The Other Birmingham
Ready for its close-up
If you search "Birmingham" on Instagram, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Selfridges and the BT Tower sum up the city, and that the sky is consistently bluer than Papa Smurf's pool parties. For a different, and quite possibly more beautiful perspective, may we point you in the direction of Andy Smart, a Digbethite photographer who actively looks in the opposite direction.
Andy's attachment to photography started with an A-Level in art and big interest in the city's graffiti. Feeling like "everyman and his dog" bought a camera at the same time he did, Andy quickly gravitated towards searching out the pictures that no one else had got. "When you first get into it, everybody just goes and takes pictures of the Bullring. But I can't think of anything less appealing to photograph these days: how many photos of the same thing can you take?" In contrast to the usual canal shots, Andy headed under the M6, the dodgy end, for his waterway hit. "It was such a still day, the reflections were just incredible and I'm really into that post-industrial, concrete jungle feel which you find in so much of Birmingham."
Spending all available Sundays and holidays wandering solo with his camera, one weekend Andy spotted that the gates to Bordesley station were open and immediately headed in. Though there's a really interesting view of the city skyline from the site, Andy shot the other way. "I've always loved that tower block." While everyone focusses on the so-called pretty things in the city, for Andy, it's the tower that's the truly pretty thing — "people live there, this is what the city's made of — real people. Plus there was some nice, dirty graffiti of course."
From the surreal to the even more surreal, when Andy spotted this ethereal-looking ad on the side of a sex shop, he had to shoot it — "I walk through Digbeth every day, and yet it feels ignored by photographers". On the subject of the now demolished Monaco House (pictured top), Andy's love of the crumbling down, industrial really comes through: "It's one of those buildings that made your draw drop — huge and imposing and totally ugly, but at the same time so beautiful". Andy walked past one Sunday and realised the whole thing was torn in half, revealing walls that no one would have seen apart from the people that painted them. "I only get shots like that by going solo. I made some great friends shooting with other photographers but it felt like people ended up taking the same pictures." On the same day Andy captured the "Battenberg-like" Monaco House, vandals smashed all the windows, the police boarded up the property, and it was never seen quite like this again.
Andy's eye extends to making roads look entirely incredible, and by golly he likes the A38. "It's such a wonderful piece of construction — this great big hulking slab of concrete that snakes its way through the city." Talking urban lines and textures, this is an image Andy is rightly proud of. "I like how segmented the shot is, with the flash of green at the bottom." And next up? Andy can't wait to get out to Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Smethwick, "that's what I'm going to do with my holiday — there are some incredible buildings that no one seems to be shooting." Space, watched.
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