Photography: Sean Tadman

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A new public-facing exhibition, commissioned and curated by Tate Collective, will feature images of Merseyside and the North West displayed on billboards across Liverpool. Featuring landscape, portrait and documentary photography submitted by those aged 16-25, the collection of images looks to build on the work of Don McCullin and highlight the social intricacies of the region. Leah Binns takes a closer look at the works in question.

Since normal life as we know it has been uprooted and as lockdown rules and statistics continue to fluctuate, the coronavirus pandemic has changed how we interpret imagery; an emptied landscape, or a lone figure, has come to represent a stronger feeling of solitude than it did before.

Photography taken at this time takes on a certain quality, and there is a new framework for understanding the world that reflects this tenuous and difficult period of collective responsibility. Perhaps fitting for the way in which we are continually adjusting to shifts in life’s parameters, a current exhibition at Tate Liverpool captures moments of social unrest, ranging from the industrial North to international conflict, by British photographer Don McCullin.

The images draw on very timely ideas of political upheaval, as well as smaller moments that reflect the everyday life of the subjects. Purposefully confrontational and resistant, McCullin’s images push at the boundaries of the viewer’s ethics, presenting scenes of poverty and war with disturbing clarity.

Following a Tate Collective open call, billboards across Liverpool will be filled with photographs from young creatives inspired by McCullin’s work. Members from the Tate Collective scheme, which is free to join and open to all 16-25-year-olds, were invited to submit photographs in response to the exhibition. In addition to gallery discounts and £5 exhibition tickets, the Tate Collective scheme gives access to free events and creative opportunities, such as this ‘photographing the North West’ open call.

From all of the submissions, 30 images have been selected to appear on billboards throughout the city from 7th April and will be shown in the studio at Tate Liverpool once the gallery is able to reopen later in May. The open call was created by Tate Collective Producers, a group of 16-25-year-olds working with Tate to curate events and opportunities for young people.

The thread that connects the images is the spirit of the North West, through its communities, culture, or landscape. While the results were wide-reaching, many themes are recurrent, showing the persistence of certain feelings in our collective consciousness; from isolation and escapism, to community and protest. Some images explore new understandings of landscape during lockdown, while others touch on the North West’s playfulness, civic pride, artistic outlook, or political histories.

Tate Collective Producers, Laura Wiggett and Niamh Tam, who helped create the project, note how they prioritised providing a platform for young creatives who are currently being left stranded by the lack of opportunities in the art world. Breaking with the current tendency for works and events to move online, Laura highlighted how the producers wanted “something physical to have”.

As a public-facing billboard project, a different understanding of scale and space that is disconnected from exhibition conventions was necessary, which opened up new challenges for the producers themselves. Laura stressed the importance of making the exhibition “accessible for everyone”, both for its contributors and in its reception. More sporadic than a conventional exhibition, and framed by the city itself, the project has the opportunity to directly exist within the space it seeks to reflect.

NORTH WEST IN FOCUS Image 2
NORTH WEST IN FOCUS Image 2

(top: billboard design featuring Barry by Amelia Jones and Cranborne by Oisin Askin/ bottom: Isolation by Callum Cole)

“Looking at themes of protest through McCullin’s war imagery, looking at landscapes through his images of Liverpool, the images that we’ve chosen are a really good reflection of the exhibition itself,” says Niamh.

The influence of McCullin’s landscapes is particularly apparent in some images that are energetic natural scenes with dynamic compositions. Photographs such as Safe Travels, Neston and Thurstaston Beach respond to a shift in our relationship to the local area, whether that be a sense of absence as implied by our loss of a daily commute, or a renewed interest in nature through daily walks in lockdown. Safe Travels, Neston balances a sparse scenic view with a lively flock of birds. Thurstaston Beach, on the other hand, is far darker, with a more rocky, textured feel, almost ghostly in how it is laden with gloom.

“Despite what it suggests,” says George Jones, the photographer of the image, “the coast is often packed with locals enjoying the smell of the salty air, the joyous atmosphere, or the vastness of the sea at the mouth of the Mersey. Hopefully what Thurstaston Beach does signify is the intertwining and treasured relationship our local landscapes have with their people.”

Discussing the influence of McCullin, Jones adds: “What I found exceptional about his landscapes, having come after the intense, excruciating images of conflict, was the space and expansiveness they possessed. The skies specifically were so visceral, so epic, almost at times apocalyptic.”

For many, a daily walk in nature has come to symbolise a way of sustaining normalcy, or routine, through unusual times. The image of Thurstaston Beach definitely reflects this; there is a sense of catharsis in its vigour, in how it draws on expansive space as an antidote to the confinement of lockdown.

