By Benjamin Tree, ASX UK, March 2013
The Format International Photography Festival (the 6th biennial carnation of the event to date) began its month long residency over the city of Derby, UK in March. This year the curatorial theme is ‘factory’. This is an apt choice; the city itself was a pivotal location for Britain’s Industrial Revolution, with both important silk mills and railway works being heavily operative well into the twentieth century. If we fast forward to the present day, Derby is still renowned for its earlier silk mills (Derwent Valley Mills being a UNESCO world heritage site) and also still holds a little of its industrial prowess (notably with the Rolls Royce factory). However, Derby is also wrought with the evidence of Britain’s industrial closures. Format has creatively incorporated these indications by utilizing four former mills and one derelict chocolate factory as exhibiting spaces.
There is a great breadth and variety of projects exhibited at Format, giving us an intelligent answer to what could have been a simple theme. Though some of these spaces do provide the audience with an obvious contrast in industrial scale—China, for instance, with both its monolithic industries and their detrimental health effects and environmental impacts, looms over the festival—Ken Grant’s No Pain Whatsoever is much closer to home. Grant’s work itself, as he tells me, was taken “within a couple of miles either side of the River Mersey in the North West of England”, but the implications of it being exhibited in Derby are in countenance with the decision to exhibit Format in a once glorious factory city. Grant photographs with great candidacy and intimacy, his subjects are in some ways the casualties of Britain’s attenuation from the 1980 through 1990s and onward. Born in Liverpool in 1967, Grant began photographing those he knew in the 1980s. No Pain Whatsoever—alike much of Grant’s oeuvre—sees the social documentarian Grant approaching subjects he knows, be it friends or colleagues, and so it is instantly penetrating, affecting and human.
Ken Grant discusses his work here with me.
ASX: Your work is highly conscious of the community you were photographing in… I was wondering why it is you came to the photographic medium as a means to explore this?
KG: Growing up in the North of England I was soon conscious that by the mid 1970s that any wave of joy that had arrived with the evolving beat music of the 1960 had been tempered by sharp recessions (although we never called them that) and only later would I recognize the quiet exodus of many to find work elsewhere, anywhere. Amid all of this was the growing realisation that the port city was no longer a Gateway to any kind of Empire but rather a place where we dealt with more local concerns and made sense of what was left, after many had left…
For me this was always mediated through working environments and the conversations I listened to. Of course, as a boy or as an apprentice you’d say little –it’s safer that way, but you listen, a lot. My photography is often about listening. Some men I knew did a lot of talking, some said very little but I could see that behind the chaos of the job, they were often preoccupied and deep in thought. Around the card tables in Summer and braziers in Winter that I was charged to keep lit throughout the working day, I’d listen – to call and response songs, the patterns of conversation and regular talk of money, work, sex, football, families -The simple things, the things that matter…did I mention money? It was an emotional, forthright place –a small, former shed on the edge of a river that ran through a city that, generally speaking, had little time for the government of the day -or the government of any day for that matter.
ASX: So you were working as an apprentice and began to photograph your colleagues during work?
KG: As the work I was involved in moved from precision crafts to a more general kind of labour, I began to photograph as our lives allowed, working alongside my father, cousins and our ever changing colleagues – it was increasingly casual work that meant repairs and ‘making good’, fixing burst doors and changing locks, decorating to hide the marks of violence that came with the weekend robberies. Making good – as if nothing had happened, but of course if you look closely at the surface, you could see where things were pieced together, where things weren’t quite unblemished. You only had to look closely enough.
Whilst time was punctuated by news reports of the bigger occasions –when the ship was launched, when the Queen visited or when our team won, I was aware that, this kind of photography didn’t seem to speak to me and certainly didn’t speak for me. My truths (if that’s what they are) came from conversations, from listening and remembering. How else could I learn secrets about going over the wall on a Friday (a way of sneaking away early from work), how else would I understand the Cammell Lairds shuffle (a kind of time killing stagger common to some friends who worked in the shipyard in Tranmere).
