This is the final interview in the lead up to the exhibition New Brighton Revisited. Featuring the work of Martin Parr, Tom Wood, and Ken Grant, the exhibition New Brighton Revisited will open at the Sailing School Gallery on July 14th. There will be tours leaving from Liverpool on the opening weekend costing £5 I think. Book your tour here.
Ken Grant and New Brighton
Talking to Ken Grant is like being bathed in honey. His mellifluous voice lulls you into his way of seeing, his way of being. It’s a gentle way, a kind way that is generous to the people he meets, the people he photographs.
This approach is evident in the way he works. Poetry is mixed with kindness and a humanism that doesn’t pull any punches. Life is hard at times, and if you want to have soul you need to recognise that. That’s what you see in the faces of the people he photographs. The lives that they have lived. The lives that Ken has lived.
“It’s not Liverpool. It’s got its own remoteness and its own energies. It’s a fascinating place. I used to go there as a kid. We used to go to the big open-air baths. It was a beach with a marine lake, and a boating lake. All the old guys would go and take their little sailing boats. My dad made me a boat which we’d take to Stanley Park in Liverpool and he’d always be miffed when it’d fall over because it didn’t have the right kind of buoyancy.
I’d go with my cousins to the big open air baths. There was a big diving board and going in there was an event. It was like going into a football stadium. It was our Waterworld. It’s a Morrisons now.
Before that, my dad would come up on a Sunday. A lot of people would come up from Liverpool and they always had this idea of a release; you’d go to the parks, or you’d go to the Pier Head. It was a place with a bit of open space and going over on the ferry was something you’d always want to do. When it was getting warm in the summer, you’d always have this blast of air from the Irish Sea. It’s like when people talk about New York in the summer when anyone with any money will get out of New York, and if not they’ll somewhere with a little bit of peace and cooler air. That was New Brighton. It was always that kind of release.
At the same time you’re twenty minutes from the centre of Liverpool so you have that sense of connection. I can only imagine what it was like in the 1950s or 1960s when my dad was going over there as a boy with his father. They’d go on a Sunday just to get away from the family home. It would probably be about giving the mother a bit of a breather on a Sunday afternoon after the end of the working week.
When you go there now that still happens. It’s a totally different dynamic, a totally different demographic but it’s still that kind of energy. It’s like when you go to Liverpool to the Pier Head. I remember when I started to photograph there in the 80s and you realise there’s almost this Mississippi thing going on – there’s actually this jazz band called the Merseyssippi Jazz Band. There’s this idea of going to the edge of the water. At New Brighton and further along at Hoylake you’d have preachers there, beach missions doing little bits of preaching.
So it’s about getting out of the city. I remember reading somewhere that there’s more miles of beaches in Merseyside than any other county, so the idea of going to the coast is not a bad thing. It’s there in people’s minds.
I used to work in Birkenhead a lot and then you’d go through a dock system and a bridge system. It’s in Wallasey which translates as Welsh Island. And it feels like an island, it feels like that you’re on the edge of this here-be-dragons world. Now they’re replacing some of the bridges so it’s not as much like that anymore, but it still is remote.
I remember being on the Mersey ferry once and they used to do this really great commentary and it ended with Gerry Marsden singing ferry across the Mersey but as they were doing it, they’d go along the Liverpool side and they’d be saying “In 1845 the Irish famine started to happen,’ and ‘In the 1850ss, these people settled in Liverpool,” so you’d have all this historical detail about the buildings, the tobacco warehouses, and then the ferry would turn to New Brighton. There’d be Americans, there’d be Japanese, there’d be local people, and in the present it said, “And now New Brighton, home of smugglers and vagabonds.” And the whole of the ferry would stop and look. But I think it’s changed now.
A lot of the time when I’m looking back over the pictures, some of the pictures are of lads who have been fishing but they’re actually just sitting on the mudflats out in the river. The tide’s gone right out and they’re just sitting there. I know they probably wouldn’t be talking about it but I know when I’m there, all I think about is far away I am from everything. You’ve got the space, you’ve got the wind, all of a sudden you’ve got this little bit of what some people call freedom, this space away from everything and everyone. The city’s there and you can see it and it’s magnificent. New Brighton is right behind you. But you’re completely, completely free of all that stuff. And that’s why you understand why people fish on the edge of the sea.
At night you see lots of lights out towards the sea, the lights of people looking for that little bit of space. In summers, I’d meet Tom for a late pint, or if he was doing one of his dummy books, he’d bring it along in the Pilot Boat pub and you’d look at it. Then you’d be walking back home and you’d be completely conscious of where you were, so far from everything else. There is that feeling of it being its own kind of place. It feels like it’s got all the colour and trappings of a seaside resort you’d go for some kind of respite. At the same time, a lot of the people I’d be photographing would be living and working there or there’d be in small flats and bedsits because it’d be cheaper than being in the centre of Liverpool, while at the same time being so close to the centre of Liverpool.
