More than 30 years after Paul Reas left his home on Bradford’s Buttershaw estate to study documentary photography at a college in South Wales, he has returned to his native city for his first major retrospective of his pictures.

It’s called Day Dreaming About The Good Times?, which happens to be the title of a black and white photograph he took in Newport, showing women workers in a computer components factory.

“It was part of a series called The Valleys Project,” he said. “I chose the introduction of new technology in the valleys, in places where there had once been heavy industry.

“There were various government schemes to attract new technology industry. These employed mainly women in an area where traditionally men had been the breadwinners.”

From December 10 to March 8, Impressions Gallery in Bradford will be showing 70 of Paul’s photographs including a selection of The Valleys Project pictures, commercial work for corporations such as Volkswagen and assignments for national newspaper magazines.

Taking a break from supervising the hanging of the photographs around the walls of gallery, he spoke about his life and times in Bradford and locations such as Dallas in Texas and Roswell in New Mexico.

“I would say I photograph people but I think the pictures are more about systems people find themselves in, people shopping in supermarkets, but it’s about consumerism and how we are caught up in that. I never set anything up. Everything I photograph is as it happens,” he added.

An example of this is the photograph called Military Wallpaper which he took in a B&Q store in Newport more than 25 years ago. It shows a man in camouflage combat trousers unscrolling a roll of wallpaper printed with military motifs. A small boy, the man’s son, gazes at the wallpaper.

Years later a local newspaper tracked down the family. The wallpaper decorated the boy’s bedroom. The boy grew up and joined the British Army and was posted to Iraq. Fortunately he was not among the 179 military fatalities.

There is a colour photograph of women shopping in M&S in Bradford and four smaller black and white pictures taken in Bradford in the late 1970s.

One of them shows part of Bridge Street in the vicinity of what is now the Ginger Goose pub. In the foreground is a cyclist, an ordinary chap in everyday clothes.

The picture encapsulates a moment in time that shows how much times have changed.

Some of the photographs were printed in a little darkroom under the stairs of the house on Brafferton Arbor where Paul was brought up.

“My mum worked at Bairds (which used to be at Thornbury) assembling televisions. She was one of the first to come into the estate and was one of the last to leave when they demolished the bottom half of the Arbor. There’s a private housing estate there now,” Paul said.

One of his neighbours was the late playwright Andrea Dunbar. He left Buttershaw Comprehensive at the age of 15 and spent the next five years as an apprentice bricklayer with the firm of Roy W Parkin in Clayton.

A friend introduced him to photography and he got hooked on the idea of being a photographer. He borrowed books about photography from the library (he still has one) and went around Bradford with a camera, snapping what attracted his attention.

He had an inclination towards documentary photography, and this was confirmed when he went to college in Newport in the early 1980s.

“I met people outside my social background. I suppose I went with lots of prejudices about people who came from a different background. College was quite a revelation for me.”

After six years as an undergraduate and then a college photography technician, he confronted his own fears and took the step into freelance photography.

“I got commissions from The Sunday Times magazine and The Observer. These big 12-page spreads don’t exist any more,” he said, turning over pages of some of these magazines on show in the exhibition.

There are photo-journalist studies of the World Scrabble Championship, the Mr UK competition, the town of Roswell in New Mexico – the site of the celebrated UFO that did or did not fall to earth – and the area in Dallas where President Kennedy was assassinated.

“It was my idea to go to Dallas. I pitched it to the magazine. They were always the best assignments. In Dallas I found there was an assassination bus tour,” he said.

Paul Reas set out to document aspects of consumer capitalism and along the way accepted commissions from the likes of BT and Volkswagen.

“If I’ve done something critical of consumerism and end up working in advertising I am conscious of the contradiction.

“I have always been interested in pushing photography outwards, using a documentary aesthetic and then applying it to advertising really interested me. I am interested in the challenge of that.”

Day Dreaming About The Good Times? is at the Impressions Gallery from December 10 to March 8, 2014. Opening times are Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 6pm, and Saturdays, 10am to 5pm.