ASX: Photography is a slow process of cognition, understanding, was this your purpose…
KG: The view from inside looking out interested me more than the attentions of those outside looking in. Over time I realized these qualities were evident in other responses to working lives, but not always in photography. Raymond Carver’s short stories seemed strongest when they dealt with the simple exchanges within relationships and the pauses in life that allow us to breathe and take stock of where we’ve actually reached; when a man, whose relationship has broken down, treads lightly behind paper thin walls, he’s conscious of the conversation in the next room, where the couple who’ve rented him this temporary shelter try and work out exactly what has befallen him, and how long he might stay.
Elsewhere, Fred Voss’s prose, written whilst working in the Goodstone Tyre Factory, included passages that spoke less of the scale of industrial production –which for the good years was a given- but of the experiences of those who were locked into the working routines, on wages that for many meant this was a path they were obliged to keep to…just enough to keep them reaching towards the end of each working week with the hope that their wage packets would appear without containing the pink redundancy slips that most had seen before and expected to see again. I recognized these tensions and the routines I understood weren’t secure or regular, things changed often. These were short stories or brief pages of prose –sometimes slight and occasionally extensive and fraught accounts of private concerns. They seemed drawn to the vernacular –to the particularities of the region and circumstances that each place had. I wonder if photography could relate something of this?
ASX: Your influences seem to be implicit to your background and elicited by the non photographic as well.
KG: I would acknowledge the film work of Terence Davies, whose ‘Distant voices, still lives’ from 1988 remains a profound and layered account of postwar working class experience in Liverpool. Apart from the usual Spaghetti Westerns and days when Liverpool won football matches, Davies’ film is the only film I have sat and watched through to the end with my father. Davies filmed in the streets where he (and my father’s family) grew up –in the terraced streets around Liverpool’s football ground. Davies allowed observations of adolescence, pub songs, colour and the domestic interior to coalesce so successfully in his work. I suppose these are more honest influences, though I know photography closely and see a lot of work and have a number of friends in Europe and America who I trust. The act of photography is a common act –most of us share it -so I sometimes wonder why it is that there aren’t more photographs that really move me; it’s not for the want of looking – I seem to pass through a world increasingly cluttered with what Lisette Model, the photographer and teacher, once dismissed as ‘a kind of luke-warmness….the kind of photography that just doesn’t matter’….though I keep looking.
Perhaps in truth, this is nothing new –beyond the potential afforded by digital production and distribution, it seems so easy to be side-tracked, to be swept forward by the rhythms of the day, to adopt the kind of long vision that makes photographers look to distant lands whilst urgent imperatives may lie in the difficult ground near their own doors. ….Early on in my photographic life, I happened upon Christer Stromholm who for many years ran a photography night-class in Sweden and who often encouraged his students to ‘learn to say no’, to be productive but to ‘be out of step with the times’, and offered a brace of other suggestions that he asked them to consider whilst urging them, before everything, to make sense of their own country. Perhaps this is the difference between a kind of photography that is servile and a kind of practice that acknowledges a sense of authorship.
ASX: Are there any photographers that prompted you?
KG: I remember finding Bruce Davison’s East 100th Street, a piece of work begun in the late 1960s –which seemed to me as complete a photographic response to one small piece of America as I’d ever seen –God, that made me nervous, a piece of work with considerable energy, made in homes in one apartment block that wasn’t his, but which he felt compelled to know. Whilst the rest of the world might have been looking elsewhere and waiting for the American moon landings on TV (-and I watched them too), lives were being lived and conditions at home were, for the many, not easy. It’s a piece of work that still confounds me in its industry and strength and, when trying to say why to some students early on into my time at Newport, where I now teach classes, I found myself attempting to rap out a few lines of Gil Scott Heron’s poetry, (-these students lived in a world with no knowledge of Gil Scott-Heron -which seemed to me a failing of whatever processes had passed for their education or cultural development up to that point in life).