That’s contrasted by this really affluent side to New Brighton. There are these huge mansions overlooking the town. When we were making the work, the big Hotel Victoria was overlooking the Irish Sea. People like Dave Fiddiman used to rent it, he was a hippy from Moreton who invented the Davida openface motorbike helmet. He’s incredibly well off. He would hire that place maybe twice a year and he’d have all these different people over and you’d realise all these different people lived in New Brighton and if they didn’t live in New Brighton, they’d live in small places in Wales. And they’d come in with didgeridoos under their arms and they mixed. Everybody mixed.
That’s what really taught me that there was this real cultural thing happening with musicians, writers; people like Jim Morris who wrote Love on the Dole lived here. You’d see him walking along the prom every day and he’d come over and talk about your pictures. Because he was a writer he’d see completely different things.) So there was a real mix of things with everything done on a shoestring. There was really great music. There was the New Brighton Rhythm of Blues Festival which I photographed but they’re not in the exhibition because they don’t fit. But that reminded me of all these different pictures I have which I don’t even remember doing.
There’s some kind of space that exists for you to do something here, there’s something a little quieter here than Egbeth or Sefton Park. It’s less intense.
I moved here because I was working part time in the art school in Liscard. In 1992 I got something from the Arts Foundation, a (£12,000) prize which allowed you to work without restrictions or financial pressures. I was living in a loft in Kensington in Liverpool, really rough scenarios going on outside everyday. I was actually cycling down to the ferry to get over to do this part time teaching. It meant, ok, now’s the time to do it. So I moved. I bought a really lovely apartment overlooking the front and made this really lovely journey everyday, a 15 minute walk up to the art school, and a 20 minute walk to the train that would get you into Liverpool in no time.
As a reason to be there, the teaching was a starting point, but it just meant that all of a sudden I could walk out of my front door and you felt like you were in something and you were feeling something and you could make pictures. From my front room you could look out and see the landscape shifting. At twilight something would catch your eye and you’d look out and there’d be a huge oil tanker heading down to Ellesmere Port. And you’d look over to Liverpool and the floodlights would be on at Anfield so you felt incredibly connected to that wider world.
That for me, was a big part of that process. It felt easy to get out and just start making pictures. That meant when I was going somewhere else, when I was going to the football, you’d always have this warming up phase. Or even if you were at home and you just needed to get some fresh air or some thinking time, you stepped out of the door and you were there.
As a result, when Martin was there, he had a very clear idea he was doing the Last Resort, and it was about this place. Before he was doing the Last Resort, he was experimenting. He’d seen Stephen Shore, and the colour work from Sally Eauclaire’s New Colour/New Work Photography phase. He made early work that follows on from his early black and white work in New Brighton and it’s completely different, it’s very static. They’re just about colour and landscape, that architectural space of New Brighton.
When he came to do the Last Resort, he always had a project in mind. I’d didn’t have that. I didn’t know if my work would be coherent enough to coalesce into a project. So when Tracy said, can you have a look at the New Brighton work you made, I thought, yes, great. Then I thought, Jesus Christ, where is it? I’d be going through everything. It took the best part of a year going through all those negatives. But then you’d find at the end of those negative sheets, there’d be little bits of New Brighton. They’d be everywhere. You’d be coming home or you’d be going out to the ferry. The picture on the front of the Close Season was made while going over to Liverpool for an Open Eye board meeting.
A lot of the time you’d have to be in Liverpool for 4 o’clock in the afternoon and you’d be out at 1 o’clock where people are saying, well don’t go out then because there’s no shadows, but those rules don’t make any sense at all. If the negatives were kept in their integrity, which they’re not, then you’d get this sequence of pictures that go up onto the ferry, over to the Pier Head, and on into Liverpool, then it fizzles out when you’re sitting in the hot boardroom for the Open Eye meeting.
So there was nothing ever that coherent except for me holding it together in my mind, for when I came back to look at it. So saying yes was great because it made a purpose for it, but even now I’ve gone through a lot of stuff, but there’s still a lot of stuff I haven’t even thought about.
Now you have to pull it all into one place, and weave it into something. It took a long time to do it because there were pictures that were good as pictures, but having those in concert with other pictures that say ok, that was how he was feeling at that time, and I didn’t quite know if that would add up. But I think we’re getting there. I’ve stripped it back so there are 25 to 30 pictures and I’ve printed everything. It does feel like it holds together. It holds together in a way that the No Pain Whatsover holds together.
There’s something that makes it feel like a sequence or a short story. It’s interesting how one picture somebody standing looking over the water might fit with something completely different. There’s a picture where there’s a storm and the spring tide would come over and take over the roads and you’ve got that and there’s a car filled with kids and what look like grandparents. And the kids are just loving it and the grandparents are looking like “this is great, but oh shit.”
