High Volume: Four decades of photographing Bristol's musical excellence

© Mark Simmons

RESPEC community radio, October 1990

– Mark Simmons

When photographer Mark Simmons moved to Bristol from London in the mid-1980s, he was just in time to witness some of the city’s most creative and exciting years for music. Hip-hop crews, punk bands and leftfield experimenters had started to build a following in a number of the city’s underground clubs. Soon, trip-hop would emerge, with local artists Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead putting Bristol on the global music stage.

Simmons was among all of this, photographing artist, gigs, street parties and festivals. His approach was to become a participant rather than an outsider, dancing in the crowds for hours as well as taking photographs, gaining the trust of the people around him to catch partygoers and artists at their most natural and unguarded. “When taking [action] photos you’ve got to be in the eye of the storm to really capture that moment,” says Daddy G of Massive Attack. “Mark has always been that guy.”

His four decades of work has resulted in an archive of more than 20,000 images of Bristol’s musical history. He has photographed Massive Attack, Roni Size & Reprazent, DJ John Stapleton, Moonflowers and Sub Love. He also captured early drum’n’bass “jungle” sessions at Malcolm X, St Paul’s Carnival, the crowds at Ashton Court Festival, and dance competitions at Easton Community Centre.

Bogle competition, Easton Community Centre, October 1992 (Mark Simmons) Roni Size and Krust, Bristol drum’n’bass duo photographed for ‘Straight No Chaser’ magazine in 1996. As Reprazent, they would go on to win the 1997 Mercury Prize for their album ‘New Forms’ (Mark Simmons) Blue Aeroplanes, Ashton Court Festival, 1987 (Mark Simmons) Daddy G & Mushroom, Massive Attack, Galaxy radio live session, March 1995 (Mark Simmons)

Some highlights of this extensive archive are now showing at Strange Brew, Bristol, for the current Bristol Photo Festival. They’re also collected in a forthcoming book, Mark Simmons Bristol Sounds, published by RRB Photobooks.

Much of Bristol’s best music came through the meeting of different subcultures and communities — reggae meeting hip-hop meeting punk and rave. Community is also the beating heart of Simmons’s work. Whether it’s monster sound systems at St Paul’s Carnival, sweaty deep house club nights or hippies relaxing at a free festival, it is clear that these accessible, communal spaces have been a key part in fostering Bristol’s outsized musical influence.

Body Heat: Conscious Club, Trinity Centre, July 1994. Deep House night (Mark Simmons) Free Festival, Ashton Court Festival, Bristol, July 2000. The festival folded in 2007 after 34 years of midsummer entertainment (Mark Simmons) Sound system outside the former Crystal Dove Blues Club, St Paul’s Carnival, July 1998. Carnival is a special time for Bristolians: the streets are theirs for the day. At the time this picture was taken, Banksy was spraying a mural around the back of the building. Both building and mural are now gone (Mark Simmons) British jazz pianist and composer Keith Tippett, October 2000 (Mark Simmons) Lupine Howl at Bristol Industrial Museum, May 2000. Lupine Howl was formed from three members of Spiritualized (Mike Mooney and Sean Cook, pictured, plus Damon Reece), ousted from the band shortly after its mega-selling album ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ (Mark Simmons)

Nonetheless, a number of the spaces Simmons photographed have since closed. The organisers of Bristol’s Ashton Court Festival, once the largest free festival in Europe, declared bankruptcy in 2007 not long after new government regulations on licensing laws and health and safety requirements. St Paul’s Carnival, Bristol’s annual celebration of its black and Caribbean heritage, has struggled with cancellations over the past decade due to funding issues and, more recently, Covid-19. Simmons’s work reminds us not only of the individuals that made Bristol great, but the importance of the community that created them.

High Volume: Bristol Sounds: Mark Simmons exhibition is on at Strange Brew, Bristol as part of the Bristol Photo Festival until 30 October. Mark Simmons – Bristol Sounds, is published by RRB Photobooks on 1 October

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