New Brighton is the seaside town that time nearly forgot. Perched on the north-eastern tip of the Wirral peninsula where the River Mersey churns into the Irish Sea, its glory years came in the early 20th Century when it boasted a tower larger than Blackpool’s, the UK’s largest open-air swimming pool and a bustling trade of holidaymakers. Even after the tower was dismantled in 1921, the resort still commanded large crowds of day trippers and revellers right up until the 60s, charmed by the fresh sea air, arcades and a ballroom that played host to The Silver Beatles. Having been brought up just down the road in the 90s, New Brighton was practically home – but by the time I came to know it, its glamour had long since faded. Like many British seaside towns, New Brighton fell foul of the UK holidaymaker’s discovery of package holidays, and the general social and economic decline that hit much of the North West in the 80s. The Leisure Peninsula had lost its pizzazz.
It was during this period that three of the best-known contemporary British photographers all spent a period of time in New Brighton, and each took to documenting the resort and its people in their own unique way. MARTIN PARR’s fame was launched by the collection The Last Resort, which depicted a town and people caught in the grips of this decline, the flashbulb of his camera capturing some memorable images of families eking out some enjoyment from their fading resort. TOM WOOD spent the longest amount of time in New Brighton, having moved there from Ireland in 1978. Wood was a frequent and sympathetic documenter of his adopted home, becoming that regular a sight on the buses and promenades that he gained the affectionate local nickname Photie Man. KEN GRANT learnt his trade as a documentary photographer during the time when both Parr and Wood were active in the area, and his bank of work follows the habits and customs of New Brighton’s locals in a period up the end of the 90s, when the outlook for the resort wasn’t quite as bleak.
As part of the 2018 Independents Biennial, NEW BRIGHTON REVISITED brings together work from all three photographers (including some never before seen material) for the first time in a group exhibition. The Sailing School on New Brighton’s redeveloped Marine Point has been converted into a gallery space where work by each photographer can be viewed while looking out over the modern day resort, thriving once more after a period of redevelopment. The backdrops are familiar, as are some of the faces, but the story has moved on somewhat.
Prior to the exhibition’s opening, which saw the gallery packed out with locals and photography aficionados alike, I spoke with Ken Grant about his own views on the intersecting stories attached to the images, and how he feels about taking them back home.
Where did the impetus for the exhibition come from?
It was Tracy’s [Marshall, Northern Narratives and Open Eye Gallery] idea originally, the idea of repatriating the work. It was her who realised that so many people have passed through New Brighton and photographed it. She knows Tom [Wood], she’s worked with Martin [Parr] before in Belfast, but she was the first person to put together the fact we’ve all lived – not quite at overlapping times – in New Brighton for extended phases of our early careers. Tom was probably the longest, me for a decade and then Martin when he was doing The Last Resort. So, it was her suggestion initially: ‘Has this combined work ever been shown in New Brighton?’ Which of course, apart from maybe informally now and again, it hasn’t. So the idea of putting the work back into a place and starting a conversation with people who actually pass through the pictures, that gets really quite interesting. It’s probably the first time since 1986 or 1987, when the work was showing in Liverpool, that The Last Resort has been shown in great extent in the area.
What do you think the reaction’s going to be to it, because I know The Last Resort has had a mixed reception over the years.
Mixed reactions I think when it was further afield. When it was in London there was often a kind of, I suppose, by proxy outrage or concern. But there’s also a kind of unwritten side to a lot of it, in the sense that Martin gave a lot of the pictures back to people who were part of the work and has very great loyalty and correspondence with people who were in the pictures, even now. So the shorthand is to say that it caused quite a reaction, and even now when you speak to some of the older people who were maybe part of local history groups, they might speak on behalf of New Brighton, and speak about the fact that it was not shown in the best light. But, of course, people like me grew up in the 80s and realised that this was kind of normal – I didn’t see any distinction between Martin’s wider pictures from the same time that he made in Birkenhead, or over in Liverpool. You realise in the wider current of living in that time, the North West was going through a really, really difficult phase and things weren’t necessarily as clean, or as replete as they are now. There are lots of pictures from the inner city before [the redevelopment], certainly down the bottom of Byrom Street and Scotland Road in Liverpool, where things were still in the process of needing to be redeveloped. New Brighton is probably, by extension, part of that conversation.
Martin and Tom worked on The Last Resort as a joint show at Open Eye in 1986: did you ever cross paths with them at that time?
