A week or so ago I wrote about L8 Unseen, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. Now I’ve been to see another exhibition of photographs from Liverpool 8, this one at the Bluecoat. Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presents images virtually unseen for 40 years which provide a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when it was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities.
The photos were taken by Tricia Porter who arrived in the city in 1972 where she met her future husband David, then a student at Liverpool University. He lived in Catherine Street and later Percy Street, which back then were both streets in which the elegant Georgian terraces – typical of the area – were faded and often neglected by private landlords. David was keen to document the changing community, and Tricia decided to join him to photograph the people they met. The couple were welcomed into the area, and gained the trust of the residents who allowed them access to their lives, businesses and homes.
After leaving Liverpool University in 1971, we too were making a life together in flats in the same area – first in Princes Avenue, and then in Canning Street. So I was particularly interested to see these images that triggered memories of an area that has changed in so many ways in the decades that have followed.
The Bluecoat exhibition comprises images from two series of photographs shot by Tricia Porter over a two year period. The first, Bedford Street, Liverpool 8 (1972) focused on residents at home, at work, in pubs, or out and about in the area. They include street scenes and images of individuals and families in their homes; some are portraits of well-known characters, such as the social campaigner and local councillor Margaret Simey, and Liverpool sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith in his studio at the Bluecoat.
Some of the most evocative images for me were of Bedford Street itself, before the shops (including Bedford Street Stores, an old-fashioned general grocery where we often shopped) and the terraced houses were demolished and replaced by university buildings as the campus began the inexorable expansion that continues to this day.
All around the area, houses were being pulled down and people relocated Part of Falkner Street was bought by the University to be developed as student accommodation, along with the north side of Bedford Street. In the summer of 1972, David and Tricia met people in their homes, in shops, pubs, schools, churches and hospital, talking with them and photographing them. In January 1973, the resulting photographs were shown at Liverpool
Alongside examples of the photos taken by Tricia that summer, the Bluecoat exhibition also features spreads from Amateur Photographer that covered the 1973 exhibition, and a subsequent one in 1975, as well as displays of other press coverage including articles from the local press and a feature in the Merseyside Arts Association magazine, Arts Alive.
There are displays of exhibition posters, invitation card and a brochure containing Tricia’s text about her work. One poster is for an exhibition later in 1978 at the Half Moon Gallery, London. David and Tricia intended to make their texts and photographs into a book; it never happened, but a mock-up for it is on display.
Two years after the Bedford Street portfolio, Tricia produced another collection, called Some Liverpool Kids (1974), in which images of young people predominate, playing on Windsor Street or in the Anglican Cathedral grounds, posing for group portraits, at street parties and youth clubs, in school, shops and at home.
Taken together, these two series offer an affectionate portrait of this multicultural area and its people. It was, says the artist, ‘an attempt to make a photo documentary which would be a positive and meaningful
statement about my neighbours who had all too often been treated as statistical fodder and sociological phenomena.’
The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent illustrated brochure which includes an essay by Tricia Porter, and a foreword by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat. In it he writes of how he first came across Tricia Porter’s photographs in 2014 on her website. For Bryan, as for me, her photographs struck a chord: at the time the photos were being taken, Bryan was an art student, newly arrived in Liverpool. He recalls:
The faded splendour of large, Georgian terraces, the late-night clubs stretching along Princes Avenue and ‘Upper Parly’, the hordes of young people improvising adventure playgrounds out of bomb-sites, and the Anglican Cathedral looming large over everything.
There was a vitality on the streets that is now absent in the gentrified calm of the ‘Georgian Quarter’ or the eerie stillness of the boarded up or bulldozed streets around Granby. Tricia’s photographs capture something of that time, presenting a compelling picture of everyday life in what was a truly multicultural part of the city.
This exhibition, like L8 Unseen, is part of Look 15, Liverpool’s biennial international photography festival. Bryan Biggs observes that exhibiting Tricia Porter’s photographs is important because photography ‘has changed so fundamentally – technically and democratically (it seems everyone is a photographer now) – since they were taken.’
Tricia’s photographs present not necessarily a more innocent time, but one less complex in comparison to the ubiquity today of of photographic images, their endless digital reproduction and dissemination, issues around the legalities of who ‘owns’ the right to take and distribute images of people, and the ethics of taking portraits without permission.
One could add: the possibility to take candid photos of children in the street without legal restriction or fear of being suspected of having nefarious intent.
In the exhibition brochure, Tricia Porter writes about her intentions in taking these photos:
I particularly wanted to use my photographs to portray our individuality, our unique personalities – a special and important aspect that the media and government bodies too readily ignore. People in this district of Liverpool, for instance, were often characterised as vandals or thieves. I applied successfully to the Arts Council for funding to try to discover through photography a more truthful portrayal of the people in the community – not to conceal the serious problems of mugging or vandalism, but to focus more on aspects of everyday living and personal relationships.
This is a fascinating exhibition which not only brings back into focus what now seems a long-lost period in Liverpool’s past, but also reveals images that challenged the stereotypes of those who lived in Liverpool 8 at the time – stereotypes that over the next two decades were to intensify and become even more hostile.
- Porterfolio: Tricia Porter’s website features two superb presentations of the photographs that make up the Bluecoat exhibition: Bedford Street, Liverpool 1972 and Some Liverpool Kids 1974
- Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74: review on Open Culture/Merseyside Arts & Culture
- It was the best of times and it was the worst of times: Liverpool Echo feature
- Everyday life in 1970s Toxteth, Liverpool (Telegraph gallery)
- Face the changes: Photographs of 1970s Liverpool (BBC Arts)