New Brighton RevisitedNorthern Narratives and Open Eye Gallery @ The Sailing School
As part of the 2018 Independents Biennial, NEW BRIGHTON REVISITED brings together three internationally renowned photographers Tom Wood, Martin Parr and Ken Grant, each of whom lived and took photographs in New Brighton at some point between the 70s and 90s. During this time, New Brighton was at the tip of a vertiginous socio-economic decline. Once a sparkly seaside resort in the latter half of the 19th Century, New Brighton was a locus for fun and hedonism, a place where the people of Merseyside and the surrounding industrial towns would go to spend a hot weekend and forget the hardships of working life. Working during a series of knockbacks – demolitions, fires, floods and the inextricable “managed decline” prominent within 80s Conservatism – Wood, Parr and Grant each frame the town in their own distinctive way.
The Sailing School gallery has three main spaces and I walk into Ken Grant’s room first. Born in Toxteth and relocating over the water in 1992, Grant’s black and white images have a muted energy; a tenderness lent to the subjects in each. My favourite image shows an old couple on the beach (just around the corner), the woman wearing one of those see-through rain hoods and the man with a plastic bag hooked around his ears inflated by the wind. From the innocence of loved-up teenagers to a mum craning her neck up to keep a smoking cigarette out of her child’s face, Grant maintains a self-effacing yet tacit approach to his photography. His passivity throughout the whole room – in the image of the three men sat quietly on the beach with pints of milk and of a family sat in a car all gasping at something out of shot – Grant consistently offers a sympathetic view of social reality, perhaps his own class and familiarity permeating the series.
Tom Wood’s infamous Looking For Love series from the 80s deftly navigates the negative socio-economic stereotypes of the north so often portrayed during that period. Taken in the disco-pub Chelsea Reach in New Brighton, Looking For Love is a boozy anthology of emotion, dancing and sticky carpets. You can almost smell the smoke and beer in these photographs. Some of the young party-goers from the series are featured in the second room. Interspersed by pastel images of kids in New Brighton arcades and softer glimpses of friends fishing off boardwalks, Wood’s presence is felt but crucially not in a voyeuristic or imposing way. From six mothers lined up with buggies to a pair of smirking girls in fake fur coats, Wood’s avuncular interactions and his disarming ability behind the camera simply share the happiness and warmth of the town.
Going into the final space I am aware of the criticisms Martin Parr has received for his seminal work The Last Resort (1986). When exhibited in the Serpentine Gallery in 1986, some saw the images as attacking the working classes. I face a large-scale image of a crowded chip shop, towelled people helping themselves to hot dogs and cups of tea over a sticky counter. I like Parr’s chaotic and instinctive nature as a photographer, he captures people as-and-when, albeit in a less forgiving light. The photos have a high energy going around the room, from spewing litter bins to kids dripping ice cream all over their clothes. Another blown-up image shows a woman in a parlour, twisting her body to look directly into Parr’s lens whilst squashed kids wave money up at her. I read somewhere that Parr is an avid collector of things, from Saddam Hussein watches (Google it) to kitsch items with Soviet space dogs on them (my favourite), I can’t help but feel that he has also been a collector of the characters of New Brighton this whole time. Slicing out endless oddities; sunbathers in weird places, people using deck chairs as umbrellas, Parr curates the diaspora using photography and urges us to recognise ourselves within them.
New Brighton Revisited is a very vocal show in that for the people who walk around it every image is a talking point, an unearthed time capsule of the town that nearly disappeared; “Remember when…”, “Did you know her?”, “Do you remember The Golden Guinea?”. The exhibition feels way more than a ‘souvenir’ show; it is an accumulation of proof that the town – even during a tough political era – was enjoyed by people and the relevance of the images can only assist the positive attempts to regenerate the area.