Are the Mancunian landscapes of the Not Quite Light project secretly in thrall to Leese era development in the city?

With his ‘iPhone Lowry’, his social media schmooze, and his many and various collaborations Simon Buckley and the Not Quite Light project have become a popular fixture on the Mancunian arts scene. In the joined-up arts-village there may be few who would speak against the Salford-based snapper. I too was initially intrigued by the man who seeks to harness photography’s famous “golden hour”, pre-dawn, to bring to life a Mancunian landscape just beyond our regular vision: with their gleaming lights and confectionary colours Buckley’s dawn-lit city-glimpses gratify a desire within us to see the ordinary as something more.

Piccadilly 04:22am, and the brickwork is glimmering on a flank of the train station spied through a mouldering railway bridge… Cathedral Approach, 5:52am, and a distant street-corner is afire with red light from a cluster of nodding street-lamps… “Magic in an urban landscape” is how the MEN described Buckley’s work. So let me explain how I came to revise my view, and come before you now not to sing his praises but to let in a little deprecating daylight.

A few years ago I wrote an article in which I was rude, in passing, about a well-known property developer. Not as rude as I’m going to be in a minute but rude nonetheless. When I shared the piece online Buckley left a message inviting me to dinner, and so one night I went round to his Salford flat. There, after a small-talk first course he dropped the name of a PR person in the property industry. After that the conversation seemed to steer round towards personal lives and private matters in the insouciant direction of skeletons-in-closets.

Whether this little dickie bird over dinner was Machiavellian in intention or simply a misunderstanding on my part I was sufficiently affronted by it to raise it with him directly.

He denied being up to anything sneaky, of course, but after that an incipient friendship fizzled out.

“There are good and bad property developers” Buckley told me, and no doubt it’s true. It just isn’t something I’m interested in discussing with an artist, not in Manchester, and I hadn’t previously been aware how invested he is in the issue. But that’s just me. Making art which engages with development in this city is a perfectly valid enterprise, not least when in collaboration with a savvy outfit like the Modernist Society, who host Buckley’s latest exhibition. So if nothing else the nine new NQL prints presently showing at its Port Street premises offer the chance to find out how the magic is evolving.

I call in on a Tuesday afternoon. The new work, I discover, focuses on an area between the old Wellington pub on Regent Road, along the Mancunian Way, to the remains of the Bank of England pub on Pollard Street, Ancoats – it’s curious how establishment references seem to be coded into the work; curious too the way  drama seems to be imposed on the quietude of morning. A Dark Lane industrial back lot ringed with throbbing red-and-yellow fence posts. A corner of Hulme’s Redbricks estate, where a lit telephone box glares with Whovian mystery. Pillars of the overpass a-slant with a lick of delicious-looking raspberry light. And on the horizon, some of the new tall buildings of the city.

“Which are these?” I ask Eddy, the Modernist’s co-director.

“That’s One and Two Deansgate,” says Eddy. “Simpson Haugh. In fact, there’s Simpson Haugh buildings in most of them. Look…” He does a quick tour of the room pointing them out, one after the other. “There… there… there… there… there… there… and there.”

It isn’t the way we’re usually encouraged to look at the Not Quite Light project.

He stops at a perfect pale moon skyline in the loose style of a Japanese woodcut: a row of humble high-rises in Ukiyo-e colours, standing shoulder-to-shoulder like an unpacked box of toy soldiers. Looking into the city from Chapel Street in Salford, it’s the most incredible Manchester skyline I’ve ever seen. What a curious thing, I can’t help but think…if I were Ian Simpson, living on the top floor of the Beetham Tower, I might like a photographer to make the skyline I peppered with shitty apartments look like a Japanese woodcut so I could hang it on my wall.

“As I write…” Buckley begins his introduction to the current Light-themed issue of The Modernist magazine, which he guest edits, “there is a glorious sunrise illuminating the city of Manchester, bestowing gold upon the buildings facing east. I keep leaving my laptop to gaze out of my window, to watch this ancient process, sharing these moments of awe with my ancestors…” Doubtless his ancestors recognised the premium in an east-facing cave. Therein, though, lies a central problem with NQL, for me…it’s the talk surrounding the photographs that gets in the way of a lot of them.

From the beginning the NQL narrative has seemed to circle the problem of why Buckley manipulates his photographs to saturate the colours and burn in dramatic lighting effects. As long-term followers will know his MO has always been to go out at 4am with his tripod, set up at an unassuming street corner and shoot as the sun comes up. The result would be posted online a few hours later. There’d be a bollard somewhere suggesting some unspecified building work; a streetlamp-in-supernova at slow shutter speed; some old brickwork disclosing the mill town that once predominated and a patch of light thrown across the whole vomit-and-chip-wrapper-free ensemble. Buckley would post a few paragraphs with on-the-spot reflections of his morning experience – a bit of scene-setting, a bit of street history and so on – and time-stamp his photo location

The message… with respect to whichever corner of Building Site Manchester he happened to be capturing…seemed to be: “this building site is beautiful…it is alive with the past and pregnant with the future and if you had been here at 4:57 this morning you would have seen it too.

