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Manchester lifestyle reviews

Old Family Photo

Like you've never been away

Photographs by Paul Trevor
at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Reviewed by Jane Turner August 2011


My earliest memory of being photographed resulted in this picture on the right. Having one’s photo taken when I was a child was a big event, usually involving a borrowed camera or a professional photographer, getting dressed up in your best or at least half-decent clothing and forming some sort of organised pose while smiling rigidly at the camera to the sound of Cheeeeessssse!


In this photo, my four sisters and I (that’s me on the left) had been seated in a row on the polished teak seventies-sideboard for what seemed like hours, whilst my youngest sister Moira bawled her eyes out uncertain of the camera until the wily cameraman pulled out his secret weapon – a loud and squeaky toy - which resulted in the biggest and longest smile of the day from her, but by then I’d lost the will to live and could just about manage a vaguely pleasant facial contortion.


Today, cameras are everywhere, cheap as chips and on almost every mobile device. Rioters and looters take photos of each other smashing through shop windows, rebels in Libya and protestors in Syria in the midst of conflict take time out to photograph the gunfire, bombings and bloodied bodies. Young people take photos of themselves and their friends all of the time, in the middle of the street for no apparent reason with no occasion necessary, just pulling faces, dressed up, hanging out and looking like they are having a good time, whilst some even photograph their own attempts at suicide. On Facebook people post photos of what they are about to eat for dinner, what they are wearing on their feet, their street signs and garden plants and share thousands of photos of various holidays that were once the reserve of the holiday bore. Cameras are part of the uniform, at the bottom of everyone’s extremely large handbag, in a pocket, on a belt, ready to be whipped out at the earliest photo-opportunity – if the population had exploded at the same rate as photographs Malthus might be taken more seriously even by his most ardent opposers.


Improvised FunPhotographs can provide us with a record of the most important and most commonplace events, the everyday trials and tribulations of an ordinary life, and although some may not seem that interesting at the time, they can often become a point of reference about a particular time and place in history and/or become a work of art in the process. The photos by Paul Trevor taken on the streets of Liverpool in 1975, at first glance look pretty ordinary, everyday street scenes, the sort that possibly you or I could take on any type of camera and leave on a memory card, or in his case in the back of a drawer for 35 years. But these photos are a revelation as well as artistic, they say so much about the time, the place and the people in them, and are a great source of information as well as pleasure.


I enjoyed this exhibition immensely. I’ve always liked old black and white photographs, particularly those that look like they have been taken on the spur-of-the-moment in ordinary neighbourhoods and of life on the streets - increasingly difficult to do nowadays in our paranoid times. Without colour, somehow the photographs seem more absorbing, and you find yourself focusing properly on the content. I tend to spend longer looking, really looking, at every part of the photograph when captured in black and white, and these photos are a rich source of detail that says so much about Liverpool in the seventies.

This exhibition takes place at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, which is a graceful old building sitting right at the heart of Liverpool city centre in the shadow of the enormous St. Georges Hall and is stuffed full of Art and Culture, which you need no more than a day to do justice to, as it is a rather small and old-fashioned gallery. Known as the national gallery of the North, it houses Liverpool’s most outstanding Art collection and has done so for over 130 years, long before The Liverpool Tate pushed its way in. Andrew Barclay-Walker, a brewer and alderman, presented the gallery to the city to commemorate his term as mayor, contributing generously to get the gallery open and spending money and collecting donations for many acclaimed and important works of Art. It regularly hosts special exhibitions and the display from Paul Trevor is a temporary showing which has already attracted thousands of visitors keen to take a trip down a well worn memory lane.

Paul Trevor captures childhood and family life in vibrant images set against the backdrop of high unemployment and inner city deprivation in the Everton and Granby (a part of Toxteth that was razed to the ground in the 1980’s riots and is still dotted with burnt-out buildings) areas of the city. At the time, the city was still full of post-war dereliction, rows of bombed out houses and ruined landscapes. Grubby faced children feature prominently and are captured happy and smiling playing in burnt-out buildings, collecting rubbish for a bonfire, setting fire to it, hanging around on doorsteps and corridors, swinging on lamp-posts, dangling from makeshift swings of rope, leaning on walls, balancing precariously but free-and-easily over the sides of the balconies of high rise flats and running up and down the corridors of tenement blocks long since bulldozed, whilst wearing borrowed and oversized platform shoes - it all being part of simple but poverty-stricken fun.