Gil Scott-Heron was writing at exactly the same time Davison would have been working on his pictures… both works were published in the same year, (1970) and both works were made over the threshold, as close, detailed, and insistent responses…Both works articulated something about communities they felt moved to respond to -and each contained the kind of precise observation and the sense of humility that- for me -tends to reach the surface in good work. Each betrayed something about the temperament of the author and a command over practice that had becomes effortless and secondary to its communication.. Not diaristic, Not autobiographical, NOT self-absorbed NOT didactic, instead it was immersed, refined, human and occasionally troubling…. 18 months ago, like many others I mourned the passing of (the musician and poet) Gil Scott-Heron, a few months after I’d seen him perform (again) on one of his regular visits to Liverpool. He was frail and -for much of the evening- played alone, and began by singing the song Blue Collar –almost- it seemed- to himself. What a difficult, magnificent life, gathering words and feelings from the experiences he had, it would seem, little choice or wish but to participate in, to stay close and return to, and sometimes get too close to.
ASX: Your subjects are mostly of peers, contemporaries and acquaintances. How important is that relationship to you as a photographer?
KG: My relationship varies with people I photograph. I tend to photograph my contemporaries every time I go out, I’m not always sure what or who I’ll find. I’m there, and tend to often return to the same places, but tend not to impose myself too much. Sometimes I tend to be overlooked, sometimes tolerated, sometimes even useful. Maybe that comes from years sitting in vans with workers, or working in wood yards with wood machinists…long days where the machines sometimes prevented conversation, so you’d nod and smoke and find other ways to communicate. Our relationship is built around a point reached where those I photograph seem to acknowledge what I’m trying to do –and allow that to progress. We’re not always close friends despite many meetings, we’re not always intimate, but they seem to recognize the value in pictures I make–or in my trying to make them…and there are long hours –if someone sees you outside a football ground in the rain or wind each week trying to photograph, eventually they find a way to understand what’s going on, and if that process goes on for months and years, then its probably clear that you’re doing something you are compelled to do and perhaps that you’re ok…less than a threat -or a good kind of crazy.
ASX: It’s all shot in Liverpool…
KG: Liverpool isn’t a large city –and over the last century the population halved. My working process is slow and (I would hope) with humility, because I will see the same people time and time again and need to stand by my actions.
ASX: The press I have read suggests No Pain Whatsoever has been taken between the years 1985 – 2009. This seems an incredible interesting—if quite wide encompassing—amount of time. Your work left me the impression it was taken in the 1980s, would I be wrong in assuming this? When and where were these photographs predominantly taken?
KG: My work has been made regularly since the mid-1980s but the process continued through the 90s and into the new century.
ASX: So it is rooted in your own history, and in that of Thatcher’s Britain/Liverpool, but more so the longstanding effects.
KG: It must be the black and whiteness of the pictures but Thatcher’s name has cropped up a lot when people see it. The curator Jason Evans included some of the work in a group show in Krakow a couple of years ago. He was smart. His premise was that commentators were so taken with the legacy and dominance of Thatcherism, that we tend to overlook the 90’s, a time when the zeitgeist of ‘Cool Britannia’ was fore-grounded in progressive governments, whilst most of us had little in common with it and certainly didn’t recognize it. The 90s were a quieter decade in many respects, a time in which plenty was taking place off the map –through necessity. Jason used a series of photographs called Benny Profane, which I used as a ‘holding title’.
ASX: It is related to your other bodies of work quite significantly.
KG: In truth I’ve always made work that overlapped. The men I photographed in a work environment I would later see at the football match, for example, and I’ve always tried to gently resist the absolutes of certain kinds of narratives. In that respect, the pictures in No pain whatsoever are drawn from those decades and sequenced –or brought into association with each other- in a way that I hope allows them to work more freely and more strongly as a photographic statement. All the work is made within a couple of miles either side of the River Mersey in the North West of England.
