story to tell, and he soon went back to interview each of them properly.

He now considers his work to be as much of a social history project as a piece of art. Now he cannot walk through town without stopping for a catch-up.

“It used to take me a few minutes to walk through the town, now it can take a couple of hours.”

“The stories are about the people, about where their products are sourced, the ethos or the fact that they are a family business. These are things I did not know as a resident of this town.

“I am conscious of the fact that when you go into a shop you are only there for a minute or two, and you want to buy something and then leave.

“You only have brief encounters with the shopkeepers, but a photograph is a moment to stop and really consider the people.”

He says he was overwhelmed by the support he got from the traders he took pictures of.

“It started by accident actually. I am a member of the Saffron Walden Camera Club and we have competitions every year, and one of them is a portfolio of five images that work together.

“In January, I took a photograph in town of one of the shopkeepers and thought it was a nice image. I was really pleased with it, and that image defined everything about the project. I knew another shopkeeper and it grew to two.”

“I expected a lot of people to say “No thank you, I am not interested”, so I went to more than five originally because I expected some of them not to work out, but pretty much everyone said yes.”

The more people he photographed, the more Paul thought of turning it into an exhibition, and it has now become so popular that he is calling on other shopkeepers to contact him for a potentially bigger project in the future.

“It has been a fascinating thing, a real journey. I cannot compliment the people in the images enough because they were so helpful. They understood the project and that I wanted to showcase this aspect of Saffron Walden.

“It is lovely to have a different perspective and some good news about our town, which we should rightly be proud of and which we should protect.”

The exhibition will run from September 11 to October 9 at the Urban Picnic Gallery, 51 High Street, Saffron Walden. Entry is free.

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