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New Brighton – mecca for photographers

19 August 2013 by Sam

photo of people on a beach, wearing warm clothing

‘New Brighton 1976′ © Martin Parr Magnum Photos

During a social evening on the opening weekend of Derby’s Format International Photography Festival a couple of years ago I mentioned in passing that I live in New Brighton. The reaction of one of my companions, one of the charismatic team behind Cardiff’s Third Floor Gallery, was fantastic – a shocked “You mean New Brighton is a real place?!”

In many ways New Brighton is no different from many other seaside towns. In its heyday it was a bustling resort with people outnumbering pebbles on the beach and in the outdoor pool. Those days are long gone though, leaving behind a funfair and an army of ice cream vans that have somehow clung on stubbornly through the quiet times. So far, so unremarkable. However New Brighton gained a degree of notoriety in the 1980s with the publication of Martin Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’. Controversial, in your face and unflinchingly honest, the book is now considered a classic. A mark of its influence is the number of photographers drawn to the top right corner of the Wirral to pay tribute, such as Peter Dench, who made the pilgrimage in 2011 on the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication. His account The Last Resort Revisited perfectly describes the sense of nostalgia for the recent past that keeps photographers coming back. 

photo of young men standing on a bus, ready to get off

‘31 New Brighton – Liverpool’, photographed in 1982 © Tom Wood

The book grew out of what was originally a joint project between Parr and the local ‘photie man’ Tom Wood, whose sold out talk and book signing was one of the highlights of the Look/13 photography festival. Last year I made my own pilgrimage to see the first major exhibition of Wood’s work in the Photographer’s Gallery. It was an odd experience to see his pictures of the area I know so well on display in London, but great to see them getting the recognition they deserve. Tom Wood and Martin Parr are reunited in the exhibition Every Man and Woman is a Star, which is at the Walker Art Gallery until 9 December 2013. It includes New Brighton photographs by both men, including the two shown here. The years may not have been kind to New Brighton, but photographers have always stood by it and continue to find interesting subject matter for their lenses on its streets and beaches. Even the shiny new development promising to smarten the waterfront up hasn’t scared them off.

recent photo of people on a beach in winter clothing making sand castles

© The Caravan Gallery

Naturally there was an influx of photographers during Liverpool’s Look/13 International Photography Festival, with Niall McDiarmid adding a New Brighton portrait to his Crossing Paths project. Local photographer Pete Carr’s picture of children on the prom (apparently there are four there!) was selected for the Made in Liverpool show at the opening of the Look/13 festival. Their pictures of the resort and others by The Caravan Gallery, some of which you can see in their Merseystyle exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool, bring the New Brighton story right up to date. Photos of my home town may not always depict it as glamorous, but it will never be dull, especially if you go armed with a camera. To paraphrase Kirsty MacColl (or Billy Bragg, if you want to be picky), I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a New Brighton…

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