Then there are other pictures of people who have impairments or are in wheelchairs and you pair those together and it starts to make sense of the latitudes within that space where you have the edges of the coastline, the edges of the sea.
It’s a bit like Christmas where you’re photographing people and you think, “My God, you haven’t been out all year,” so you have this extra dynamic and making sense of these small vignettes. There are lots of people waiting, I photographed a lot during midweek because I was working freelance on and off and there would be a lot of travel involved. Then there’d be those days when you’d just be at home and you’d end up sitting on the grass, looking out over the sea and some of those pictures came from that because I was in exactly the same boat as the gang of men sitting on the rocks looking out over the Irish Sea. It’s making something out of almost nothing.
It matters to me (that I’m in the same boat). I wouldn’t have the conceit to say that I am completely immersed or integrated but there’s certain points when you would experience the same thing. I took my daughter to New Brighton when she was growing up and my favourite pictures of her are of her on those rocks where those lads are sitting on. So there is that sense that you’re doing something, or you’re feeling something or you’re spending that same time of the day with them. It feels like some part of a heritage. I was doing the same thing that my dad did with me and his dad did with him.
There’s a place called Stanley’s Cask which we’d always go to. Tom would come once in a while. It’s a free house, a small pub in a terraced street. And they’d have music. They’d have Cajun bands in there, all kinds of wonderful things but you’d be in there with people who you’d see out on the streets or who you’d photographed in other circumstances. So you’re talking to them in parallel, you’re talking to them through the work that you do but also through the place that you’re living in. And I think that’s interesting.
There was a group of musicians and dancers and I’d photograph them because they were interested and talented people. They’d ask you to do it, but they had no money for photography, but you’d do it anyway. And at the same time, they’d be the people you’d bump into when they were out with their boyfriends or girlfriends and you might make some other pictures then.
So the apprehension of photographing people you don’t know wasn’t there in some cases. In other cases, it’s a transient place and people come from Liverpool for the day and don’t come for another five years so it wasn’t always that straightforward.
And I wasn’t like Tom. Tom made a very slow and dignified and gentle way of meeting people and getting to know them. I’d do that sometimes but then sometimes I’d let myself down and I wouldn’t do that. You’d forget to send pictures or you wouldn’t print them for 3 or 4 weeks.
There’s something that tugs at you in a particular way here. Marketa Luscova said it’s easy to photograph children, but it’s really difficult to photograph them well because of that kind of proliferation of street photography.
When I’m photographing in Liverpool, there are all kind of suggestions, questions and layers that come into place. You need to feel it. Sometimes that’s not always useful. You show pictures to Martin and he goes, “no, no, yes, no, yes, yes, no, no…” I remember years ago sneaking one picture back in he’d said no to. I thought “no way he’ll be able to remember this” but of course the bugger did. He said “You’re still on this one?” and I said, “yeah” and he said “Well OK, you must know more than me.”
It made me think right, yeah, go with your instincts and maybe the most direct, immediate and visually urgent are not always the ‘best’ ones. It’s like when we used to do shows at the Open Eye and you’d say “OK, they’re going to come in here, and walk that way and walk that way,” but people don’t. People have their own inner equilibrium. They go wherever they want to go. You’re not able to control the response, but you can do things like putting pictures in frames for a show and thinking of how you’re going to keep people on a picture.
But when I’m making pictures, I feel like I’m testing myself against how it might be seen, but the other side are registers that are layered in the pictures. Sometimes they’re quite simple, to do with light. There’s one picture of two young women. They’re both mums and one of the mums is a little more advanced in her mummery than the other and her daughter’s about seven or eight and it’s made at night in a park in Liscard, just above New Brighton. It’s a bank holiday where there’s been a big fun day in the park. Everybody’s tired in the picture. I wanted even the light to be tired. I wanted the heaviness of the day to be tired. So I was printing it on a digital printer, and kept printing it. And eventually I got it. But it’s the kind of picture a lot of people will just walk past, but it’s there and I’ll keep on putting it back in the pile as long as I need to because it’s there.
Other places I go to I’m less sensitised to. I’ll make good work there but whether I’m really getting to the place I don’t know. In Liverpool or New Brighton it feels I’m really in a place long enough to understand some of the tensions, or the microtensions which tie back to that level of understanding. I understand what’s going on. I recognise what’s going on.
I consciously try and make pictures that are not Tom or Martin pictures, or when I’m selecting them are going to be misread as Tom or Martin pictures because there’s something different. I was out once with Tod Davies, her husband’s Alex Cox, at the Baltic Fleet pub in Liverpool and I had a dummy book and she was looking at the pictures and she said, “this is great. Even the men are children in the pictures.”
I don’t believe it for a minute, but there’s the idea that if you’re adult you’re not flawed, you’re fearless, and that’s ok. But I can see a couple of pictures of men on their own. And they need caring for and the world to hold them in a certain way. That’s what I see.”