Ken Grant

The Hyman Collection conducted an interview with Ken Grant on the run-up to publication of his latest book, No Pain Whatsoever, Spring 2014.


The Hyman Collection (HC)
Your work is closely associated with Liverpool. What led you to photograph subjects so close to home?


Ken Grant (KG)
I used to work with my father who was a cabinet maker by trade. He had a workshop at the edge of the River Mersey in Birkenhead, just over the river from Liverpool. As a child, I would be taken along because it was easier and cheaper than trying to find a babysitter. I became the tea boy and I would sweep up. I'd do all the regular jobs, take on errands, buy the tobacco and newspapersI would also be sitting there at break times along with the men we worked with: tradesmen, carpenters, painters, wood machinists.

When I was about 12 or 13 I saved some money for a camera and with contributions from my father bought a Polaroid camera, which is now obsolete. You'd get a cassette that allowed just 8 square pictures. So those 8 pictures were very carefully considered because of the expense and the chance I wouldn't get another cassette for the rest of the summerSo, I started to take pictures, really quite sporadically, but carefully around those situations and wider family life.

Even then, I was really conscious of meeting a lot of people that I would see one week and who would then be gone the next: work was really intermittent during the 1970s and 1980s -feast or famine- and I realise now I was kept away from most of the nervous conversations at home. Although I didn't really understand what recession meant, I knew something was going on. Men would start work and -a few weeks or months later- they'd be 'let go' or finished upsometimes they'd return for further spells. I tended to become really close to those people and would occasionally photograph in some of those spaces we shared. That became more of a constant -I tried to photograph this more seriously in my later teens.

In 1984/1985 I was working in free time as a labourer. Even though I had done quite a number of years if you add them all up, I was definitely not a craftsman - I had no trade. Around 1985, my father -who didn't speak much about these things -talked about work said to me, whatever you do, don't do this for your life because it is not stable, it is not safe... So, eventually I took a packet of pictures to a local technical college looking for an alternative and was welcomed. I trained there for two years and learned the technical craft of photography -those skills that in truth we rarely use any more. We're in a different phase of photography now, but of course learning the craft itself was only ever going to be a starting point

When I was there, I was training alongside some people who had worked at Cammell Lairds, the shipyard in Birkenhead. There were also some ex-steel workers, because steel manufacturing in Bidston was in the process of being 'broken down' and shipped off to the Orient. Some of these workers had been given redundancy money and trained alongside me to become photographers -they were looking for another start in life. So, I met a lot of people that were similar to the kind of people I had been working with since I was a boy. Some of them made it as photographers, running small businesses in the Northwest. Some of them didn't.

It was a formative time for me, because it felt more like an industrial work situation than a photography class. Similar dynamics were recognisable -hard work, intense banter and slipping away to dock road bars on Fridays. Those who taught the course were important to me. Fred Edwards, a technical photographer with a background in Chemistry who now works independently as an artist, John Dixon, a fine printer with a love for classical music and painting who would instil control and technical accuracyalso by great luck, Tom Wood was there as well, who has now gone on to achieve the high regard we always had for him.

Also, all of a sudden, the library became a new kind of proposition, because I realised there were other kinds of photography. The Library had books of photographs by Chris Killip, Lewis Hine and I remember Lee Friedlander's Factory Valleys and Sally Eauclaire's formative books on American Colour photography. They were all there in a small library in Wallasey, in the Northwest of England -something I'm now sure Tom Wood had a lot to do with. It was a rare treat on my doorstep and I looked at everything.

(HC)
Study at Farnham must have also been a great stimulus.

(KG)
Yes. West Surrey College of Art & Design in Farnham, Surrey was a different option than Newport for example, where I later taughtmore open, more diverse in content and with a more fluent relationship at that time with filmmaking, sculpture and other disciplines. The course leader at Farnham was the sculptor Peter Hall, who was an incredibly insightful and sensitive teacher. It was at just that time Martin Parr and Paul Graham were teaching there. Martin was great and would ring me up in Liverpool and say, Ken, Where are you? - which was a compliment I guess -he wanted to see more pictures and was very supportive all the way throughhe still is. Paul Graham was also a regular visitor, though I didn't speak to him about my pictures during my spell there. He was teaching less and less by that stage. I remember that he gave us all a very brief introduction to flash photography, and that was the only session I had about flash in my time therebut it was enough. It was a little like the mantra in the punk magazine Sniffing Glue that we grew up with'here's three chords, now go form a band!'. That was all we needed -and besides, I had a technical background and knew what I was doing by then. In my time there I read every library book they had (-some more than once). Because we were so close to London, Fridays were quieter as most people left to travel home. The history staff showed films to those of us who were left, so we had a wonderful immersion into Kieslowski, Tarkovsky and many others