ASX: It’s interesting that you mentioned listening in photography earlier. So often there is talk about photographic series’ as being cohesive. Observations—listening slowly, carefully—are not neat processes by which stories can be explicated in a coherent narrative. Everything has be much more complex than that.
KG: I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of narrative – or more accurately I’ve been interested in what might become authentic as a narrative. Decades after Robert Frank voiced his own discontent with the value of those magazine stories with their neat beginnings and ends, I’m still anxious and excited about what happens when one photograph follows another and about what happens when you turn a page, and about what happens when these pictures coalesce in the book or elsewhere. The lives of those people I photograph are rarely neat or straightforward–I don’t believe many lives are -so how could that be articulated through photography in a manner that made sense –to me, and perhaps-and with hope- to whoever spends some time with the pictures.
ASX: What is the starting point then, work wise, with a project that is taken from the past? How does such a series begin, was it a case of shaping it over years, with many different permutations?
KG: On reflection, I don’t spend a lot of time with the pictures until years have passed – making them and experiencing the process of making them is as important to me as their distribution. It’s probably a paradox in this world where the means of publishing seems so close to us, but I prefer to take care with the pictures and -to use the phrase that I used to have taped to my enlarger, and borrowed from the Czech photographer Josef Sudek, it’s important to rush, but to ‘rush slowly’. I spent four weeks last summer processing hundreds of rolls of film that have been made in the last few years, which will perhaps contribute to the series before it’s resolved, it’s too early to say right now. The work was shown in Derby after I was encouraged by a friend I know and trust to send them the work. It was the first time I’ve had an invitation to exhibit it in Britain, but that’s not surprising or a problem –since I don’t go out of my way to approach people. I’ve been happy to make the work over recent years and wait until the right time to show it. The first meeting I had with Dewi Lewis was in 1989 and he eventually published The Close Season in 2002. In that book, a lot of the work was made in homes or at family events –at times when men were together away from the family and at the kind of celebrations that tend to punctuate our lives.
ASX: No Pain Whatsoever is a familiar title, to what does it elude?
KG: The title is borrowed from a Richard Yates story that I read a long time ago in a series of short stories under the title ‘Eleven kinds of loneliness’. I’ve read short stories all my life –perhaps it’s impatience, perhaps it’s more to do with their potential to engage with an emotional experience so precisely in such a concise form –and yes maybe photography has an affinity with that.
ASX: But No Pain Whatsoever has some really evocative moments of quiet desperation. The title is fairly ironic in this sense.
KG: Yes –irony, in a way. For many years I lived in a flat in New Brighton on the edge of the Mersey (where you’ll know Martin Parr photographed The Last Resort). The man downstairs was a Manxman (born on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea between the UK and Ireland). The Manx symbol is the Legs of Man, a 3-legged ‘figure’ that symbolizes the belief that you can throw a Manxman down anywhere and he’ll land on his feet. I like that –and I recognize this in the resilience and perseverance of many I know and photograph –although we’re not going through any golden age here and I do wonder if we’re living through a time after politics…a time of attrition that is being played out over decades rather than the course of any parliament. The irony I’d note, but I’ve always been struck by the text by John Berger, writing on Ralph Fasanella’s paintings and the idea of tragedy. Berger related something of a kind of distance between those outside who have the time to recognize tragedy in situations they see –because they have the time or the circumstances in which to feel those emotions having been afforded a compassionate leave from such conditions….and those inside, who have less time or inclination to live life on such terms.
ASX: What seems to emerge is this works relationship with others of yours like The Close Season. You stated earlier that they are all formed after an elapsed period of time, from similar periods of similar subjects. But if we compare it with The Close Season—which also provides an intrinsic commentary on the myriad effects and struggles resultant of industrial change—the tone seems much different.
