“A tourist in my own town”: Alec Gill on his photographs of Hull’s fishing community

A beautiful new book traces the photographer’s legacy, using non-chronological presentation and colour to evoke his heavily annotated notebooks.

14 May 2024

In 1976, two years into Alec Gill’s documentation of Hull’s Hessle Road, it was announced that the area was set to be demolished. With advancements in fishing technology and importing on the rise, the once flourishing local industry was struggling and had spent years in slow decline. Though rather than dissuading the photographer from his project, the declaration only strengthened his conviction. Alec set himself on continuing his work – documenting the tight-knit fishing community – but with a new slant; capturing the “sad process” of people and families being moved away, and the community being broken apart.

While this process of disintegration was saddening, Alec’s photos feel far from downbeat. In fact, many of them are full of energy, life and personality – especially those of children. Shown in the midst of play, and grinning at the camera with gaps in their teeth, the images feel different from stereotypical imagery of working class kids – they’re kind, and they’re joyful. Alec outlines one image of three children with a kitten in a pram, taken during a particularly hot summer in 1976. “The kids are just enjoying the August heat and taking no notice of me,” says Alec. “People got used to me and seeing me and my large-ish camera around the street. I like to think I built up trust over the years and people ignored me in a good way – and let me document their culture.”


Alec Gill / Iranzu Baker: The Hessle Road photo archive (Copyright © Alec Gill / New Dimensions, 2024)

This seamless ability to immerse himself in the community was important to Alec’s work, and in large part came from his growing up in the local area. It’s no secret that being from the place you’re photographing gives you that extra layer of familiarity and sensitivity to your surroundings – just look at Tish Murtha’s documentation of Newcastle, or Shirley Baker’s images of Greater Manchester and Salford.

Alec was born in Hull’s old town in the aftermath of WWII in 1946; he and his sisters used to play amongst bombed-out buildings and roamed the same streets he would later photograph children playing on. His father was a seafarer – a fact that influenced his affinity for fishing – who lived in New York as a young man, and who upon returning to the UK brought with him a portable typewriter, and a bellows camera. Alec was fascinated by the camera as a child, a fascination which later led him to buy his own 35mm cameras and build a darkroom in his parents attic. “Cameras were always around in my life – and, so, photography was part of my life and my earliest memories,” says Alec.

Another key influence for Alec was his academic and personal supervisor at Hull University, Professor Alan Clarke. His lectures on how working-class kids “having the freedom of the streets”, were integral in leading his focus toward the local children, and his theorising on the need to specialise in life informed his whole practice. “He was talking about psychology,” Alec says, “but I thought about photography and decided to become ‘a tourist in my own town’ and focus upon the people in the streets within the Hessle Road community.” Rather than being simply a photographer, Alec instead began to see himself as a “psychologist with a camera”.

GalleryAlec Gill / Iranzu Baker: The Hessle Road photo archive (Copyright © Alec Gill / New Dimensions, 2024)

The process of creating the The Hessle Road photo archive book, and reflecting on his work – a whole fifty years after it started – has been “wonderful” Alec says. Alec worked closely with the book’s editor Iranzu Baker and designer Fran Mendez, who he gave complete freedom to trawl his archive and personally select images to feature. Iranzu and Fran also personally printed, produced and published the book, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. When it came to the editing, Iranzu took a unique approach – rather than having the images in chronological order, they’re randomly assembled, to reflect Alec’s “fluid” approach. “He would wander the neighbourhood with no fixed plan other than to stop when he saw something intriguing playing out before him,” says Iranzu. “We wanted readers to discover the community in a way that reflected his own practice.”

Now, the book has won and is nominated for multiple design awards, owing to its similarly insightful and distinctive design process. Its designer, Fran Mendez, paid particularly close attention to Alec’s archival material and documenting process. “He recorded his work in pocket notebooks, jotting down the date, street name and additional information – such as subject names or lens aperture – for each and every photograph he took,” Fran says. Then, over time Alec would add notes, observations or corrections. The blue Pantone used as text, insert pages and thread that binds the book together are inspired by the colours of one of his notebooks, as is the decision to add anecdotal annotations and quotes throughout.

The legacy of Alec’s work lives on. The image Two Girls Playing on the Derelict Fish Dock, shows two young girls sitting among various fishing paraphernalia, trespassing on the former St. Andrews Fish Dock. It’s a photo that stands out to Alec for its “juxtaposition” – two young people sat against the backdrop of declining industry. Julie, one of the girls in the image, is now a grandmother, who in 2018 got involved with the publicity for Alec’s City of Culture exhibitions. And it was also at one of these exhibitions that Alec received his favourite piece of feedback, from the former poet laureate Andrew Motion. “He saw the display of 100 images and told me: ‘It is as if there was no photographer present’,” says Alec. “That, indeed, is what I wanted my social documentary work to embody – job done.”

GalleryAlec Gill / Iranzu Baker: The Hessle Road photo archive (Copyright © Alec Gill / New Dimensions, 2024)

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Alec Gill / Iranzu Baker: The Hessle Road photo archive (Copyright © Alec Gill / New Dimensions, 2024)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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