I recall Paul Graham coming in to show us Michael Schmidt's Waffenruhe (1987). He was so excited about Schmidt's photographs of Berlin -that was evident. A lot of people - Americans like John Gossage and Lewis Baltz - and Graham himself were going to Berlin to photograph - with Graham hanging out, I believe, with Volker Heinze, at what seems to have become a turning point in the course of recent photography. These people have become really quite central, influencing tendencies in documentary photography -if we can call it that. You can see direct links from Schmidt in Paul Graham's New Europe work: semi-personal, vernacular, cryptic, metaphorical... an aggressive and compelling photographic language that dismisses a lot that went before.

Farnham was only 40 miles from London and people would come in to teach for a day. It was a really good time, a really good moment because there was a great mix of people. Yve Lomax came in every now and again. Chris Killip came in for a spell before moving to America, Martin Parr more often. It was a good time to be there.

Recently, I went to validate the new MFA course at Farnham. I hadn't been there since I left and all the plans chests were all gone. They'd been replaced by lots of computers and there were more students. So I was there at a good time, but it still has a really nice atmosphere. It still has the essence of what was there, but like everywhere, it's changed an awful lot.

(HC)
When you were at Farnham was there camaraderie amongst the students and a shared view of what photography was about?

(KG)
There was no house style in Farnham. I had the best of both worlds. I would carry on working in Liverpool on the weekends with my father and those kinds of people but I was coming back down from Liverpool with a carrier bag of film. I would be away for two weeks at a time to process. I didn't think about it at the time, but I was able to gain a different perspective on the work. When I was down in Farnham, I was thinking about things, consolidating, thinking about what I left behind and things I had missed. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a situation, you have to deal with things, but also you become a bit snow blind. Sometimes, it was hard to get into routines where I would keep perspective in place. In terms of other work, no one was making the same work even though I made some great friends, people who had similar philosophical or cultural interests but whose work was very different to mine. There was a really great photographer called Robin Grierson I remember, who was from County Durham in the North East. He's still making work I believe, slowly but surely, though it's not always shown.

There was a great interest in colour that I enjoyed but didn't follow - there were people like Paul Graham who, when interviewed by Camera Austria, said It's not people like me working in colour that should be defending themselves, but those people still working in black and white. Martin Parr was also excited about colour. People were working more generally in colour, like Anna Fox, David Moore and Paul Seawright. The course wasn't about socially engaged photography, though it's clear looking back that most were responding in a more autobiographical way. They were just working in more diverse, more experimental ways than traditional notions of documentary would prescribe. The word documentary didn't seem necessary.

(HC)
Was there a reason you decided to keeping photographing in black and white?

(KG)
Yes, cost in the first instance. I know that's a terrible answer.

I went to Farnham because other places like Newport had a much more strict style at that point. That was my impression anyway. In a good way: they knew they wanted to make press photographers or editorial photographers and there was a job at the end of it. I'm told Daniel Meadows, who I have come to know well, and am very fond of, used to say, If you can't sell it, don't shoot it It doesn't quiet work like that for me -at least, I'm still trying to figure that side of things out. Farnham had an open-ness about it. You were given space and you had freedom. It wasn't just about the end target. Sometimes it takes a while to find your voice

(HC)
In your case, you seem to have found your voice very early on. From the days working with your father and buying your first camera, photography and the society around you have been inextricably linked. Did you see your photography as having a social or a didactic function when you presented Liverpool.

(KG)
Not directly, though they were very closely linked. I understood, you have the camera and you have something you want to photograph with it in a very particular way. Something you can't ignore. I've had magazines want to use my pictures from time to time, but I usually come away from it disappointed when the work is truncated or put into some context that seems to simplify things. Over the years, I've looked into a lot of American photographers, like the people working with the Photo-League in the 1940s and 1950s where there was a hope for a better account of the working class experience. Then there was the use of photography towards education or empowerment -in the 1980s, for example, at Half Moon workshop in London. It was about facilitation. But for me, there's also kind of selfishness, which is a terrible word to use, but I want to be more in charge of the process myself. I have done lots of work over the years that's more community based. I've always enjoyed and valued doing it. But I've felt that there is only a certain level I could reach with the processes available.