KG: No Pain Whatsoever is a more external series, often made at the coast or in places where we go for respite. It is drawn from pictures made at the edges of the coast, the docks and many of the pictures were made outside of times when work was taking place. James Kelman’s story was used in The Close Season because of the way it so beautifully articulated the growing tensions at a wedding in a way that I did not, when families are drawn together and emotions can be forthright.
ASX: Are there any photographs you feel exemplify No Pain Whatsoever?
KG: No I don’t think one picture exemplifies everything. A lot of people have picked up on the picture of the child drinking, and I can understand why -there’s a lot of energy in that picture, but it’s there in most of them, just not in such a forthright, affirmative way.
ASX: I’m anxious to discuss one specific images if that is okay: there is an evocative photograph of a burnt out pram shrouded in smoke…
KG: Between 1989 and 1997 -when the site was finally closed and landscaped (turned into an ‘urban park’), I photographed a group of men, women and occasionally children in a place called Bidston Moss, in the North End of Birkenhead. The Moss was a large refuse site, bordered by docks, a motorway and railway lines. It extended away high above the dock, a consequence of decades of dumping and compacting rubbish. Those I photographed were the latest generation of people stripping away materials to re-use, to sell or sometimes even wear from that place. Clothes, copper wire, pornography, furniture–all these things could be found and re-used –or re-sold… and most people there had a ‘specialism’ that they dived towards or pecked at when the skip wagon up-ended its back and shed its load. The mistake it’s easy to make is to link this with the politics of the day- as some by-product of a current recession when, in fact, this had been an activity prevalent in the area for far longer. With dockland, there is always a hinterland where things happen -even if they are rarely seen or understood beyond the local streets -and Bidston Moss was in keeping with that. It was a vast area, though one you could easily avoid unless you had business to be there. The picture is of a man at the end of the day ‘burning up’ –he’s burning the rubber insulation away from copper wire, which he’d then dip into a pool of rainwater to cool it, before gathering it into sacks. Towards the end of the day a handful of these fires would be set and the Irish Sea winds would often bellow the smoke across the hill. The prams were used to get the materials off the site to the scrap yards where the wire was ‘weighed-in’ and exchanged for money. Over the years I photographed the prams a lot…because, apart from the younger men -who would take sacks away on their backs or tied to bicycles- most would use them. The playwright Jim Morris, who grew up in the district, called the prams ‘North End taxis’… they were a common sight but a very practical way to move things over difficult ground across the Moss and the streets beyond.
ASX: It is a great motif of Britain’s attenuation, of loss of industry—as you stated earlier, sharp recessions and a quiet exodus of work—but it is also incredibly evocative given the various depictions of industrial scale at Format. The humanity explored in your work counter, or correspond, with others exhibiting, giving an insightful overall portrait of industrial working life. How do you feel about the exhibitions successes?
KG: Going back to the original ideas for the festival, the curators were wise enough to broaden their definitions, to include wider interpretations of work or industrial activity alongside the more logical or immediate examples of mass production. There are a number of projects in which the relationship to work is more oblique or muted. I’m thinking of the Archive of Modern Conflict’s postcard show, drawn from a more uniform age when factory Week meant that the companies shut down production and workers would take vacation en masse –a regular calendar marker in the mill towns and factories of northern England during the 19th and long into the 20th Century. Perhaps more particularly, though, I’m thinking of David Moore’s Picture’s from the Real World, which were shown for the first time since the 1980s. His series of photographs were made on a Derby council estate in the shadow of the Rolls Royce car factory. The relationship those people might have had with the factory was subdued, and I recall how, when I first saw it, Moore’s work reminded me of Chauncey Hare’s book Interior America, published a decade before Moore was working. Like Hare, David Moore knew the area he photographed too -for different work-related reasons. Both remain examples of work that, for me, violently and viscerally articulates something of those shadowed by—and perhaps even eclipsed by—the presence of industry, and for that reason alone I’m glad David’s work was included. I recognize the ambition in these kinds of projects—and the emotional temperament that steers them—they reach beyond the ‘spectacle’ of factory production—a formula that we know photography has had a long and courteous association with. In a way, this isn’t new. William Stott described an America in the 1930s when people just weren’t on the streets any more… Closer to home for me in Britain, Jeremy Seabrook wrote about the challenges of photographing conditions that may be as much psychological as physically apparent. These provocations interest me –they are challenges to an orthodoxy in photography, this medium that is more difficult than its proliferation and fluency might suggest…and if I tell you that in the early 1990s, Frank Field (-the MP for the former Shipbuilding town of Birkenhead -where many of my pictures were made) was one of the first politicians in the UK to use the term ‘the Underclass’ to refer to some of his own constituents- it’ll perhaps make us realise that the most absolute definitions of work, whether in photography or elsewhere – haven’t really held up for a long while. So I like the way more diverse approaches (and I’d include Eric Kessels and Thomas Sauvin’s work in this regard) permeate the festival and extend the interpretation of the theme so successfully.
