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Recreating life in the Black Country

It is a rare occurrence to look at a photograph that emanates the feeling of a sculpture to the degree of Brian Griffin’s portraits in “The Black Kingdom.”

The English photographer’s latest book is a visual autobiography in which he depicts his childhood growing up in central England by weaving together historical family photographs and highly conceptual portraits.

The Black Country, as it is known, is made up of a series of towns like Tipton, Dudley, Cradley Heath, Netherton and Lye. It is situated just northwest of Birmingham and derives its name from the extreme level of industrialization in the region as coal mines, iron foundries and steel mills populated the landscape.

“Today you would drive through it and have no realization how incredible it was up until the late 1970s,” Griffin says. “It was incredible, probably similar to Pittsburgh in the U.S. or the Ruhr in Germany, just one big smoky factory.”

The English photographer spent the first 21 years of his life in the Black Country living in the town of Lye. He followed the traditional path of those around him and at age 16 left school and began working in a local factory.

He soon realized the limitations of his future in the Black Country and left to study at Manchester Polytechnic School of Photography, now known as Manchester Metropolitan University.

“Very few people leave the Black Country,” Griffin says, “while outsiders see many reasons why they should. Although it’s a fascinating area, it’s also quite underfunded and depressed.”

Griffin has channeled all the character of his childhood home and the memories of his time spent there to create a personal visual narrative in “The Black Kingdom.” With a focus on his own family’s legacy, his dramatically stylized portraits evoke a sense of the overtly dramatic religious art from a bygone era.

Griffin drew inspiration for several portraits from specific works by Baroque artists Caravaggio and Zurbarán to create portraits reminiscent of 16th and 17th century paintings.

For the content of his photographs he chose to focus on factory workers, including his own family members whenever possible. However, he was tasked with finding creative ways of representing some of these characters, as many had passed away before he began his work.

“For the portraits … I had to employ some fairly unorthodox methods,” Griffin says. “For a start my mother had died two years previously and I wanted her to be the ‘star’ of my book, so I employed a film casting director to find my mother. In order to do so, I supplied photographs of my mother in her 30s. She found a lookalike in Leamington Spa, a town 100 miles north of London.”

“When applicable each portrait is heavily researched by me and the costume designer Roger Burton from historical images to ensure they are played by excellent lookalikes, clothed perfectly for the period and their role.”

Griffin is now a world-renowned photographer and considered one of the most important English photographers of his time. He says his upbringing in the Black Country was a key influence on his life.

“It has given me everything I have and would ever want in terms of inspiration,” Griffin says.

Griffin’s Black Country work was first exhibited at Collège des Bernardins in Paris in November 2010. “The Black Kingdom” was published in June by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

- Ray Jones, CNN