Of course these were the days of chemistry and going into the dark room -what's interesting now is that the rules have changed. A lot of people now, like my daughter who is 13, can find a way of working with pictures, sound and moving images instantly whereas I am trying to work out basic things. In the 1980s, I was working in a place in Sheffield called Hyde Park Flats, which was not the best place in the world at that time. I did some support work with Untitled Gallery. I was always conscious that you can take photography to a certain level in the community, but it was a bit clunky. Now it seems a bit more democratic in a more powerful way. Mainly, I've worked by putting my own work into places to see what happens. In the mid 1990s, for example, I was commissioned by the Council to do a Football show. I put the pictures in places where people would be completely immersed the process of football, social clubs around the football grounds. People understood the pictures and would start taking about photography and its use a bit. I was kind of interested in that happening.

I trust my own instincts and have come to realise that my work can have a presence in a number of worlds. In the 1990s, I did a lot of work with Newspapers, like Libération in France. I got into places on the back of that because you become a kind of tour guide for writers and visitors. On one level that doesn't mean that much, but on the other you'd get to places you wanted to go to more easily. I remember once going to Speke, 6 or 7 miles outside the centre of Liverpool, which is a post-war housing development. It's a place you'd have no need to go to unless you have business there. There were lots of things I would want to photograph in those places. So I would go and photograph with the support of Libération because they would send over a writer and the writer wouldn't know too much. So, you'd instruct and guide and I would then piggyback on those trips for my own pictures. Newspapers in Europe were also as a rule more interested in publishing my pictures -like the dock worker's strike, for example - than the British press. I worked for a long time on that, photographing for weeks on end and had a lot of pictures of it. Everyone was sympathetic, but nobody in the UK would publish anything. To them it wasn't newswas in France.

Taking a photograph should never be isolated from the subject or content. I couldn't have one without the other, but the creative potential for photography to respond to something is fascinating. I admire the Liverpool film maker Terrence Davies, whose early autobiographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) were set in the streets near where I was always photographing. This was right around the time I was in college immersed in work and I was amazed -how could someone be making a film about two streets away from my father's house? And then everyone became interested. The films sweep aside years of lazy journalism and ignorance about the working class experience in Liverpool. Those films are so layered. Perhaps that's why in my books I've used bits of story and other texts, layering and bringing together voicesthings that are easy and things that are more complicated or difficult to understand if you don't know the rhythms of language. In Terrence Davies' films, you've got characters saying things and what they say isn't tempered for a certain kind audience, even though a wider audience might not be able to pick up on some of the nuances at all.

(HC)
How important is a narrative structure when you are putting together a book such as Close Season (2002) or No Pain Whatsoever.


(KG)
There is a quote most of us will remember by Robert Frank where he dismisses the Life magazine stories because of their neat beginnings, middles and ends. When I was in Newport, a lot of our conversations were about narratives and communicating through series of picturesthings make sense as a book or set of pictures. You have to think about what happens when pictures sit next to each other, change in size or become associated with other writing or materials. It's important to recognise thisEarly on in my thinking, you just had good pictures or bad pictures. There was rarely a point in which you sat down to edit something. I had time to do that away from my conversations with tutors. I would bring back completed hand made books. There was a lot of time to try and work out what you were trying to do and make sense of what you were trying to do. There were of course bloopers. I put a lot of book maquettes together and a lot of diaries, about the size of a small notebook. I know this might seem stupid, but I never threw away a test strip with a person's face on it. So I kept all of those and put them in the diaries with tickets from the football match and those kinds of things. I would also write down snippets of conversation I would hear on the train or bus or if people were walking past you on the street and they were having an argument or animated in conversation, I would sometimes write that down. I guess I liked some of those ambiguities -you hear something but will never know everything, but they're almost like prompts. There is a bit of text in A Close Season, which is a prompt -enough to make you think about what's going on but not enough to lead you through it stage by stage.

(HC)
What is the relationship between the text and the images in A Close Season?

