arts and design

Sean O’Connell: Broth Tarn review – Barnsley from the back of a BMX

Sean O’Connell adds his name to a list of photographers fascinated by life in the north of England. Tony Ray-Jones was poking his lens around northern beaches in the 60s, snapping unsuspecting sunbathers in Scarborough and Blackpool. By the 70s, Martin Parr was at it, too, trawling West Yorkshire for quirky incidents that made up his series The Non-Conformists, and Tom Wood was riding the bus across Liverpool shooting the glazed expressions of those patiently awaiting their destinations. The difference with O’Connell is that he is not an outsider. Born and bred in Barnsley, he turns his camera on a community of which he is a part.

With a degree from Leeds College of Art (“biggest mistake of my life”), a commission from Burberry (“tight fuckers, I had to haggle with ’em”) and several thousand Instagram followers, O’Connell presents his first solo exhibition at the Civic, Barnsley.

Tender … O’Connell’s portrait of his grandmother

Tender … O’Connell’s portrait of his grandmother

For the past five years, he has captured life in the Yorkshire town in all its gritty and gorgeous detail. Black-and-white film photographs of kids dragging scooters through puddles, bikes speeding past tightly packed terraces and teenagers sitting beneath bridges all make it into O’Connell’s Broth Tarn project (and corresponding Instagram account). So called because “tarn” means “town” and because “broth” is “a daft joke me and my mates came up with when we were camping. Someone had a can of beef broth and it looked rank, then we started calling everything that was a bit shit ‘broth’.”

Familiarity with his subjects gives him access to the most private of moments. When Parr is outside in the community, spotting a suited man balancing on one foot on a ladder or observing the fine hats at an anniversary tea at the local Methodist chapel, O’Connell is inside at home watching elderly women curling their hair and a neighbour sweeping the street. In a particularly tender photograph, he shoots a portrait of his grandmother eating breakfast, carefully lifting the spoon to her mouth. On the wall is a mirror and we catch a glimpse of the photographer, so naturally part of the scene.

O’Connell’s inherent understanding of the people and places of Yorkshire translates into an intuitive sharpness in his fashion photography. An image captured from above, of a man smoking in his back yard, reflects a similar angle in a Burberry shot where a young man reclines on a deckchair with a copy of the Barnsley Chronicle. In both instances we assume the picture is taken from an upstairs window, which creates a closeness between photographer and subject, as if a neighbour had just popped their head out to have a quick chat.

In the main gallery at the Civic, another exhibition North: Fashioning Identity reveals the trend for fashion photographers to travel north to find “real life”, urban settings to juxtapose with their high-end garments. Having spent time with O’Connell’s sensitive and carefully curated Burberry photos of friends in areas he regularly frequents, Corinne Day’s description of shooting Kate Moss in a “grotty old bedsit” in Blackpool – or the “poor man’s Vegas” as Day called it – suddenly feels grotesque.

Life as it happens … O’Connell’s shot of a street fight

Life as it happens … O’Connell’s shot of a street fight

In response to the fashion exhibition, O’Connell has also erected three mannequins wearing grubby vests and Adidas tracksuit bottoms – all of which he has worn while labouring. They stand in contrast to the collection of limited edition Adidas jackets and trainers in North: Fashioning Identity, where a polite sign reads: “Please do not touch.” Evidently, there is a difference between clothes inspired by the north and clothes worn by northerners.

A young photographer, O’Connell’s clarity of expression is still a little evasive. There is a bit of everything here; some Cartier-Bresson-like decisive moments, some highly stylised fence leaning, some surrealist smoke over arty angles, some crisp, bright street work and shadowy, soft domestic scenes. Although each image has something interesting to say, together they run the risk of talking over one other.

However, there are real sparks of brilliance in them. Wheeling around Barnsley on a BMX has provided O’Connell’s greatest source material. He uncovers life as it happens: a fight breaks out, a bus driver nods off over the wheel at a bus stop, a couple of teenagers slouch up against a graffitied wall, grinning and smoking. Familiarity does not breed contempt, but curiosity. This is a celebration of life in all its forms – dazzling or drab – which can be explained by O’Connell’s affection for Barnsley.

“I used to hate Barnsley growing up, couldn’t wait to leave,” he recalls. “Now I’m back and I’m mad for it.”

Sean O’Connell: Broth Tarn is at the Civic, Barnsley, until 25 January.


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