Over the past ten years, photographer Chris Brooks has been returning to his childhood home in Derbyshire to uncover his family’s business of generations gone by. In 1898 Chris’ great grandfather founded The Brooks Press, a publishing house printing publications such as travel guides, poetry and books on self-improvement. The business ran until 1970, passed down through the Brooks family from father to son and so on. But for Chris, the history of The Brooks Press was quite unknown to him, following the death of his own father when he was a teenager. 40 years since its closing, and some 100 years since its actual formation, Chris tells the story of his family, the business and this area of the east Midlands through his own creative medium of photography, and now, aptly, it’s published as a book: The Brooks Press of Wirksworth.
A collection of large format colour portraits and landscapes, Chris’ first publication is described as examining “the pull of history and the complicated nature of belonging and family”. For the photographer himself, dedicating a decade to such a personal photography project has regularly been part of his practice, explaining how he’s “always tried to make personal work as I feel it is important for development as an artist as well as a person”.
With his future self as a creative in mind during the project’s formation, it goes without saying that revisiting one’s past is always a complicated process; often nostalgic, uplifting, personally forming and upsetting in equal parts. “Going back to a place I had left behind due to the pain of losing a father, and not long after many other important people in my life, at first felt terrible,” he points out. “But, before I started the project I kind of knew I had unfinished business back in the Midlands.” The timing in which Chris decided to revisit his hometown is also one many will relate to, starting the project soon after he turned 30, “so [I] was probably searching for some kind of context at that time,” he reasons, “like I needed to iron a few things out”.
On the photographer’s first trip back to the area, battling with what a difficult experience it was to handle personally, he actually began to find “there was nothing really to photograph initially”. Considering the business had closed in the 1970s, there wasn’t anyone for Chris to speak to directly, and in turn, it was “quite frustrating,” he tells It’s Nice That. However not giving up with the project’s idea, around his third or fourth visit, “I started to really respond to the only thing that was constant about the trips to the town, and that was me.”
From here, Chris began to channel his own perspective into each of the photographs, using “my experience and feelings of being there to influence the pictures, as well as making the images of the documents and ephemera that I had originally gone looking for”. Realising it was actually himself at the heart of this project then changed his approach, trusting his own judgements and responses to objects and areas rather than just looking for something in particular.
As a result, The Brooks Press of Wirksworth as a book “is very much a journey”, says Chris. Collated together so it mirrors Chris’ own experience, the publication opens with the very first images taken and ends with the last. Juxtaposed between these photographs is also scans of documents as well as newer ephemera Chris made using letterpress, “to provide texture and personality, but they are also there to confuse the narrative somewhat too,” he explains. “The story was not easy for me to navigate so I wanted the viewer to have a similar experience,” also deciding that the book should feature no text: “I didn’t want it to be easy to understand,” he reasons. “I want there to be a similar level of discovery for the reader that I found myself over the last decade.”
Consequently, the final outcome, which is available for pre-order here, is a book to inspect and question why, when and how Chris has photographed each image. And, despite being such a personal project from its initial beginnings, the resulting book is one that looks outward on personal memories and the unanimous feelings that surface when journeying back through your past.
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