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Transcript of Stephen Shakeshaft's exhibition talk

Photographer Stephen Shakeshaft gives an introduction to his exhibition of pictures of Liverpool People and talks about his time working as a press photographer.

Stephen Shakeshaft: Hello everybody. It’s intimidating looking at everybody like this! Well thank you all for coming, I’m touched by that.

The exhibition is the third exhibition I’ve done with the museums and galleries and it’s the exhibition I always wanted to do because I’ve been working in Liverpool for over 40 years and these were the pictures of everyday people who I would meet in my work as a press photographer. Not the celebrities, there’s a few here, a few people you’ll recognise. But the people who I came across every day in situations in Liverpool which fascinated me as a photographer.

One of the things I was drawn to virtually every week through this period of time was how Liverpool was changing through the 70s and 80s. Houses would disappear, streets would disappear and Liverpool was changing so dramatically over a relatively short period of time. We had all these plans ahead of us of what the city would look like, great plans of what the Albert Dock would be like and the city centre and nothing seemed to happen for years. I thought the city stood still through perhaps the 70s and into the 80s. Subconsciously I found myself archiving a period of history in Liverpool which is relatively early to where we are now, because I’m not all that old – I may look it. Some of the pictures could have been taken in the 1920s or the 1930s. In 1980 streets around Everton still had houses without bathrooms and children were, there’s a picture in the exhibition, where children were being bathed in the kitchen sink, there wasn’t even a loo or a bathroom.

I went into these houses and, in Liverpool it was extraordinary, one thing that has always fascinated me was to be welcomed into people’s homes as a photographer. I think probably being from the local newspaper helped a great deal. People were always prepared to talk to you, tell a story and listen.

The other thing that always used to fascinate me was how they didn’t mind being photographed. They’d often say to me “Why do you want to photograph me?” I remember an old lady sitting on a step in Scotland Road, Scotland Road was being pulled down so the news editor said to me “o out and capture Scotland Road over the next fortnight as it’s going to start being knocked down”. Well you can’t really do that but I wandered round Scotland Road regularly and one day there was a lady sitting in the Liverpool uniform for ladies then, which was a long apron and a hairnet. She was sitting on a step which was beautifully white, what did they used to put on the steps then? [Muffled audience response.] Anyway she was sitting there very proudly and I was asking her how long she’d lived there and I said “Do you mind if I take your photograph?” Because I always liked to ask if I could take their photograph. She said “Why do you want to take my photograph, love?” I said, “Well you’re a real part of Liverpool and you’re a wonderful study for a picture.” She said “Only on one condition – let me go and put my teeth in first!” [Laughter] I said “As long as you don’t get changed as well”, because that’s the natural thing to do isn’t it if you’re having your photograph taken you want to get changed and look your smartest but it would have spoilt the picture. I used to get told off by my children for photographing them in the most scruffy ways, I said that’s how you are. If you get dressed up to have your photograph taken and you go to a studio you’re not in your real comfortable state, you’re never going to get a nice candid or natural photograph.

That’s what I used to do, I used to wander round and chat to people as they were sitting on their steps. I’m looking round at some pictures here that remind me of it. I think the best thing to do is if we walk around and then stories will come to me as I approach a picture. What I tried to do with the help of my wife, Joy, we sat down and looked at about 100 pictures that would look good in the exhibition. The museums and galleries are fantastic because they said to me “Do whatever you want”. I wanted the exhibition to look a little bit like a newspaper and not uniform, as you would see in a normal photographic exhibition. I wanted some words with the pictures because although I’m useless on dates, and someone said to me this morning “We would have appreciated more dates”, that’s my blind spot, I can’t remember dates. I can remember periods of time and different seasons and years but I can’t remember specific dates and that probably would have helped on some of the pictures, although I’ve tried to get close to it.

The captions, I hope, help with the pictures. That’s one of the things I wanted to do most of all, to have some words with each picture to try and make people think about the picture. There’s a gentleman, I don’t know if he’s come back, Jeff who I met this morning with his wife from Hungary. He came in and said to me that he’s not been to Liverpool for 40 years but he’s walked in today and its taken him right back to those days where we remember Liverpool for different reasons. That’s exactly what I wanted to get over with some of the photographs.

