In many ways New Brighton is no different from many other seaside towns. In its heyday it was a bustling resort with people outnumbering pebbles on the beach. This glorious time is captured in fantastic photographs from the Keith Medley archive at Liverpool John Moores University, which are now on display in the Our day out exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. The photographs are accompanied by reminiscences by Liverpool people of visiting the resort, getting sand in your sandwiches, wearing knotted hankies on your head to avoid getting burnt and dashing for the last ferry home.
These fond memories are perhaps even more poignant when you consider the changes of fortune that have affected New Brighton since those golden days.
The once bustling town gained a degree of notoriety in the 1980s with the publication of Martin Parr’s 'The Last Resort'. Controversial, in your face and unflinchingly honest in the documentation of a resort that was past its prime, the book is now considered a classic. A mark of its influence is the number of photographers drawn to the top right corner of the Wirral to pay tribute, such as Peter Dench, who made the pilgrimage in 2011 on the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication. His account The Last Resort Revisited perfectly describes the sense of nostalgia for the recent past that keeps photographers coming back.
The book grew out of what was originally a joint project between Parr and the local ‘photie man’ Tom Wood. In 2012 I made my own pilgrimage to see the first major exhibition of Wood’s work in the Photographer’s Gallery. It was an odd experience to see his pictures of the area I know so well on display in London, but great to see them getting the recognition they deserve. Tom Wood and Martin Parr were reunited in the 2013 exhibition Every Man and Woman is a Star at the Walker Art Gallery, which included a few New Brighton photographs by both men.
The years may not have been kind to New Brighton, but photographers have always stood by it and continue to find interesting subject matter for their lenses on its streets and beaches. Even the shiny new development promising to smarten the waterfront up hasn’t scared them off. Last year Niall McDiarmid added a New Brighton portrait to his Crossing Paths project and The Caravan Gallery added their quirky view of the area to the photographs in their 2013 exhibition Merseystyle at the Museum of Liverpool, bringing the New Brighton story right up to date.
Photos of my home town may not always depict it as glamorous, but it will never be dull, especially if you go armed with a camera. To paraphrase Kirsty MacColl (or Billy Bragg, if you want to be picky), I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a New Brighton…
Our day out is on display at the Museum of Liverpool, from 12 November 2014 to 27 September 2015.