This lays claim to honest telling: to documenting, recording, looking harder, opening the senses the better to see what’s really there…like New Age psychogeography appropriated by the regeneration industry and sold back to the street. In Buckley’s 2016 book commission for the architects 5Plus, You Live With Us, We Live With You, he sought to document the real lives of the company’s buildings in the way these photographic projects familiarly do. From a clear corporate brief the photographic style makes much more sense than the supposed artworks of NQL, speaking a visual language developers are familiar with: glossy, cutely composed…buildings brought to life with rich colours and glowing windows suggesting the sense of possibility within.

With a client background such as that it was natural to wonder, when Buckley promoted his NQL Festival – an annual weekend of walking tours, workshops, panel debates and cultural performances relating to his art project – without a single funding logo on his flyers: who is taking the risk so that punters can do midnight pilates on a Bruntwood plot in order to power-wash their awareness of the Simpsonscape?

In fact, the truth isn’t really what’s on offer in Buckley’s work. What seems instead to pass for it is a sweet-toothed take on contemporary art for planning geeks with the general public hosed out of the frame, leaving a kind of developer’s fetish of the urban predicament. In the world of literature the academic Lynn Pearce has written of an increasing ‘urban sublime’ in which the politics of seeing are surrendered and dereliction itself aestheticized as beautiful.

    Tall grey bins have been left upturned at crazy angles, and some stacked waste
    timber, swollen with damp, is catching the pink light of the afternoon sun. A mongrel dog,
    its coat the colour of cigarette ash…is trotting towards the main road – where shattered
    glass glints around the edges of a telephone box, and the low sweep of vivid turf makes a
    child’s drawing of the new estate  [From the short story ‘Blackley, Crumpsall, Hurpurhey’ –
    Michael Bracewell]

Such is culture in the regeneration age, where squalor can be beauty, a red warning light a ruby in the night’s crown, a builder’s hoarding a veil across tomorrow. It doesn’t really interrogate, critique, or create tensions to any serious degree…seeking merely to render as beautiful in order to foreground the skill of the artist.

“Often, people relate my photographs to the paintings of Edward Hopper, which I understand due to the use of light and colour. However, I feel the work is also inspired by the Japanese Prints of the 19th Century, and early 20th century, which embrace the emptiness of the landscape, and fill them with the suggestion of spirits.”

It can be tough to see a man try to justify his Photoshop habit – though to simply criticise a photographer for using editing software in the digital age would be to not understand photography. It’s like criticizing Ansel Adams for using a dark room. Moreover, with the digital age still in infancy the viewer can be nudged into excitable reaction by filtered work which resembles painting or CGI – which can seem like genius or cynical deception according to context. A case in point would be Buckley’s iPhone shot of the Deansgate Rainstorm – a magnificent photograph, albeit atypical with respect to time-of-day, presence of people, minimal editing.

If we choose to regard him not as a documentarist but instead as a painter with the camera – a seemingly much more apt comparison – we would need to rank him among the most sentimental of Manchester School landscapists: conservative, boosterist, frequently saccharine. That work which doesn’t present the city as wonderscape (his Salford dawns, for instance) seems commonly to project the fireglows of hearth and home into the coldest corners of regenerating Manchester (his shot of the Black Friar pub being one of the weirdest attempts to beguile the viewer with blazing light). If you want to see a photographer paint the urban landscape with a camera, check out Steven Irwin’s montages or Pedro Correa’s dreamy snapshots. Buckley’s work, by contrast, gives the impression much more of arty propaganda on behalf of some unspecified corporate client.

Stranded between two worlds – documentary and painting – the work is insatiably needy, requiring constant validation and emotional support from the input of others in the form of collaborations, self-promoted festivals, outreach. Now, there is a radio show. The chatter, seemingly, is endless, as though the last thing the artist could ever do is shut up and let the work speak for itself. The result is a portfolio awash with vanity…indulgent, un-self-critical and in love with itself, its creator so enchanted by his own noise he is unable to distinguish between his own good and bad work.

Of the former there is no shortage. It’s as obvious to this reviewer as it is to anybody else that Buckley is a skilled practitioner. His abstract skies, his delicate Saul Leiter-esque window shots, the Travel series….cities in daylight dignified by the counterpoint between human and manufactured form, his Construction series…the skeletons beneath the fabric of buildings…how much more convincing he is in composition than in going hog-wild with colour and light. In fact, it’s the corporate stuff that shows how poor some of the art work is.

The problem is Not Quite Light and its ineffable brief…the overarching project in which he ventures out before dawn to shoot a deserted Manchester he claims to be filled with spirits, seeking to render it with the aesthetic of a Hopper or a Hiroshige, while at the same time commenting on development from the edges of the regeneration establishment by somehow making the whole thing look like a Christmas present. In the end, lighting up and colourising random corners of the city, just as you would a real estate brochure, begins to look like what it is.

Time will tell if the Leese Makeover of the city, undertaken as part of a broader covert renewal of civic society, will come viably to be seen as a magical foundation myth.

In the mean time we might look hard at such work as Buckley’s skyline from Chapel Street – go and see it – and ask ourselves: when the city was sold did the arts community stand up to be counted? Or did it enact the pretence of debate while producing work in thrall to the regime at the expense of almost everybody else?