When I first came to Liverpool I was 16. I got off the train at Central Station and I remember then, I don’t know how many of you remember, walking through the market when it was cobbled streets and little alleyways, St John’s Market. It was a great city because another thing that hit me straight away, and I always say to people, whenever I go into the city centre, Liverpool has a smell of its own. It’s the ozone from the river, it used to be the breweries who would pump out this smoke and you could small hops and the molasses, so Liverpool had a very strong smell to it. It always seemed to be foggy, there was smog and long queues of buses everywhere, I remember. The tunnel at night had queues right down Victoria Street but there weren’t many cars about. The city was totally different to how it is now.

I’m still very fond of Liverpool but the pictures to me, and looking back on them after 40 years, I realised how special it was then. A lot of them show the city changing, through a period where it wasn’t too sure where it was going. I often think of those people that lived in those houses that I’ve photographed, because there was always an old lady at the end of the street who was always the last one left in the street, and that lady always reminded me of my grandmother. I’d knock on the door and the house would be immaculate although outside there were bulldozers knocking everything to bits. The whole street had been demolished but there was always one old lady left and she’d welcome you in and she’d be sitting in the kitchen. In fact there’s a picture here, that was gaslight. The table was always set wasn’t it with a cloth on, never changed. The bread was always cut in the way where you take the top slice off and butter it then take the next slice off, and there’d always be a cup of tea. The house next door wouldn’t exist now, all her friends and the people who she would spend her life with, her neighbours were all gone and the end house would be half demolished. I used to think why is every house always left with the bedroom exposed and the same wallpaper on the wall. Wallpaper books used to come home and you’d look at them at home and choose your wallpaper and there wouldn’t be much choice would there? But in every house I recall seeing the same wallpaper, I thought they must just choose it together! [Laughter]

You take your photograph, then you move off and wonder what happens to those people, where do they end up. A lot of the people moved out to Skelmersdale and Kirkby and communities were broken up. I think the planners although they right ideas to move people to sensible properties where they could have a bathroom, everyone would want that, the communities didn’t go as well. I think that’s why a lot of people were unhappy about moving out, because those Liverpool streets were like the ‘Bread’ streets that we saw on TV – that [TV series] really got over that atmosphere of what that was like. There were very few people I met who were complainers, they all sort of accepted what they had in life and they didn’t moan. They were pleased to talk to you and, as I said earlier, I’ve always been amazed how people let me photograph them. I hope it comes over in some of these pictures today as you’re looking through them.

I think the best thing is if we wander a bit because I’m hoping we can talk about some pictures or you can ask me anything you want to ask me. I’m sure some of you are keen photographers yourselves.

Audience member: Can I ask you what camera you use?

Stephen Shakeshaft: I started off with the camera that you see as you walk into the room, the 5x4 camera that’s in the box over there, that’s a plate camera. I started off with that. That was given to me by the chief photographer without any training, this massive camera, and I had to learn how to load glass plates into it, which were 5x4 in size. They had to be loaded in the dark so therefore you couldn’t tell which side was the emulsion and which side was the plain glass. Some of my colleagues will perhaps remember those days. The only way you could do it was to taste the edge of the glass plate to taste the silver, probably that’s why my hair’s this colour [laughter]. You’d then load the plate and you’d be given a slide which would take a plate either side, if you were lucky you’d be given six of these and that’s how many pictures you would have to take for the job.

So out I’d go with this big camera which was in like a small coffin, a wooden tripod which was a contraption in itself which required all kinds of weird screws, and a giant flash with a strap over my arm. You almost needed Spartacus to go out on a job then because everything was so heavy. Spontaneity was very difficult because you’d have to set the tripod up, screw the camera on it, take the slide out, put it in the back, pull the sheath out, focus up and then you were ready to take your picture. Doing this required quite a long process and when I was first learning this the first slide would come out and I’d press the shutter by mistake and you’d get a picture of the cloud or your shoes and you had four left so you had to be very practical on how you could use them. I remember covering football matches at Liverpool and Everton in those early days in the 60s with the same kind of camera and being so nervous that I was going to run out of plates before I had a goal. It was a good discipline to learn, how to be careful with your film, but then I always used to say film was so cheap, take as many pictures as you can because you’re always going to get the picture you finally want and it’d be a shame to miss it just because you were being selfish with the film.

