All Roads Lead to Wigan Pier

Barry making a pie review video, Wigan (2017), image courtesy The Turnpike.

All Roads Lead to Wigan Pier is a photographic body of work by Wigan-born Tim Foster. Now based in London Foster is a commercially acclaimed photographer and filmmaker whose work with the likes of Florence and the Machine has allowed him to increasingly fulfil more artistically minded projects.

The Turnpike, with its uncompromising Brutalist exterior, is home to this celebratory set of images, marked by warmth and a distinctly ‘insider’ perspective. The title of the exhibition is a play on the 1937 George Orwell book The Road to Wigan Pier, marking the 80th anniversary since the book was published.

Orwell’s wider non-fiction output in the form of The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia (1938) and Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) has awakened many a teenage conscious and socialist sensibility and it’s interesting to understand Foster’s photographs within the context of this and in the time which we are living now. The present Conservative government state there is very low unemployment espousing figures of 4.5% while other sources put the figure at a staggering 21.5%. The second figure accounts for unprecedented levels of precariousness in employment including zero hour contracts. Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier explores this lie of unemployment too, ‘…in addition there are great numbers of people who are in work but who, from a financial point of view, might equally well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything that can be described as a living wage.’

Foster’s vision even though it comprises the present reality of food banks, volunteering and low wages is much more uplifting, even inspiring. He celebrates a rich culture of sport, cheerleading, drinking and family in images which crucially are not sneering or reductive in any way (other documentary practitioners such as Martin Parr have had criticism levelled at their middle class gaze towards poverty porn), but rather the protagonists in the pictures come alive and don’t feel like mere stereotypes.

In one image titled ‘Colourful Cath’ (2017), a blind woman with sunglasses, guide dog and a walking stick grins while displaying her rainbow coloured hair, half of it gelled in the air, as a sort of punk throwback. In another ‘Th’Owd Chap Reciting Poetry Outside Poundworld’ (2017) does just that while a portly security man in a hi-vis vest looks on seemingly unimpressed.

More moments of quiet merriment are replicated throughout the exhibition with cheerleaders devouring chips as they wait in a corridor and under-19 rugby players enthusiastically learning ballet in order to ward off injuries. In ‘Boxing Day Night’ (2016) Foster perhaps reaches his apotheosis in the exhibition in that the picture embodies the otherworldly and the banal in equal measures reflecting the duality in this group of works beautifully. In a work which evokes Rubens’ 16th Century battle scenes, the subjects in the picture take on mythical proportions. A woman lays crumpled on the floor while a man with outstretched arms beckons people outside of the picture (possibly paramedics) while the blue light of an ambulance accentuates his arms and face, highlighting his role as makeshift ‘saviour’. A lad, superficially unperturbed, eats chips while two girls clad in their best boots and playsuits show off their legs in the manner of Rubenesque beauties of yore. Foster encapsulates these stranger moments effectively and punctuates them with moving portraits throughout the space which allow for these anomalies to hold sway temporarily over the viewer.

In a close-up portrait of ‘Mary’ (2016) her blue eyes look out meeting one’s gaze unflinchingly and quite movingly. The viewer knows nothing about Mary and yet after gazing into her eyes feels as though she knows everything. This weaving of works between the quiet domesticity of an old woman sweeping leaves on a street to a woman dressed as Superwoman in Wetherspoons looking nonchalantly on is an example of what gives All Roads Lead to Wigan Pier its power. The remarkable and unremarkable are paired together with the quieter moments able to shine just as brightly as their garish counterparts.

All Roads Lead to Wigan Pier, The Turnpike, Leigh.

23 September – 11 November 2017.

Eli Regan is a NCTJ qualified journalist, Photography graduate and freelance writer based in Warrington.

Published 18.10.2017 by James Schofield in Reviews

697 words