As an assistant to photographers such as Brian Griffin, David Ellison has travelled well beyond his Cumbrian homeland. But he remains fascinated by the place, and much of his own work since graduating from Blackpool and The Fylde College five years ago – including his series of portraits of members of military brass bands – touches on the area’s traditions and deep-rooted sense of place.
“I’m obsessed with the notion of the North, anything North I love,” he says. “It’s the remote poetry of the place. When I visit home and get out onto the fells of Cumbria, I feel an intense connection with the area, and the rural heritage of the North is very interesting. The folk art of Britain inspires me, and the industrial past. I want to document it in my own style.”
His latest project, Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, looks at a popular local tradition that stretches back hundreds of years to Viking times or, according to some experts, to an even longer Celtic tradition. The sport is governed by intricate rules “so technical in some instances that it becomes a well-orchestrated dance”, and features a traditional costume, consisting of white leggings, coloured shorts (the “centrepiece”) and a white vest, embroidered by the wrestler’s wife, mother or girlfriend. “Traditionally the embroidery depicts animals, birds, wild flowers, regional livestock or anything associated with the wrestlers’ rural lives,” says Ellison. “However, now wider influences feature on younger wrestlers’ costumes. The designs often act as unique depictions of modern family backgrounds and provide rare insights into rural life.”
Once the wrestlers were all men, but these days women take part too, in meets held at galas, fairs and agricultural shows. Ellison got to know the wrestlers when he was shooting a series on agricultural workers, and started the project back in summer 2009, setting up a makeshift studio at the events, and shooting wrestlers in costume and in their everyday clothes. He now plans to shoot the galas too, building up around 30-40 landscape pictures to run alongside the portraits. “It’s an ambitious task in itself, but to have a picture of each event backed up by striking portraits of the wrestler would make alternative, almost topographic vernacular images,” he says.
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