That camera I took round with me for a couple of years. One story that will appeal to you, we used to cover the Grand National for the early sports paper and had to be back in Liverpool almost half an hour after the race had finished. This meant that on the plate camera you would take the finish, rush out to an Echo van which would be waiting outside, jump in the back and pull the shutters down and in the back we’d laid out developing trays and a fixer. That would give us 15 minutes to get down from Aintree back to the office, where you could develop the film and that would save time when you got into the office. This went on every year until it was my turn and then we set off, I knew I had the picture of the finish but halfway down Scotland Road a dog ran out. The driver put his brakes on and everything in the back just went up in the air including myself, the camera and all the plates. So by the time the van pulled up at Victoria Street with glass everywhere there was only one slide that was left useable and on that piece of glass, which was broken in half with a fracture across it, was the horse coming past the post just big enough to develop [laughter, to do a print off and get it in the paper that night.

It was a challenge using that camera, it was certainly a great discipline but after that the best camera of all for taking pictures on was a Rolaflex, which was a twin lens reflex camera which took film and you had 12 pictures – that was absolutely amazing after going round with a plate camera, to have 12. I remember covering cup finals and the World Cup in 1966 with that camera. Again, when you got to number ten you had two left and you thought should I gamble it and wait for those two or should I put another film in – so that was always a chance.

Then 35mm cameras were introduced and were taken a little more seriously by photographers. They weren’t welcomed at first because of the quality but then we moved to 35mm cameras and that opened up all horizons because you had such a wide scope with lens choice. I remember the first wide angle lens I had, I virtually took every picture on it. When I think back now I don’t know how I used it so much for although it was a great camera, the lens meant you could distort things. But working with a 35mm camera opened up all sorts of options because you could be a lot more candid and you had a lot more time to take pictures, they were small.

Today I was just talking over lunch saying there should be lots of candid photographs taken today because everyone has a camera, the mobile phone now gives everyone the chance to take photographs so really there should be a lot more candid photographs taken. Saying that, I’ve got one and I never use it [laughter]. Its changed so dramatically from that first camera to the technology of today and the computer.

The darkroom was a fabulous place to learn the skill of printing, I loved working in a scruffy old darkroom. I remember the first printer I ever met was an ex band leader from pre-war days. He would stand at the developing tray and he would conduct and sing at the same time as if he was conducting an orchestra. His first name was Phenyl and he was one of many great characters that I met throughout the years, who are on some of these pictures. He taught me photography in this tiny little room and printing. It was a great time to watch a print come up in a developer, that’s gone now because we all use computers. That was special and black and white photography is still special. I hope you agree because a lot of the pictures are in black and white. I still have a great fondness of black and white photography, I think it has a great depth to it and it questions what is on the picture. Some of these pictures I hope, when you look at them, it takes you back to when you were in that time in Liverpool. That was the whole idea, to bring some memories back of a relatively short time.

Audience member: Can I mention one photo in particular, Stephen, one of Christmas Street? I think everyone had been moved out by the time that picture was taken. I was actually born in that street.

Stephen Shakeshaft: Were you?

Audience member: Yes. It’s off Brae’s Nose Road in Bootle. Every two or three years the Echo would turn up, take photographs of the street, maybe one or two of the houses and the families and say ‘Happy Christmas in Christmas Street’.

Stephen Shakeshaft: It used to be a great street to go to when it snowed, it was one of my first stops off.

Audience member: I’d be interested in tracking down pictures, that particular one isn’t in your book unfortunately. I’ve been in the Echo trying to track down any old photographs of that occasion but I can’t get any.

Stephen Shakeshaft: I’m sure I’ve done snow pictures there. There are certain areas, you always had special areas that you’d go to because you knew there’d be a picture there. There’d often be the call from a news editor saying “We’ve got a big space to fill – go out and find a picture”. So I used to go to areas that I knew I’d find a picture at. There’s a couple of weather pictures behind these ladies here. The one at the bottom, similar thing to, sorry what’s your first name?

