Land Marks At Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, until 28 February 2003
Twelve years ago, Len Grant was selling advertising space for Central TV, taking blackand-white portrait photographs in his spare time. Then he decided to try to make a living from his hobby. He made a shrewd decision to photograph Manchester's movers and shakers: all the people in the city who were about to drive it through a decade of transformation. 'City Shapers' portrayed the politicians, business people, designers and architects who shunted the city into the blocks for the XVIIth Commonwealth Games.
By the time Daniel Libeskind was pacing out Trafford Wharf for his Imperial War Museum North, Len Grant was Manchester's photographer laureate. He had already produced books on the Manchester Arena, Bridgewater Hall and The Lowry, and was on first-name terms with half the construction workers in the North West. He photographed IWMN from breaking ground to royal opening, occasionally pinning a radio-mike onto some of the people he photographed, including site workers, the museum's director and Daniel Libeskind.
There is no book of the scheme as yet, but there is 'Land Marks', an audio-visual presentation of the making of the building - the inaugural show in IWMN's temporary exhibitions gallery.
But the museum itself is not the first thing to register in Grant's display. The back wall of the space is hung with 17 large blackand-white portraits of site workers - all mid-shots, posed straight to the camera.
Other than as proud personal momentos, it is difficult to know why I am looking at them. They are not firefighters or lifeboat men. They worked for Sir Robert McAlpine and put up a building.Maybe that's enough - I am sure their mothers are proud of them.
As openers to an exhibition, though, they are as inviting as a building site in February.
The main bit of the show is a much more engaging four-part projection. On one wall are single, large-scale projections of about 10 x 10m; on another is a mix of three smaller images. The soundtrack is site activity and a commentary (with a Libeskind eulogy by Jonathan Glancey). The whole sequence, including the construction of the so-called 'air shard' in aluminum and galvanised steel, lasts about seven minutes, and it is impressive. These images are favoured by scale.
As a closing coup de théâtre, a high-level shot of the cleared site, under a wide blue sky, reflected in the Ship Canal, is held on screen for more than a minute.Do not blink or look away: the shot dissolves into the same point of view of the finished building, gleaming in spring sunshine. The transformation, unlike the building, is easy to miss.
I don't think this reflects badly on Grant, but it does strike me as extremely narcissistic. The entire building seems infused with the air of people feeling pleased with themselves. Maybe I am a touch jaded by the Libeskind effect.
Grant's show is enjoyable to sit through.
Whether it offers an insight into the making of a great piece of architecture depends on your take on the building you are sitting in.
It certainly photographs well.
Phil Griffin is a journalist in Manchester