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analog photography cultural heritage David Gilbert Wright England masks and costumes performing arts street performance theatre United Kingdom

THE YORK MYSTERY PLAYS

DAVID GILBERT WRIGHT

// David has been in photography for nearly 50 years. He specialises in documentary photography and works on long-term projects, including the one he shared with us about the York Mystery Plays, which re-enact scenes from the Bible.


“Art in all its manifestations enables us to express ideas and views about our world that ultimately lead to greater understanding.”

David Gilbert Wright


David Gilbert Wright studied at the London College of Printing, worked professionally in commercial, wedding, medical and government photography and has lectured in photography for many years. He works only on B&W 35mm film and has consciously never made the transition to a digital workflow, preferring the craftwork of the analogue process.

He has spent most of his life working on long-term projects, often in very immersive ways. His series about the rural, west coast of Ireland shot during the 1980s and 90s provides a unique insight into the lives of a group of people that have largely disappeared as the country has modernised. Other long-term projects include The English Way of Death and In Search of Christianity.

His work can best be described as specialising in challenging documentary themes that are rarely covered by other photographers. A most recent example of this is his work with The Crypt in Leeds, documenting in words and pictures the stories of people who are struggling to kick addiction. David is also the editor the f8documentary magazine.

What draws you to the arts?

“Creativity is what singles us out from the rest of the animal kingdom. Art in all its manifestations is a creative occupation. It enables us to express ideas and views about our world that ultimately lead to greater understanding. I have always been a creative person. I originally went to art college with the intention of studying painting. While there, I discovered photography and found it to be an ideal medium to realise my ideas.

I suppose the best way of describing why I enjoy photography is that it is one of the most important aspects of my life. It has been the thing I think about ever since I was a teenager. There is a magic in making photographs. I think about projects, pictures and ideas every day. I am grateful for discovering photography because it has helped me through some very difficult times. To be creative is a wonderful feeling.”

What do you find most noteworthy about the Mystery Plays you have documented?

“The most noteworthy thing about the Mystery Plays is that they  could have easily drifted away into oblivion in this country where the Christian Faith has become so unimportant to many. However, this small group has taken up the gauntlet to ensure they continue as part of our heritage.”

The mystery plays date back to Medieval times. They are believed to be the earliest form of plays performed for audiences. They are based on Bible stories and were performed in Latin with a vernacular prologue in English. When the Pope attempted to ban them in 1210 AD, the town guilds took over.  

The term mystery play derives from the Latin ‘miracle’ but is more likely to be a derivation of the word ‘ministerium’ meaning craft. The ‘mysteries’ or plays were then performed by craft guilds.

The plays were banned again during the Reformation and did not reappear legally until 1951, when they were performed in York and Chester as part of the Festival of Britain. The plays began being performed in the churches, but soon moved out onto the streets. Today, the same carts still trundle around locations in the city to enable different audiences to watch each play. The carts also provide a stage, a dressing room and a means of moving props.

Over the centuries, the plays have been guarded by their respective guilds, and a selection from the York Cycle are performed during the Feast of Corpus Christi occurring in June.


Click on the photos to see the full image.

All photos © David Gilbert Wright

To see more of his photography visit David´s Instagram page.

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