“It’s not Liverpool,” says Ken Grant. “It’s got its own remoteness and its own energies. 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.”
“A lot of people would come up (to New Brighton) from Liverpool and they always had this idea of a release. 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 find somewhere with a little bit of peace and cooler air. That was New Brighton. It was always that kind of release.”
picture by Ken Grant
This release from the daily grind, this sense of space, and the otherworldly nature of New Brighton are reflected in the world-class photography that has been made there by three photographers who lived, worked and socialised together in the 1980s and 1990s; Ken Grant’s black and white images of the town show an intimate and poetic understanding of how New Brighton and the open reaches of the Irish Sea provide an escape from the intensity of urban living, Tom Wood’s long term photography of the town and its people is a philosophical insight into what we are, who we are and how we live, while Martin Parr’s internationally acclaimed pictures from New Brighton (first exhibited in 1986 with Tom Wood as the Last Resort) show the town in uncompromising detail during the height of Margaret Thatcher’s economic war on the north (and Merseyside in particular).
“I moved there in the spring of 1982 from Ireland because my wife Susie got a job in Liverpool as a speech therapist,” says Parr. “I came back from Ireland where I was quite destitute because I didn’t get any work there.”
Back in the UK, Parr earned his money teaching but photographed in New Brighton at weekends, walking a circuit of the promenade, the arcades, the amusement park and the lido, looking for photographs that captured the spirit of the place, the people and the times.
“Pretty early on I thought, we’re on to something here. It was pretty exciting. The combination of flash and colour worked. I just showed it as it was. Because apart from being rundown and part of the fabric of the north, which is pretty shabby, it was still the go-to place to take the kids out for the day.”
The book Parr made, also titled The Last Resort, is personal, political and very, very English. Its use of saturated colour photography helped redefine what documentary photography could be, its stark social realism challenging idealised nostalgic of what Britain and its people really look like.
In the Last Resort, New Brighton is is messy, crowded and scattered with kids and babies who cry, scream and eat ice-cream badly. It’s a book filled with people trying to have a good time by any means necessary. Parr’s pictures focus on babies (Susie was pregnant during the final stages of the project) nestled amidst the neglect, decay and off-kilter landscape of the town. There is end-of-day litter, with chip wrappers, junk food and drinks cans thrown into the mix. There are bulldozers, cars, scrappy walls, crumbling concrete and people get their spot in the sun wherever they can. It’s a modernist representation of an England in decline.
Here the Northern Noble Savage beloved by the traditional strand of documentary photography is entirely absent. There are no crowds of professional northerners stoically bearing the grimness of it all with flat caps and whippets, Lowry chimneys puffing in the background. Instead, Parr’s New Brighton is filled with people who are trying to have a good time by any means necessary. The Last Resort was a book about where you find your pleasure in the age of mass consumption and that is something that didn’t go down well with some critics.
“It was first shown at the Open Eye with Tom, curated by Neil Burgess,” says Parr. “And nobody blinked an eye because everyone (in Liverpool) knows what New Brighton was like. But as soon as it got down to the Serpentine Gallery (in London), I wouldn’t say all hell let loose, because that’s a brag that isn’t true, but there was some negative feedback.”
“I realised early on that criticism wasn’t as harmful as you might think. It’s better to be observed than ignored. People who go to the Serpentine don’t know what the north is like.”
Tom Wood: The Philosopher
picture by Tom Wood
It is hard to overestimate the impact The Last Resort had, and still has, on British photography, but it was made in parallel with the early work of Tom Wood, work that was equally ahead of its time. But where Martin Parr examined how people fitted into the familial and entertainment structures of the town, Tom Wood immersed himself in the town socially, culturally and photographically. Photographing the same thing over and over, repeatedly walking the streets and stalking the night clubs made Wood such a photographic landmark that locals nicknamed him ‘Photie Man’.
picture by Tom Wood
“I’m not as separate as Martin was, I’m not as close as Ken is. I’m in the middle,” he explains. “I moved to New Brighton in 1978. I had a job at the art school and there was the glamour of the football team and the Beatles and we had a flat looking over the river. It was pretty amazing.”
“Everything was cyclical for me. I didn’t drive, so I’d cross the river, get on the buses and then come back and I’d photograph in the Chelsea Reach (nightclub) and in the parks. I’d photograph in the streets in my local area.”
“It wasn’t like I came in and photographed and left. I lived there, my kids went to school there, my friends were there. And they’re in the book Photie Man. People were very generous with it. They liked it. Every hairdresser in Wallasey for sure had a copy. We had a show at the Bluecoat and 1,000 people came and there wasn’t a single bad comment from anybody apart from “we thought you were a pervert” and “remind me not to kiss again in public.””
Those comments refer to Wood’s pictures from The Chelsea Reach Nightclub, a monumentally intimate series where Wood is an almost invisible presence in photographs where young Merseysiders drink, pull, or are left behind in small dramas of splayed legs, reaching tongues and early-hours ennui.
This work, along with all of his New Brighton pictures, has roots in Wood’s art education, an education where the experimental films of Peter Kubelka or Stan Brakhage , the dada influenced fashion work of Erwin Blumenfeld, the collages of Joseph Cornell and the ideas of Wittgenstein or Richard Feynman reveal a creative process that goes far beyond the photographic.
Wood’s pictures show his uncanny ability to get inside a scene. His constant presence makes him invisible, a man with a camera capturing the visceral flow of life. And it’s a flow that is focussed on faces, on expressions that tilt this way and that, that fall into longing and escape. It’s an emotional landscape of the small dramas of everyday life where Wood’s philosophical approach to photographing the same thing, the same people, the same places over and over again makes his images become cinematic. It’s a stream-of-consciousness where all possible worlds and all possible realities are revealed. See Tom Wood’s pictures and you begin to realise that the very secret of life itself might be in these pictures.
Where Tom Wood references art and the avant-garde, Ken Grant uses literature and the spoken word as his inspiration. His speech is peppered with snippets from writers like Raymond Carver, Richard Yates and Flannery O’Connor, he references characters from the novels of James Kelmann, the lyrics of songwriter Michael Head, and talks about sharing his pictures with Jim Morris, the writer of Love on the Dole.
Perhaps it’s these influences that infuses Grant’s images with the quality of the short story. His approach is a gentle one, his photography of New Brighton slipping into the rhythms of the tides and the working day. Born in Liverpool, New Brighton is built into Grant’s DNA and this, together with a tenderness for the people he photographs gives his images a poetic, almost fictional quality.
“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, with really rough scenarios going on outside everyday… So I moved.”
“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 sense of place is evident in Grant’s images of New Brighton. The beach is there, the river’s there, the sea is there. And so is Liverpool, there in the Pier Head, the Liver Building or Bootle Docks. It’s always tugging, pulling you back into its embrace, but at the same time the Irish Sea beckons, bringing people in, taking them out with New Brighton there to welcome them. That is the sense of place evident in Grant’s pictures and it’s one that he feels.
“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.”
“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 matters to me (that I’m in the same boat)… 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 is also a vulnerability to the people Grant photographs. You can see it in the eyes of the people he photographs. It’s there in the love of a man for his child, in the two mothers exhausted at the end of the day, or in the stooped shoulders of two women standing on the edge of the sea. Sometimes, sometimes it’s there in the simple pleasures of the feel of the wind, the touch of the sand, the cool of the sea; pleasures that are almost childlike in their elemental simplicity.
“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.”