‘Seedy, energetic, attractive, visual…’ Martin Parr searches for words to describe the allure of the northern seaside resort at the opening of New Brighton Revisited. The exhibition brings together three bodies of work about this little corner of coast, looking across the river to Liverpool’s industrial North Docks and out to the Irish Sea. All of the trappings of the English seaside are here, in these photographs and outside these windows, peopled by harassed parents, children sticky with streaming ice creams, old folk tucking into pensioners’ specials – and everything with a distinctly Merseyside edge.
Martin Parr, Tom Wood and Ken Grant all produced some of their formative work in New Brighton, and tellingly, in the intimacy and immediacy of some of these pictures, each of the photographers also lived there (here, I should say; it’s a place I’ve made home, too). Parr’s The Last Resort (1983-85) was a catalyst for his extraordinary success as a photographer, and of all the pictures taken of New Brighton, it is this set that is least loved amongst locals. The saturated colour prints echo the John Hinde holiday postcards collected by Parr, but they depict poverty, dereliction, and so much litter; chip trays spewing out of the mesh bins and bobbing across the Marine Lake to rest amongst paddling legs. Parr considers it an anti-Thatcher critique, showing the physical decay that working class people had to live amidst, but it’s easy to see how this can be mistaken for mockery. This show concentrates more on Parr’s humorous eye, and these compositions are still smart, sharp and genuinely funny. The stare of the ice cream server, with a sweaty teenage admirer holding a pair of cones; the determined sunbather prostrate beneath the caterpillar track of a digger; the bonneted toddler running wild in a grimy amusement arcade behind a row of women who are entirely absorbed by the fruit machines. Moments of high humour crafted from the town’s everyday reality.
There is also a selection of earlier works by Parr; quieter, monochrome photographs from the late ’70s. These are more distanced from their subjects, and show some of the town’s features that are pleasingly visible from the gallery windows: the expanses of golden sands that still draw daytrippers, the stone banks of the Marine Lake, the art deco Palace arcade – albeit now missing its sculpted plaster ‘nose’. Some unsteady ghosts of a once thriving resort are now lost, though – the last days of the pier with its enticement of Bingo, by Jingo are captured by Parr, along with the grand Lido, now filled in and developed into the retail and leisure complex this exhibition inhabits a corner of.
Ken Grant’s photographs bring us forward to the 1990s, a decade distant enough now for its haircuts, fashions and packaging to seem as quaintly alien as those of the ’70s and ’80s. A pupil of Parr and a contemporary of Tom Wood, Grant documented New Brighton in both its quiet and busy moments, all in black and white – as much an economic choice as anything, he tells us. We look out with him, past meditative backs of heads, seeing what they see; damp expanses of sand, dogs and paddlers dotting the water’s edge, and sea meeting sky, or the Mersey, Liverpool. The seaside is a place for dreamers and drifters, as well as fun seekers. Young men feature strongly in his portraits. One pair, worse for wear, smoke in one of the Victorian cast iron shelters that kids with ice-creamed faces posed for Parr in front of years before. They still stand outside on the promenade – one, two, three, steadfast against the wind. Most of the lads in Grant’s pictures look confident, cocky even, strutting shirtless amongst the fairground rides, or copping off on the bonnet of a Mini in front of the now-demolished Golden Guinea, caught in fleeting moments of youthful exuberance.
Tom Wood lived in New Brighton for a quarter of a century, from the late 1970s to the early noughties, embedding himself in his adopted hometown to such an extent that he became known as ‘Photieman’. He was well-known for taking pictures of the resort’s residents, gifting his subjects with thank-you prints. Only a few pictures are present from his most famous New Brighton series, Looking for Love, published as a book in 1989, and taken in the old Chelsea Reach nightclub. Like Grant, Wood shows us young adults at play, preening and peacocking for each other’s benefit. The flash betrays everything a nightclub’s dark, sticky corners usually hide: a couple necking whilst one of their mates sits awkwardly next to them, and all manner of stolen eyefuls and drunken romantic negotiations. Wood is at pains to distance himself from documentary photography, but these pictures can’t help but be a document, of lost locations, cultures, fashions, people. One of the women on the cover of Looking for Love died young, we learn, and hearing him speak, Wood is clearly conscious of his responsibility to his subjects. Here are intimate, funny, tender portraits of New Brighton’s residents and visitors. Wood has a keen eye for a good face, from the kid squinting hard beneath a heavy brow, to the two girls smiling in joyfully discordant fur coats.
Gathered for the opening, here in the place that binds their work, the three photographers talk fondly of the town they worked as younger men. The talk drifts towards the nostalgic, as Parr and Wood bemoan New Brighton’s modern developments. Were the days of dereliction and litter so golden? Are they really so distant? Grant, the quieter voice, urges his contemporaries and us viewers to ‘think more about what this place really is’. What threads these men’s works through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and what makes it so relevant to this place here, today in 2018, is the people; a celebration of the working classes and extraordinary everyday lives.
Denise Courcoux is a writer based in New Brighton.
New Brighton Revisited is at The Sailing School Gallery, New Brighton, 14 July – 25 August 2018.