The point of El Dorado is not only the dream of gold but the value of dream. Its treasure is an image of a hope that we’ll find something surpassingly precious in our lives. And the deepest humanity is finding that in other people.
– Ruth Padel
I’m grateful to a follower of this blog for alerting me to a new collection from the Liverpool photographer Pete Hagerty, called Days in Eldorado. I wrote the other day about Open Eye’s new gallery in Liverpool: in 1979, Pete Hagerty was the first creative director at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool’s foremost gallery devoted to photography. In 1989, he initiated a successful campaign to establish a charitable trust on behalf of the Liverpool photographer Chambre Hardman and to keep his unique collection of photographs in Liverpool. Today, Hardman’s House and Studio is one of three National Trust properties on Merseyside, visited by tens of thousands of people every year.
Introducing Days in Eldorado, newly available as a self-published book online, Pete Hagerty writes
Pieces from this work were originally shown at various galleries, sometimes in a more complete form than at others. The present piece is the complete body of work. Liverpool, my native city, provides the background to this narrative made circa 1987-89.
I have never felt drawn to follow the practices of contemporary photographers who record, and perhaps exploit, other people’s lives. Photographs are inherently a reflection of the photographer’s view and often bear no relation to ‘truth’. … In describing my attitude it would be expressionist rather than documentary, while remaining faithful to the practice of an art which finds the seen world stranger than fiction. In seeking to exploit the given I have, consequently, no interest in post production.
‘Back Canning Street’ (above) was taken in 1989, and I like it because, to me, it is suggestive of what meaning might lie in the collection’s title. Navigating Liverpool as a ‘lost city of gold’, you might encounter this alleyway, just off Catherine Street. The angle from which the photograph is taken, the teasing rear end of what looks like one of the iconic cars of the 1980s – the Vauxhall Cavalier as driven by Gene Hunt in Life on Mars – and the sense of something inviting just around the corner – it all adds up to something that seems highly evocative. Turn that corner at that time, stroll down the cobbled alley, and you would encounter gold. There was a little warehouse where fresh coffee beans were ground (the smell would greet you as soon as you turned the corner), there was an urban farm where animals and vegetables flourished, and at the end of the jigger was the Art College where John Lennon learned to draw, and the pub where he and his mates had hung out three decades earlier. Truly a lost city of gold.
I suppose this is what Pete Hagerty means when he says, ‘My concern has been to investigate the overlap between the photograph and the viewer’s response … without the viewer there is nothing’.
‘Blue Car, Bentley Road’ (above) might have many meanings, but for me it captures the feel of Liverpool on those days when the mist rolls in off the river, and of a street trod many times – to visit the flat of student friends, or, across the road (and hidden in the fog) a consultation with my GP at the local health centre. There’s a sense here, too (the lamp post, the blue car), that you get from the photographs of William Eggleston of the unintentional absurdities of the urban landscape.
And here, in the laconically titled ‘Public transport’, is the bus stop outside the flat I lived in for the first few years after university. Gold of a sort there, too, with art college lecturer Steve Hardstaff spinning out his designs for LP sleeves for everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Icicle Works on the ground floor. There’s something eerie about this image: with its complete absence of vehicles of any kind it feels like a dream.
And here’s another car parked mysteriously beside a lamp post – curiously entitled ‘Horsepower’. This was once a street lined on both sides by Victorian terraces whose denizens were students and all the other flotsam that washed up on the sandbanks of this inner city shore. Now it’s orderly and busy, especially on Fridays when the faithful assemble at the Mosque for Friday prayers.
Jim Morris has written of these photos:
If you are local, some of it, at first glance may seem obvious. ‘What’s so special about that?’ You may ask. ‘I could have taken that photograph. I could have done that.’ So some images seem artless but that is an art in itself, to make art from an apparently artless material.
This collection is tremendously varied, ranging from these empty, ‘artless’ street scenes (that have something of the mood of George Shaw paintings about them – two more below) to shots that catch people on the street in slightly surreal moments (see, for example, ‘Man in a Gold Suit’ at the top of this post). There are intimate shots of family and friends, a quizzical self-portrait, and interior shots of golden sunlight and shadows (for example, a lovely composition of a shaft of sunlight falling across a kitchen wall). There are expressionless shots of cars, many of them blue. There is an inexplicable shot of a man in a field whose head appears to have exploded. There are images of the natural world – a pond, a clump of dandelions forcing their way through a crevice in the pavement.
Several images feature changing views from the same window. In ‘Autumn Rain’ (below) a sudden shower of rain is beautifully lit by slating sunlight; in another, the same scene is revealed in winter sunshine and snow. ‘Easter Monday’ is an evocative image of Arthur Dooley’s crucified Christ, arms raised in blessing, caught as a small child passes by. ‘Sleeper’ is a surreal scene – a man indeed appears to be asleep, stretched out on bare concrete in an urban wasteland; a broken, bright yellow vehicle barrier offers stark contrast. ‘3am’ is Egglestone again: a brightly-lit petrol station photographed in the pre-dawn darkness.
It’s a great collection, and will be appreciated by those who have found their Eldorado here in Liverpool – as well as those who recognise great images from a photographer with an eye for the eccentric, the visually striking or simply beautiful in quotidian ordinariness.
- Pete Hagerty photography
- Days in Eldorado: introduction and slideshow
- Eldorado – in Liverpool by Jim Morris (Guardian website)
- Days in Eldorado: the book to purchase online
- The Continuity of Landscape Representation: The Photography of E.Chambré Hardman: PhD thesis by Pete Hagerty