Other images represent urban rather than natural scenes, complete with new understandings of tranquility and emptiness. Photographs such as Isolation, which depicts a Manchester hotel with a single illuminated room, play with light and a strong composition to ignite a sense of loneliness, while being deeply atmospheric in its use of colour. The Past is a Foreign Country portrays another Manchester scene where a modern cityscape looms nefariously over an old industrial street. The image’s patchwork composition exposes gentrification as something palpable, layered and always in process, as well as demonstrating the precarity of history in the landscape.

“These images follow in McCullin’s footsteps by exposing the histories embedded in the landscape”

Expanding on human stories through a point of view that is often marginalised, Harry Arthur, Homeless in Liverpool is an image that depicts a man with the word ‘rich’ written across his fingers. Here, the hand replaces the face as the traditional subject of the portrait, and the viewer is confronted with a sense of identity from a sidelined perspective.

Unity Is Strength, which illustrates a mostly unpopulated Liverpudlian street decked out in flags during the 2019 Champion’s League final, aims to address the importance of togetherness during a time of separation. Underscored by a table decorated in red, this photograph is visually striking in its celebratory tone, and its evocative depiction of community spirit.

“I wanted to subtly capture the smaller moments of bliss and the honest expression of Liverpool’s communities, says its photographer Oliver O’Callaghan. “It’s important to daydream and reflect on these special moments.” For this photographer, escape through imagination is a crucial theme, and is here interpreted by reflecting on past celebrations and communal events. The tenacity of this image is clear, and its outlook is equal parts nostalgic and forward thinking. When layered with commemorative flags and banners, the city street starts to represent something new, speaking to the social unity of Liverpool’s people.

Cranborne, similarly, emphasises the importance of community and friendship in the city, showing three figures playing with a football in a Liverpool street. Its light, composition and feeling of being in the midst of a game, gives the image an idyllic sheen. Images like Barry, which shows a cheerful man on the Albert Dock with pigeons perching on his head and shoulder, also put an interesting twist on the traditions of photojournalism, exposing the unapologetically joyous side to Liverpool life.

Amelia Jones, who describes the photograph as telling the story of a “Liverpool-born man who still lives and works in the city, is proud to be a Scouser and is happy to tell the world”, says that they hoped to show a “happier side to documentary photography”, subverting viewer expectations. “It shows that Scousers have a joyful side, and that even the birds aren’t afraid to say hello,” adds Jones. There is a familiar warmth and strong sense of playfulness to this image of the photographer’s father, which demonstrates the strength of family and relationships in the local area.

NORTH WEST IN FOCUS Image 2
NORTH WEST IN FOCUS Image 2

(top: Harry Arthur, Homeless In Liverpool by Harry Saundry / bottom: Thurstaston Beach by George Jones)

The photographer of A Flicker of Hope, an image of a Black Lives Matter protest last summer, was also interested in the social histories of the landscape that rests behind the image. Some of 2020’s most powerful and dynamic imagery has come from protest and this, as a photographic diptych that is almost sculptural in the strength of its light, is no exception.

Sean Tadman explains that they took the photograph on the steps of St George’s Hall: “This imposing structure – a symbol of the fortunes made from the slave trade – fuelled the notions of injustice felt by the subject as she spoke about Liverpool’s history and the oppression faced by black people today.”

The image exposes how the cityscape itself can be complicit in sustaining dark political conventions: “I found it shocking when looking into the historical significance of Liverpool in relation to the slave trade and how little we in the UK are taught about it, particularly as our colonial history has so much influence upon the UK’s culture, architecture, art, and oftentimes, financial relevance on an international scale.”

According to Tate Collective Producer Niamh, this image particularly captures “what has been happening in the past year”: the changes, the protests, the Black Lives Matter campaign. The photograph’s monochromatic colour scheme is a deliberate attempt to flatten the time between the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s and that of the present day, demonstrating the contemporary relevance of these issues, and giving a sense of urgency to the image and its cause.

Many of these images follow in McCullin’s footsteps by exposing the histories embedded in the landscape, while demonstrating social change as being an integral part of our city’s political history. The final project is a celebration of the imagery that evolves organically from a time of constraint, as captured by local people. Speaking on behalf of Tate Producers, Laura’s assertion that the project “shows a feeling, in Liverpool, of openness” expresses the success of the project and its stories; while each image is unique and personal, they are fragments of a greater whole, contributing to a collaborative understanding of the North West through engaging with young local talent.

 

The works in the exhibition will be shown across Liverpool from 7th April. Tate Collective will also run several day takeovers across their social media channels, showcasing entries and the artists involved. Locations of the billboards and further information on the project can be found via the link below.

tate.org.uk/tate-collective/photographing-north-west

@TateCollective

Tate Collective is supported by Jean and Melanie Salata with additional support from Garfield Weston Foundation, The Rothschild Foundation, and Tate Patrons.  

(below: Unity Is Strength by Oliver O’Callaghan)

NORTH WEST IN FOCUS Image 2
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