Picture Post: photographing Liverpool

For two years now, Colin Wilkinson has been producing a tremendous blog about Liverpool and photography, The Streets of Liverpool, drawing on an archive of Liverpool photographs that he had built up over 30 years or more since founding the Open Eye Gallery. A good number of these photos have been used as illustrations in the many and varied books published by his company, The Bluecoat Press, including a selection from the blog, also entitled The Streets of Liverpool which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of Liverpool or in photography.

One of the things I learned from that book was that there is a mysterious void in Liverpool’s photographic record: the  earliest photograph of Liverpool that Colin has located in 30 years of research is this one, of St Georges Hall in 1850.  Yet one of the first licences for the new daguerrotypes had been granted for Liverpool in 1841, while in 1853 the Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association was established – one of the earliest anywhere, and with Francis Frith as one of its founder members.  But the recently discovered 1850 photo remains, at present, the earliest known photo of Liverpool, with very few taken in the subsequent two decades either.

Now Colin Wilkinson has authored a new book which also brings into public view ‘lost’ photographs of Liverpool – this time from its more recent past.  In Picture Post on Liverpool, Colin has located every issue of Picture Post that included a feature on Liverpool – but, even more significantly, he has discovered a whole host of unseen and unpublished photographs of the city in the magazine’s archives.

It’s a superb book, lavishly illustrated with evocative black and white photographs of Liverpool in the 1940s and 1950s, taken by master photographers such as Bert Hardy, Thurston Hopkins and John Chillgworth, assigned by the magazine to produce photographic spreads for feature articles.  Colin explains how the book came about:

For many years, I have been fascinated by Picture Post magazine. It started in 1938 before the outbreak of War and its innovative photo-journalistic approach rapidly pushed its circulation to over one million. Many of the best photographers and journalists were recruited and it set a standard in journalism and design that is still remembered over 50 years since its demise.  I decided to research the magazine’s coverage of Liverpool and managed to collect all the copies dealing with Liverpool. Remarkably, apart from one feature about the dockers in 1941, nothing else appeared until 1949. Then, over the next seven years, a further eight features appeared, regrettably mainly negative in their concentration on urban poverty.

In that final sentence Colin Wilkinson states his key argument here: that as far back as the 1940s, Liverpool was the place that journalists gravitated towards if they wanted to highlight aspects of urban deprivation, despite the fact that such problems were often general and could be found in many other places.  Too often, Wilkinson concludes, Picture Post coverage was ‘responsible for the demonising of a city struggling with deep problems of urban decay.  It chose to ignore the many positive qualities of a great seaport and contributed towards a media obsession with Liverpool – the problem city’.

The pattern is set in the first article about Liverpool to appear in Picture Post – ‘The Truth about the Dockers’, published in July 1941.  Even though it was only two months since the city had been devastated by the May Blitz, the story was whether the dockers ‘were pulling their weight in the fight against Nazism’:  ‘Heroes or Loafers?’, as the caption to the lead photo put it.  However, the story was written by JB Priestley, who is at pains to explain the many reasons why throughput on the docks should have declined (a pattern, it is revealed deep in the text, occurring at docks throughout the country).

The disparity in media coverage of the city is revealed especially in ‘The Truth about Teenagers’, a three-part series about teenagers published in 1957.  As always, Bert Hardy finds atmospheric images that might be left to speak for themselves.  But the story text, written by Trevor Philpott, and the picture captions are another matter entirely.  Take, for example, the image, in the spread below, of a boy lying on his bed in a sparsely furnished room.  The caption reads: @A teenager going nowhere: one of Liverpool’s youths sits out another day’.

Or this one, which if you have the book and are able to study body language and facial expressions closely, suggests no more than the exchange of friendly banter between the male and female couples.  The caption reads: ‘Boy meets girl in a Liverpool street.  Yes, the social graces have changed a little.  No time now for many of the formalities of courtship’.

The series began by visiting Great Barr comprehensive school in Birmingham, which is praised by Trevor Philpott as a bold and successful experiment, affording social advancement.  But in Liverpool, he finds ‘things are rather different’.  The first character he meets is Harry – 16, on probation and unemployed.  He goes on in this vein, referring to gangs, stolen cars and roaming the streets.  Then, in the third part, Philpott leaves Liverpool:

To get an environment as different as possible from the Liverpool back streets we went to Cambridge.  Here, amid the slow beauty and rich tradition the young student is given the breathing space to discover himself…

Interestingly, in the light of the recent revelations that the Thatcher cabinet toyed with the idea of leaving Liverpool to die and evacuating the city, Philpott observes that emigration is a popular idea in Cambridge, but that

It’s a disturbing thought Cambridge is so much concerned with emigration, whilst the rougher parts of Liverpool are not thinking about it at all.

The Cambridge issue is wonderfully illustrated with this fatuous picture of respectable teenagers getting it on ‘under the willows of Trinity College’.

Colin Wilkinson leaves the best to the last: a set of stunning photographs commissioned by Picture Post, but never published.  There are photographs by Bert Hardy from essays on Lime Street station, the Mersey ferries and Chinese merchant seamen.  But, as Wilkinson puts it, ‘the best photographic essay on Liverpool was never published by Picture Post’.  Entitled ‘The Slums of Liverpool’, it seems to have been shelved by Edward Hulton, the magazine proprietor, under pressure from Liverpool City Council.  The photos remain, but unfortunately so far Wilkinson has been unable to locate any trace of the text for the feature, written by Fyfe Robertson. The 22 photos were taken by Thurston Hopkins.  Colin Wilkinson praises them as:

Pictures of everyday life; of men, women and children fighting for existence, struggling to maintain the comforts of home life and striving to retain some of the dignity of humankind under conditions which are appalling …

There are street scenes (such as the image that forms the book cover, top), images of  appalling housing conditions (such as the child sleeping with a newspaper to keep the rain off the bedclothes, below via The Guardian), in pubs and at Paddy’s Market.

These photos reminded me of the scenes I encountered a decade later when, as a reporter for Guild Gazette, the Liverpool University student newspaper, I wrote an expose of conditions in slum housing owned by the University – properties acquired in advance of plans to extend the university campus.  The photos that illustrated that article were taken by Rog Millman, and they were very similar in feel and content those of Thurston Hopkins. A selection of  Millman’s photos, taken in Liverpool 8 in 1969, can be seen here.

But the images captured by Bert Hardy, Thurston Hopkins and others form a truly invaluable record of Liverpool and its people in the 1940s and 1950s.  Colin Wilkinson has done a great service by bringing these photographs back into public view, including priceless images seen for the very first time.