Snogging in the denThey turn the run-down streets, corridors and littered wasteland into playgrounds, playing street games typical of the era and finding pleasure in grovelling in grime. I was moved to tears of sadness and also rage at the terrible poverty being presented to me and found it hard to believe that these pictures were taken just 35 years ago. I laughed out loud at a photo of the fervent snogging of a group of young children who turned an unused garage into a makeshift private den in which to pet and party. Many of the 57 photographs have never been seen before. My particular favourite (with the snogging picture coming a close second) is of a young boy hanging over the edge of a tatty-looking balcony of a high rise block of flats, with the city in the hazy atmospheric distance. He is careless and shoe-less and you can see more of his bony heel and toes than of any actual socks as they are so worn out that they are actually “more spud than sock” as the saying goes!

More spud than sockI was struck by how full the streets were in the seventies, whether terraced or high-rise, even though I also spent most of my early childhood in the middle of a road somewhere too, accompanied by my four younger sisters from the photograph above. All life can be seen there; women sitting on the doorsteps holding impromptu and carefree gatherings with pavement as venue and not a “Tiger Mom” in sight, rumbustious children using their immediate environment as a playground no matter how grim and grubby and amusing themselves with very little but makeshift playthings out in the open air.

Boy on a Chopper bikeI suppose I’ve become accustomed to seeing empty streets and overgrown, vandalised, fenced-off and underused play areas as most children no longer “play out” today due to widespread yet unjustified fears about crime and paedophiles, health and safety regulations, and an unimaginable level of caution and fear in a society that stifles life and adventure for children and that thinks conkers are weapons of mass destruction and that toy guns turn boys into terrorists. Where playgrounds are in use they are usually surrounded by an army of vigilante parents who have sacrificed their own lives to sit nervously on the look-out for predators and whose own existence has much in common with a 24 hour security guard, constantly traipsing after children, picking them up in cars, watching over shoulders, questioning and telephoning constantly and molly-coddling them, denying them any actual autonomy.

You can’t help but notice the poverty and deprivation in these photographs – it is severe, but what is also apparent is the extent of the freedom. In 1975, not that long ago really, nobody batted an eyelid at children roaming around unsupervised, or at the photographer Paul Trevor wandering into communities with a camera. Nobody questioned the fact that older but still relatively young children could wander the streets free of adult supervision and with responsibility for younger siblings and friends. Adults had trust in other adults to look out for other people’s children and unrelated adults had the authority and respect of the children, whereas “stranger danger” is the mantra of the modern and paranoid parent.

You’d be hard pushed to take similar photos now, and Paul Trevor has said that if he were to attempt a similar project today he would arouse suspicion, need to get police and parental permission and undergo a criminal records check, whereas in the seventies, he just took out his zoom lens and the children and adults he met were welcoming and smiled enthusiastically for the camera.

It’s a great collection of photographs depicting recent local history and reveals how little has changed in relation to widespread unemployment and hardship in parts of Liverpool that are still unemployment and poverty blackspots, despite improved housing and slum clearance. It also makes you realise just how much our individual freedoms have been restricted in such a short time period. Growing up in the seventies looks like a much more carefree and adventurous experience than that encountered by today’s children.

The title of this exhibition is “Like you’ve never been away”, which is what a local resident and subject of one of the photographs said to Paul Trevor upon meeting him again, no doubt with friendly intent. But it couldn’t be further from the truth really as since he went away the freedom he saw and experienced is nowhere to be found, not here in Liverpool or anywhere else in the UK either, and that’s a great shame and an indictment of modern society.


Photographs by Paul Trevor at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until 25 September

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