“IT’S a strange and challenging time to be opening a business,” admits York commercial photographer Duncan Lomax after turning his front room into Holgate Gallery.
“Why now? I think people are looking for some good news,” reasons Duncan. “People are stimulated by visual art, perhaps now more than ever.They’ve been stuck at home in lockdown, observing their walls on Zoom, and they’re now more aware of their homes, so in that sense maybe it’s a good time to set up a gallery.
“People are looking for a connection with what they put on their walls or in their rooms, so why would you buy three stones with a white stripe for your mantelpiece?
“That’s why, at Holgate Gallery, it’s not just pretty pictures of York, though there’ll always be a demand for that, but I’d like to think that we can challenge people more. With the creative photography I do, it’s deliberately imperfect and more abstract than the commercial work, which has to be perfect and generally done to someone else’s brief.”
The gallery address is 53, Holgate Road, a Grade 2-listed building that previously housed Bridge Pianos before Duncan and his wife Tracy moved in, turning the frontage from white to a deeply satisfying blue.
Holgate Gallery becomes only the second contemporary photographic art-space to be set up in York since the much-missed, pioneering Impressions Gallery deserted Castlegate for Bradford’s Centenary Square in 2007.
Since July 2013, fellow commercial photographer Chris Ceaser has run Chris Ceaser Photography in early 15th century, Grade 2-listed, timber-framed premises at 89 Micklegate, focusing on his own landscape photographs of York, Yorkshire and beyond.
By comparison, Duncan will complement his commercial and abstract photographs and humorous faux Penguin Book cover prints with a regularly changing stock of work by other artists “who might not otherwise have the space to exhibit”.
Mostly they will be local, but in the first instance, the spotlight falls on Cold War Steve, the alias of Birmingham digital-collage political satirist Christopher Spencer, with his 250,000 followers on Twitter for his classical painting pastiches and predilection for incorporating EastEnders’ Steve “Phil Mitchell” McFadden alongside the Westminster double act of Johnson and Cummings at every opportunity.
“You don’t have to look too far to see which side he’s on,” says Duncan. “It’s putting two fingers up to the Establishment, and not everyone will like it, but he’s just been awarded a Doctor of Arts honorary degree at Wolverhampton University, so he’s now Dr Cold War Steve!”
You can sense Duncan’s enthusiasm for stretching his wings beyond running Ravage Productions Photography. “Doing commercial photography, you spend three hours ‘in the field’ and then just as much time doing the editing, marketing and updating the website. I’ve always thought that feels like time wasted, though it’s not, because it’s part of the job, but I most enjoy being behind a camera.
“So, I thought, is there a way of being creative while also doing the [commercial] job? When we bought the piano shop, it needed everything doing to it, but I could see it being a gallery, shop and editing facility for me as well as a home, so rather than being on my own when I’m working, it becomes a more social experience and another string to the bow related to the commercial photography, while it keeps pushing me on the creative side.
“I might find there’s no interest in photography in York, but I’m pretty certain there is, and not just for my work, so this gallery is not an ego trip.”
Duncan has been the official photographer for York Minster for several years, notably for the 2016 York Mystery Plays, and has shot portraits, marketing images and PR material for all manner of businesses both in the city and at large.
He also has taught photography to degree level and his pictures have appeared many times in the local and national press, from The Press and YorkMix to the Yorkshire Post, the BBC and The Times.
Born on the Wirral and brought up in Warrington, Duncan played guitar in early Nineties’ Widnes “baggy wannabees” and two-time John Peel Session band 35 Summers, but he was just as likely to be holding a camera as a guitar.
“I’ve always had a camera; I’ve always been interested in photography,” says Duncan, who gives talks to camera clubs to give a different slant on taking pictures beyond landscapes and wildlife.
“I went to see Echo & The Bunnymen in 1982, when they were playing this secret gig where no-one knew where it would be when they bought a ticket. I got right to the front with my mum’s thin Instamatic camera, and there were no press photographers, but there I was, leaning on the stage, with all this dry ice everywhere, hiding the camera away because you weren’t supposed to be taking pictures. The next day I sold the photos at school, so that lit the spark for me.”
Duncan went on to work in PR, but as a writer. “I was always jealous of the photographers,” he recalls. So jealous that the camera would eventually win out because he thinks like a photographer at all times.
“You are constantly looking at the light, checking it, looking outside, and then you see this mackerel sky, and you know you have to stop and go and get the camera,” he says.
“Sometimes, with a photograph, it’s about pre-visualising…but then accidents can happen. That’s serendipity, but more normally, nine times out of ten those circumstances don’t come together.
“You almost know the shot before you take it, but whether you’re able to get it is another thing; whether you can manipulate it and be in control of the camera. Everything has to come together, not only technically but also emotionally. That’s where you get the story.”
He highlights a distinction between the amateur and the professional. “When I was giving a club talk, I remember asking, ‘Who’s shot a landscape photo of Robin Hood’s Bay?’. All the hands went up, but then I said: ‘Hands up, who’s shot a portrait one?’ and no hands stayed up…whereas I’m always thinking of where the headline can go on the picture,” says Duncan.
The photographer’s eye enables him to “show something that you can see that someone else can’t in that situation”, by using such a technique as underexposure.
“But what you don’t do in either commercial or press photography is let the camera lie,” Duncan says. “Though if you’re doing a commercial shot and you notice there’s a fag end on the floor, you do take it out of the picture.”
Among Duncan’s most memorable photographic work is his remarkable portfolio for the 2016 York Mystery Plays, especially those capturing actors in character, but neither on stage nor posed. “I did those 15 seconds after they came off stage. They weren’t meant to be ‘nice’ pictures, but pictures while they were still in the moment, which is different from portraiture,” he says.
The relationship between photographer and subject is one of trust, requiring skills of communication and connection. “What puts them at ease, I think – and I say this to everyone – is that I tell them, ‘I’m not trying to catch you out’, which is different from some press photographers, whose job is to do exactly that,” says Duncan.
“I’ll ask them, ‘what are you looking for from this photograph?’, as it’s about gaining their trust. That’s the bit I really enjoy; getting that interaction, even if I’m there to photograph a building, I’ll interact with the site manager.”
Duncan’s work spans commercial, portrait, event, PR, creative, architectural and travel photography. Can he ever switch off? “If you come across me on a rare day off, I’ll still have my camera with me, so when we go on a walk, my wife hates it as we’ll take three times as long as we otherwise would!” he says.
“Like when we went to Cuba earlier this year, I just had to film the textures of the walls as they tell a story in their amazing colours: they give such a sense of place to Cuba.”
Those Cuban colours are now framed in Pantone style and for sale at Holgate Gallery, the new calling card for Nineties’ guitarist, ace photographer and now gallery owner and curator Duncan Lomax.
More good news has just come his way too: he has been selected to participate for the first time in York Open Studios next April.
Holgate Gallery’s opening times will vary but will be updated regularly at www.holgategallery.co.uk and on Facebook. Visits also can be arranged by appointment via email@example.com