Liverpool is all about photography right now. There are so many great exhibitions to see at the moment in the city; Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, for example, at The Walker (running until June) and Tate Liverpool’s super ground floor display of György Kepes’ photograms, the first in the UK. Also open this month is the city’s annual photography festival LOOK/15 which runs an extensive programme of exhibitions and events all over Liverpool from 15 May to 31 May. Click here for the full programme.
Also on show right now is ‘Our Day Out’, an exhibition of the work of Keith Medley who worked as a professional photographer in the 1960’s. It features as part of the LOOK programme but has been open since November 2014 at the Museum of Liverpool and runs until September of this year. The show “seeks to capture the essence of a family day out” and features an array of shots taken by Medley in New Brighton, a favourite destination at the time for holidays and days out. The premise of the show may sound a little flimsy but this not just about Medley’s photographic output. The way in which the Museum of Liverpool approach their exhibitions is like a social history project, they want to tell a story, it’s not just about displaying work. This was made especially clear in the April Ashley exhibition (former Vogue Model and one of the first people in the world to undergo gender reassigment surgery) which closed in March this year. The way the museum collected stories both from her life and the experience of the LGBT community in Liverpool was impressive and engaging. I visited twice and both times the museum was filled with families, many of which I saw later in the Ashley exhibition and overheard having conversations about some of the LGBT issues on display. Children and adults having honest, curious, and non-judgmental conversations about issues around a transgender woman. That’s got to be a good thing. Anyway, for ‘Our Day Out’, the museum made (and is making) a call out for personal recollections of the resort in its heyday from the public and these feature alongside the prints, many of which have been taken from the Keith Medley Photographic Archive, at Liverpool John Moores University for the first time. Seeking, it says, to “build a rich archive of stories and memories from the mid 1960s and beyond”. The images from the show reproduced here come with the captions and quotes they are accompanied with from the exhibition.
All places can be interesting in their own way, but personally I find New Brighton compelling. Once one of the premier North West seaside resorts, New Brighton once boasted a tower bigger than Blackpool Tower, a ballroom which hosted the Beatles and a rather nice pier. Growing up on the Wirral, I remember it as a run-down end of the line kind of place, full of horrific night-clubs where you would go if you wanted a fight after your 10 jelly vodka shots. It was also the spot we were taken to for some ‘fresh air’ and an ice-cream. Parents and grannies would look around the dated clothing boutiques (crochet, pastel blue cardigans, ‘ladies attire’) and we kids would get excited by the gaudy colours of the bucket and spades, beach balls, inflatable octopuses and bubble machines. Later in my teens it was the destination of choice when you wanted to dress up like Courtney Love and drink vodka on the beach. Later on it was the place your boyfriend would take you for fish and chips and hand-holding/joint smoking in the wind and rain. I spent every December birthday from 17 to 21 drinking a bottle of prosecco on the beach behind the fort until the tide came in. Martin Parr’s shots of the cafes and shelters of the sea front was a major influence in my work as I headed towards art school.
I take this trip down memory lane because then I forgot about New Brighton, for many years, and on a recent trip back to the North West my aunt drove me there. This was not for fresh air or an ice-cream but because they had “done-it-up” and she needed to do an Asda shop. Now there is an enormous leisure centre, a Starbucks, several restaurants and a cinema. It seems a bit more civilised, or rather generic, and a lot less wild-westy than it ever did when I was growing up. It’s super that the town has not died a British seaside resort death like many others but I also feel just a little nostalgic for the days when vinegary chips were the staple and not La Tasca tapas.
Medley captures a different world and a different time. In many ways New Brighton is just the same, a place for escape and for the young. In his images children paddle in the sea and hang out in gangs at the funfair or at the Olympic-sized open-air swimming pool, Miss New Brighton was a big deal and one of the major events on the beauty pageant calendars. Medleys shots capture a golden time of New Brighton but documents just one golden time in the trajectory of the resort’s history. And maybe that’s what this project is about - memory rather than nostalgia.