Yeh, I was training as a technician in Central Park in Wallasey, and Tom told me how to process film, very, very quickly. He was instrumental because, even though we were training to do technical jobs – most of which have been made redundant now because of our digital age – he’d also be introducing people to really beautiful portraiture by some of the people who he really admires – Lee Friedlander or E. Chambré Hardman, his pictures of the Ark Royal in Cammell Laird. So, you’d get a sense of an extended possibility for picture-making. Working with him for a couple of years, you wouldn’t break a stride – you’d go out with him on the buses, or you’d go out with him to the football – well, I go to the football anyway – and you’d realise that was as legitimate an approach as any other. It’s really quite beautiful to have that and, over time, just those conversations still going.
Martin was different because he went to work training in Farnham in Surrey, and did a degree in photography and video, as it was at the time. You used to look at people like Martin who’d call up once a month, and would have several projects on at one time… it was a very different relationship to Tom, but really enjoyable to have those different voices, and both of their support in very different ways.
How do you think your work’s going to be interpreted by locals now?
It’s hard to know… I don’t spend too much time reacting to reactions. It takes me a long time to get a show together, and even doing this took, without any exaggerations, 18 months of looking at stuff and pulling work out and going into things for the first time. It’s only now that I’m putting together and trying to work out what I was doing, what I was looking at, what I was preoccupied with. And it’s a bit of a shock sometimes, because you start to see things that hotwire right into what was going on at the time in your life. The idea is that I try and make some kind of sequence or narrative that seems like it relates to what I was doing at the time.
So, in terms of people understanding it or coming to terms with it, I just hope that they’ll find them interesting – they’re very quiet pictures, a lot of them. Some pictures are just to do with the land and just to do with the time I’ve spent in town.
Do you think that being a resident of the area for a period of time changed the way you shot or the outlook of what you wanted to achieve with the pictures you were making? Can you see any similarities in the styles of all three of you?
I’d like to think there was great distinction between each body of work for different reasons. Tom lived here for an awful long time, but he would probably have different interests to me in why he’d photograph. But he always says I’m more of an insider than him. When you’re making pictures you don’t feel that so much… you’re just still making pictures, you’re still outside of something. There’s a pull about being part of something, but just enough outside to try and figure it out.
These kinds of hot days, sitting here talking now, are really beautiful because they’re buoyant, busy, people are jumping into the overflow there, they’re living their life to the full. It’s buoyant, you can smell it. But then, when you’re living here, you’ve got the quiet times as well.
I was working a freelance life, which meant there’d be feast and famine. I’m responding to that – I might be sitting on the rocks for hours and just working out things that I was going to do next, but I’d be photographing at the same time. It’s not as if you go out with a particular project in mind, or a piece of the jigsaw puzzle waiting to fit. Just using it as a place to get a breather and take stock, you know? I’m more kind of nurtured and, I suppose, intuitive at the time.
It seems a bit like, just because of the nature of you going about it documenting life around you as you were living your own, that your photos follow your own personal experiences a little bit more than say, Tom’s and Martin’s have done.
Yeh, I think so – it would’ve been very easy to drop in other pictures of my daughter in here, and people who I knew from different places. Some of the pictures are made right out there [pointing to the edge of the river, where it merges with the Irish Sea] when the tide goes right out at night. You just go out and you realise it’s just you and a few fishermen. You turn back and you realise New Brighton seems a thousand miles away, and that Ireland feels closer.
It’s a strange place. Those freedoms, the state of mind, or just being able to understand how time flows – I don’t suppose I spend much time doing that. I do like being able to go into that kind of space. Something happens when you do, I think you go into a certain kind of zone of figuring things out… and that might make you make different kinds of work, or force you to think about the place in a different way, even if you weren’t making pictures.
When you look at New Brighton now, what do you see? Do you see some of the similar stories and the similar lives?
Well, in the course of the last 20 minutes while we’ve been sitting here, a lad came round the corner with his shirt off on his bike, who I recognised from 20-odd years ago. So, a lot of the people are making the same kind of routines, looking as fit and as energetic as ever.
What I like about here is that it’s this other little space, slightly cut off by water sometimes. It’s got its own routines, it’s got a respite from Liverpool – the city which I really love. When I first started living here in the early 90s, I loved the fact that you could get the train 20 minutes and just feel like you were so close to somewhere, but you knew you were back in your own backyard. And you had the water… Some of the early pictures I made were by the edges of the water, and looking at Martin’s pictures that he made not long after finishing as a student – which we’ve got in the show here – he’d come to New Brighton and he’d photograph really beautiful scenes of people right at the edge of the river and the Irish Sea; same kind of thing. Something pulls you into those particular places. And I recognise that kind of energy, and I do recognise a lot of the people who’re here. Probably in the last few months since we’ve been doing it, some of the usual suspects have started to crop up again. I’ve touched base with a few people, had a few invitations to Stanley’s Cask which I’ve managed to avoid so far, because they probably don’t do a lot of things like they used to anymore!
New Brighton Revisited is showing at the Sailing School Gallery, Marine Point until 25th August.