Along the road from Lime Street station in Liverpool a line of photographs hugs the wall under the banner – “Save the Futurist from Demolition”. Tony Mallon’s homelessness images are not fly-posted by campaigners but the first glimpse of Liverpool’s photographic festival, LOOK/15, which inhabits almost every corner of Britain’s once-wealthy port.
The bi-annual event opens up imperial buildings, crumbling warehouses and regenerated docks, acknowledging Liverpool’s colonial past while using the photographs to shed new light on the spaces, under the umbrella of “Exchange: women, migration and memory”.
Pasting pictures on the city’s walls projects the festival’s ethos: photography shouldn’t be confined behind closed doors, but free to all (like most of the numerous exhibitions and related events). “I like the idea of my photographs not being gallery images,” says Michael James O’Brien about his transgender portraits, Girlfriend: Men, Women and Drag. Being out there nods to LBGT’s acceptability nowadays – as does sitting alongside photographs of local boys boxing, fists poised, in Jona Franks’ The Modern Kids.
Just as LOOK/15 puts the more renowned photographer alongside the fledgling, the buildings encasing them range from status symbols such as Liverpool’s Tate to the once disused, each exhibition using architectural space to frame its content. The Tate displays the graphic photograms of the established György Kepes, who helped found the New Bauhaus in the US; while Tricia Porter’s Liverpool Photographs 1972-74 of Toxteth life, forgotten for 40 years, are rediscovered in the stunning Bluecoat building, itself reopened in 2008 after £14.5m investment for Liverpool’s European City of Culture. Max Pincker’s images relating to love and honour killings are confined to the catacombs of St George’s Hall with its cells and lashing racks.
There is much about reconstructing memory. The Museum of Liverpool on the trendy Albert Dock suits Othello De’Souza-Hartley’s L8 Unseen. More engaging for its concept of reappropriating the past than individual photographs, this re-examines the enduring memory of Toxteth, notorious for its 1981 riots, by picturing current inhabitants in former seats of colonial power with their links to slavery.
Social portraiture is again vivid at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery in Richard Ross’s Juveniles in Justice, haunting portrayals of youth, mainly black, in American prison cells. In one, a teenager in orange overalls, sits hugging herself at one end of a narrow bed in a stark white cell. “If they see you lying down, they take away your mattress,” she writes.
Not to miss are: Tough and Tender, punk photographer Sheila Rock’s engaging portrayals of people at the British seaside; and the Walker Art Gallery’s Only in England, a large body of work by Tony Ray-Jones, arguably one of Britain’s lost greats (leukaemia killed him at 30) and a major influence on Martin Parr (who co-curates the exhibition and also displays some empathic early work).
There is much to see, too much for anyone who doesn’t have days to spare. And plenty of value – some purely on photographic merit; others for their concern with the city’s history and evolving future.
LOOK/15/Liverpool International Photography Festival, various venues across Liverpool (www.lookphoto festival.com) ends tomorrow