Audience member: John

Stephen Shakeshaft: What John was saying about Christmas Street. I was around Bootle looking for a snow picture which had to be back for that night’s paper. On my way back along the main road which was very slow I stopped and I saw that bus queue who were all standing there looking particularly fed up and behind them was that poster [indicates photo which has a poster advertising summer holidays with a young woman sunbathing on a sunny beach with people standing in the snow in front of it]. None of them had seen the poster. So I wound the window of the car down and took one picture and then parked and went back down the other side of the road so they wouldn’t see me, hid behind a wall and took a coupe more, because I thought if they saw me they’d start saying “What’s he taking a picture of?” and it’d spoil it. I just wanted them standing there looking so cold and fed up and that gave me my front page picture that day.

Same as the girls walking in the rain above it [indicates another photograph of three people with umbrellas leaning against the rain as they walk along]. I think I’d been doing a picture in St George’s Hall and when I came out it was raining, when I’d gone in it wasn’t raining. It was too wet to move so I just stood there and those girls walked past, almost as if I’d positioned them. I like pictures that work like that.

[Indicates a photograph of people sitting on various pieces of furniture in the street in front of an antique shop]. The picture next to it again is a scene in Seel Street of, I don’t know if you remember the antique shop there? I remember going into it when I was first married in the 60s and I bought a lovely old sofa in there. Antique shops used to fascinate me because there was always a history behind something in there and you get some nice pictures. I was driving up Seel Street and they were sitting there like that as is it was a picture from central casting for some kind of Liverpool sitcom. I thought “I don’t believe it!”, so again I did the usual thing, I took a picture to make sure I got it, parked up and went back again but they spotted me. So I had to explain what I was doing but I’d already got my picture. It was the lady in the leopardskin coat that fascinated me, Carla Lane couldn’t have organised that better [laughter].

Pictures like that are very rewarding. Another is when you go into a new place that you haven’t been to before, it’s usually a view looking down from a window. You go into a building that you haven’t been to before and you’re talking to someone and you look out of the window and go “That view of Liverpool, I can’t believe it!” I found that with the picture behind that gentleman there [indicates a photograph of rows of rooftops of terraced houses of the snow] when I was in the boardroom doing a signing at Everton, I can’t remember who it was. It was a horrible day and I just looked out of the window and there was a Lowry scene instantly, with the snow on the rooftops. That again is rewarding when you see something like that.

People ask me which is my favourite picture, I’m often asked that. Some of my favourite pictures are the ones I’ve not taken. I don’t have a camera with me all the time but I’ve seen so many pictures that I wish I’d taken. My colleagues were saying that you take the picture. The camera is a piece of equipment that records the picture and you’ve got to have that if you’re going to keep it forever more but the picture’s taken in the head really. It’s about just observing life isn’t it? You know yourselves, you can be standing at a bus stop or waiting outside a shop and you look across the road, you can see a couple of people and you can just guess what’s going to happen next. It’s just anticipating that moment. I’ve found some of those pictures I’ve taken and I haven’t had a camera with me obviously but I still take pictures even though the equipment isn’t there to capture them.

I think that’s the openness of living in Liverpool. Liverpool is a great city to work in as a photographer, it’s a great city to live in. It has a humour of its own. I’ve heard the expression that everyone’s a comedian in Liverpool, as if we’re all going around telling jokes, it’s not true. We just have a sense of humour which is just a little bit different to perhaps the place down the road in Manchester or others. But we also have one other secret ingredient that goes with humour, and that’s irony. I think that’s most important of all, that we are ironic at the same time as having a sense of humour. Seeing something that makes us laugh, and often those things only happen in Liverpool. Many times I’ve said or at a conference at work an editor’s said to me “That story, it could only happen in Liverpool”. I‘ve said well it could but there’ll be another one even better, because there always is. Liverpool’s a great city for the unexpected, as we know. That’s one of the reasons that I love working here, it really has been a great city to work in as a photographer.