ASX: As we are conditioned by history and given certain contemporary issues that seems to parallel those of our immediate past—unemployment, recessions, ideological conservatism—do you see the importance that your work has to a contemporary audience and a contemporary context? Even the context of Format’s comprehensive ‘factory’ theme?
KG: It’s certainly true, there are parallels with our recent past -though I’m writing this in Liverpool, after watching Ken Loach’s new film The Spirit of 45, in which he traces a much longer arc of building and then dismantling the social welfare provision of post 1945 Britain. It’s always a mystery to me that history is forgotten so quickly that we’re condemned to repeat it, but then history is a contested thing- and I’ve always been aware of histories of photography, rather than one definitive absolute narrative.
We do seem to be condemned to retrace something of the recent past -though we’re in a different age now, photographically, -and it will be interesting to see what accounts eventually surface of where we are right now. I’ve not really thought of my work or its importance in that way but I’m heartened by the response that those visiting the festival have had to it so far.
ASX: We mentioned political context earlier. Your work does seem to have somewhat of a political undercurrent. Is this overt or a more inevitable consequence?
KG: My work was never consciously an overt political commentary, though I’ve photographed many events, like the dock strikes in Liverpool over the years, that were fundamentally based on resisting a return to non-unionized casual labour and which I found inappropriate to ignore…but these events (and the pictures) were by and large ignored by the rest of the UK (that series was only ever published in France, I seem to remember). You’re right, we all make work from somewhere and the pictures are by necessity a partial and partisan account. When people spend time with the work or write about the pictures, some do foreground the politics of the day, but those aren’t the preoccupations I tend to come back to or dwell on when making pictures. My working process is far less strategic than that. I’m more interested in the value of the pictures as accounts of what we do, rather than what has been done to us. A political undercurrent may be just a starting point and in some ways unavoidable- but it might over-simplify things by just framing the work in such a way. Those appraisals don’t adequately relate the complexities or richness to be found in the lives I photograph and I’m optimistic that in time our appreciation of photography can develop, to better articulate the ambitions of those who make it.
ASX: Thank you. Finally, could you tell us your future plans for No Pain Whatsoever?
KG: In the late Spring I’ll start collaborating with Gosta Flemming to make the work into a book that I hope will come out later in the Autumn. It’s been in development for a few years and Gosta agreed to take it on when I met him last year. He is the man behind the Swedish publishing house Journal, which I’ve always respected –particularly for the work he’s done with Scandinavian photographers like JH Engstrom, Anders Petersen and others. Gosta makes beautiful books.
Benjamin Tree is a graduate of St Andrews’ Art History department (Scotland), having studied his master’s degree there with a thesis on Eikoh Hosoe’s Kamaitachi. He has most recently been awarded a scholarship for Ph.D study. His research interests include the relationship between photography and philosophy, photographic subjectivity, performance and photography, and photography (books) of the 1950s – 60s. He is the ASX correspondent for UK’s North and Scotland.
(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Benjamin Tree, Images @ Ken Grant and courtesy Format International Photography Festival)