Snapshots of Sweeps with Mike Snarr

To coincide with the May festivities, No.34 had photographer and lighting designer Mike Snarr exhibiting a collection of classic black and white prints of the Sweeps festival throughout the month. Taken using 35mm film and printed in a dark room, Mike’s photos captured the spirit and substances of the annual Sweeps festival that happens in Rochester each year.

Sweeps festival happens yearly at the beginning of May, usually across the May bank holiday. The festival started as a way for young chimney sweeps to take the day off work, with May 1st being a national holiday. They would stage a procession on the streets in an attempt to collect money, but the tradition fell by the wayside once employment regulations came into force. By the 1900s the final celebration had been held. In 1981, keen historian Gordon Newton took it upon himself to revive the celebration and the Sweeps festival in Rochester has since become an annual occurrence.

The festival is a huge celebration of Morris Dancing and it’s clear that the event has a number of loyal attendees. Many people who have viewed the exhibition recognised the Morris dancers in Mike’s photos as recurring participants in the annual celebration. This familiarity of the subjects is shared by Mike, too. As much as the Morris dancers are a regular feature of the festival, so too is Mike with his camera. The intimacy portrayed in his exhibition is likely the direct investment of many years of dedication to Sweeps. There’s a real mixture of stillness and movement captured in the breadth of Mike’s photos, made possible by his commitment to photographing the event. Often over fifty different Morris sides are in attendance at the festival which definitely puts Medway on the map.

On the far side of the wall, sometimes reserved for pinning up pieces of artwork produced by participants in our drop-in sessions, is a series of six photos. Evenly spaced, all in portrait and all black and white, the images create a particularly pleasing profile. Your gaze is encouraged to flow from window to wall, or from wall to window, sometimes pausing to try and interpret the image but appreciating it nonetheless. If it’s possible for us to say so modestly, people appear to be enjoying Ideas Test’s exhibitions every month. Photography seems to be a particularly accessible art form, prompting people to peer in through the glass window; perhaps to see if they can spot someone they know or just with appreciation for the artwork on show. It’s quite possible that for Mike’s exhibition, it’s a well-intended balance of both. With the Sweeps Festival happening on Medway’s doorstep, the familiarity factor is certainly out in force. A similar effect occurred with Simon Martin’s exhibition back in 2016 – the affinity with local faces is equal parts intriguing and inspiring.

Fixed onto the wall facing out into the window are seven more prints, this time all landscape. Grouped together, the photos give passers-by a broader yet still introspective look at the Sweeps festival. Mike has captured the essence of the festival well, bringing its traditions alive. The scenes depicted in the photos are certainly provoking; against the backdrop of Rochester’s historic castle, Mike’s photos have a steady saturation of the past and the present bleeding together. The use of 35mm film perhaps enables this. Film can be particularly sensitive to light (not that this would be a problem for Mike, a seasoned lighting designer with over twenty years experience), but the choice to use black and white photography is an especially smart move. It creates a sense of unmistakable uniformity throughout the exhibition, reinforcing reminiscent elements while also celebrating the festival’s continuing growth.

There is, nonetheless, something slightly unsettling captured within a couple of the monochromatic images. Perhaps it’s the fact that the photos bring light to the way a few Morris dancers still choose to decorate themselves. It’s an issue that is decidedly secondary to Mike’s exhibition – Mike’s expertise is in capturing images rather than forming commentary around them – meaning it is therefore up to the audience to form their own opinions on the matter. With that being said, the photographs undoubtedly prompted plenty of positive reactions. A member of Medway council even popped in, expressing both enjoyment and appreciation of Mike’s photos and the calibre of cultural events across Medway and Swale to which the prints attest. The festival truly is a sight to behold, with a focus on former traditions, fun and frivolity. Enjoyed by attendees of all ages and identities, Sweeps hosts a multitude of styles of live music and performances. It’s a festival that provides entertainment for everyone and Mike’s photographs are a testament to how much Sweeps is enjoyed by the local – and wider – community.

It will be interesting to see how the festival continues to evolve in the coming years. The world continues to be increasingly interconnected, creating new traditions while still honouring the old ones. Should Mike decide to continue capturing the festival for the foreseeable future (which Ideas Test hopes he does), it will be fascinating to see how it grows and develops. It, too, will be interesting to see where Mike takes his artistic practice in the future, given how well he encapsulates events.

For more of Mike’s work you can visit his website and if you want to find out more about the history of Sweeps, you can read about it here on the Medway council website.