An Eye On The City, The Sea And The Forest

Herschel's Prussian Blue and the Cumbrian coast are united for Chris Routledge exhibition
January 20, 2023

Photographer Chris Routledge is taking Liverpool to Hungary, if he can tear himself away from the forests of the Lake District. Chris, one of the pioneers of the revival of interest in cyanotype printing, is to have a solo exhibition in April at Veszprém in Hungary, showing Liverpool work as part of the European Capital of Culture. Liverpool was ECC in 2008, Veszprém* is one of three this year, and his exhibition will be one among several from other former and future European Capitals of Culture.

But he’s also currently working on a project that’s part funded by Arts Council England, Portraits of the Forest, making portraits of people and the trees they work with to explore forest environments and think about our relationship with them.


And squeezed into this schedule is a group show opening at dot-art gallery in Liverpool next month on The Sea, showing new work from his ongoing project about the Cumbrian coast. Here will be two of Chris’ cyanotype prints, of Whitehaven and Maryport harbours. “These towns were once important ports, but were overtaken two centuries ago by better-connected cities like Liverpool and Bristol. Harbours are always interesting, outward-looking places, but like the past, the sea keeps melancholy secrets. I spent several hours standing with my large format camera looking out to sea and thinking about all the people who have come and gone through these harbour entrances, of fortunes made and lost, and lives changed forever.”


The Hungarian exhibition will feature work from more than a decade of photographing Liverpool, and in particular a series called Looking Backward in which Chris has been photographing the historical buildings of the city reflected in modern surfaces: “a kind of interaction of past and present”. It includes Sell Everything, a photograph of Lime Street reflected in a bus shelter advertising hoarding; LimeStreet was extensively redeveloped soon after. And there’s Corner of Rodney Street, a photograph of the famous Bombed Out Church reflected in a silvered nightclub window with glue on it.

But beyond the sea and the city centre, one feels that the heart of this polymath writer, historian, expert on crime fiction and brewing and building sheds, as well as being an award winning conceptual and documentary landscape photographer, is really rooted in the forest where, beyond taking photos and making prints, he’s been researching and reading about woodlands and conservation. “I'm most interested in the historical and cultural importance of our trees, woodlands and forests. But it’s impossible to separate their ecological value from the ecological and climate crisis we are living through, and doing too little about, which is a feature of our culture. So I am also exploring what woodlands, and nature more generally, mean to us, and how they make us feel. And experimenting with printing the portraits using a combination of cyanotype and tannins from the woods themselves.”

'Sell Everything' Liverpool

One early experiment is an image made with toning from oak bark supplied by Lorna Singleton, who makes baskets from coppiced oak in her studio at Grizedale Forest. “You can feel the surface and the tension of the oak in Lorna's baskets, and that physical experience, of being in the landscape, rather than just looking at it passively, is something I'm hoping to convey with this work.”

Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces blue prints using coated paper and light. Chris has developed particular expertise in this, and in the age of digital photography and instant pictures there’s something rather magical about watching an image slowly appear before your eyes. When the colour of that image can be altered by using kitchen ingredients such as tea, coffee and red wine, as Chris does, there’s an element of playfulness in the technology.

There’s also a parallel obsession with cameras. Like many of his generation, he enjoyed taking photos with a Kodak Instamatic as a child. But it was in 2002, on an extended trip to California with his wife Siobhan, that the passion for photography took hold. “I'm old enough to have used film when it was all there was, but it wasn't until people started selling off their high-end film cameras for next to nothing that I could afford to buy them, and I've experimented with quite a few.

“Having spent a few years using only digital I went back to film in 2008, when I bought a Soviet-made, and not at all high-end 35mm Zorki-4 rangefinder camera with a lens for £9. That camera got me into rangefinders, and a few years later I bought a very well-used and cheap  Leica M2 rangefinder, which has since been completely overhauled, and which I use a lot. The Zorki-4 gradually became less reliable and has been retired, but the lens that came with it, known as a Jupiter-8, was used on my project Carousel, with poet Rebecca Goss, and is still used when I want a particular ‘look’.

“I'm not really a collector of cameras as I buy them for a purpose, and don't have them on display, but I do find them fascinating, and they each allow you to make different kinds of photographs. I use everything  from 1920s Box Brownies and old bellows cameras, through to the camera I'm using for the Portraits of a Forest project, a beautiful 4x5 field camera that looks like it's 100 years old, but was made by Chinese firm Shen-Hao in the 2020s. When it's on a tripod out in the landscape that camera feels like it's another person standing next to you. Of course I also use a digital camera, but for project work it's about 80% film.”

'Bombed Out Church' Liverpool

We’re talking in Chris and Siobhan’s favourite pub, The Golden Rule in Ambleside, where he is easily distracted by conversations about beer and brewing. He’s written a lot about this, including a book about Cain’s brewery in Liverpool, though he began his career studying American literature and holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Nottingham, and a PhD from the University of Newcastle. For this he wrote a thesis about modernity and the work of crime writer Raymond Chandler. His photographic practice is informed by his research on cultural change, and the relationship between reality and perception in culture. You don’t stick with just one pint of Cascade when you sit down for a chat with Chris.

More recently he collaborated with the poet Rebecca Goss – their book Carousel,  mentioned earlier, won the Michael Marks Award for Illustration in 2019 - and began exhibiting his work, notably at the Portico Gallery in Manchester. Commercial work has included book covers and photos for books and magazines including National Geographic.

He works with the descendants of William Wordsworth at Rydal Mount near his Lake District home, producing unusual publicity shots and running cyanotype workshops in the poet’s home. And he had an exhibition at Grasmere’s Heaton Cooper Gallery of his pictures of a stretch of the River Rothay in the aftermath of Storm Desmond, accompanying his book Indeterminate Land.

'Reflections On Liverpool'

In 2021 he was commissioned to make two short films about Dorothy Wordsworth to celebrate her 250th birthday on Christmas Day 2021. These films are based on talks by experts on her work, and in the second, Dr. Penny Bradshaw, Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Cumbria, explores Dorothy Wordsworth’s creative partnership with her famous brother William, her illness in later life, and her deep connection with the natural world.

Penny Bradshaw, incidentally, was among those taking part last year in a marathon reading of Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, at the Jetty Museum at Windermere, along with artist Liz Wakelin, broadcaster Caz Graham, the editor of Mag North himself, and an enthusiast who had travelled all the way from Cornwall for the occasion. For this is another of Chris’s pastimes, helping people indulge in reading aloud just for the fun of it, the love of it. He started with an epic challenge, a two-day public reading of Moby Dick outside Liverpool’s Maritime Museum, and then turned his attention to Arthur Ransome and the Lake District. I’ve since helped him organise marathon readings of Swallows and Amazons, on the lake shore at Coniston; Pigeon Post at the Coniston Coppermines YHA; and a lockdown digital reading of The Picts and the Martyrs. Next will be Swallowdale, some time this summer at a location yet to be decided.

Meanwhile, Chris is planning for the opening of the Liverpool exhibition and the show in Hungary, on the days that he’s not lurking with his camera in the forest at Grizedale or Hard Knott.

*This year’s three European Capitals of Culture are Elefsina (Greece), Timisoara (Romania) and Veszprém

All Images: Chris Routledge