(KG)
They are meant to be closely associated but with their own integrity. I wanted to include a piece of writing that I respected that talked about the intensity of the situation. There are three voices in the book. There is the text at the front by the labourer, the pictures themselves, and then the James Kelman short story. The trick I don't draw attention to is that the labourer's text is from my own notebook.

The book's title is important. When I was first talking to the publisher, Dewi Lewis, about The Close Season, he was concerned over how that title would translate said. In America they have a close season refers to the shooting season. Here though we have a close season that separates each football season: That's one definition, but there's something else. The Close Season in this sense is about the moment when work stops or leisure stops and football is finished for the summer and the men migrate back to the domestic situation and back to a place that they don't feel that part of - slightly exiled from. For me there are all those plays on the title's meaning.

(HC)
Do you share the sense of detachment that you sense in the men that you depict? Are you saying something about maleness?

(KG)
There is a lovely Flannery O'Connor quote in her 'Mystery and Manners' about the artist being slightly but necessarily exiled from the world they are essentially part of. Making the work I do makes me recognise that distance -a space for reflection when perhaps more usually people don't have that space or time. But I don't know if the work is about maleness. It could be there. I could have used those pictures to make one book just about maleness, about work or another about football. Some people say I should make a book that is just about a specific place -and I'm sure I could have done it - I've done maquettes, but they become just too much about that place.

One way of thinking about this is to look at the work of Peter Marlow, who made a set of pictures for The Sunday Times in an area in Birkenhead. It's a really strong picture essay, but it's not what I do. I know the area well. It is a place that the people I used to work with go: you'd park the van and that would be the view. It would be crazy not to try and photograph it, but the edit I have done for No Pain Whatsoever is more ambiguous and not just about that one place. Every photograph comes from close by, but it doesn't feel like it's about a single place - that's not an obligation.

(HC)
In No Pain Whatsoever will you include cataloguing information?

(KG)
No, there'll be no place names or people's names. I have been asked about this a few times but I feel that things change by dating and cataloguing the pictures. I would much prefer to have a sense of transience, fluidity. Macca is dead now and this guy had a heart attack at the age of 30 and blah, blah, blah. Too specific, it just does something else and it foregrounds personal details and feels like too much of an exposure. This is certainly the case in the picture of the pram. These people didn't want to be foregrounded or named because it could have caused them problems because it was made in a work situation that wasn't strictly legitimate. The freedom to photograph was agreed on the basis that I would honour this.

(HC)
There must be a lot of trust there
.

(KG)
It's not necessarily about collaboration but it is about tacit agreement or acknowledgement. It is about the license to do it. You may see the same people in the supermarkets over the weekends. At the same time as the pram picture, in the 1990s, certain people said, don't photograph me. But the opposite can also be true. I took a photograph of young guys in the pub when the football was on and the next week I brought it in to them. Two or three years later, one of them said, We're so glad to see you. We thought you'd disappeared and that meant I could photograph again without explaining my reasons.

When I did work with the newspapers, you couldn't come back and photograph the next week. Sometimes I would take a portrait and you'd only have ten minutes in a hotel lobby and you'd have to make something interesting. But when I photograph over time people loosen up and try to enquire about what you do and get deeper into it. We'd have conversations about work, family or the football. A lot of people I photographed had other jobs or part time jobs and would be skilled -but work was not constant. For me it became a surrogate working environment.

Some people say never, but over time other people would start asking me questions about cameras that they had acquired. I would say, That's a really good camera. Where is it at the moment? And they would say, In my loft. When people would ask me how much a camera was worth, they weren't asking, they were testing, testing to see if I was honest. They knew the answer alreadyThose kinds of relationships take time.

I made some work in Newport. I like the fact that it isn't neat and tidy. I like the fact that I can make geographic associations that might be more disparate. You can make different things happen by putting different pictures together. I went to Germany recently to the Folkwang museum and the (then) curator sat down with me and we went through the maquette for No Pain Whatsoever. She didn't say, I don't get it, I don't understand it. She understood the work as a series and was able to say there are a couple too many of that type of picture or a couple too many of that type of picture and suggested that it might peak too early. It was great to get that kind of insightpeople are precious.

(HC)
Without the labelling you don't give the viewer the luxury of acknowledging that these images are from a specific time or place. Are you trying to extract these images from the particular moments or incidents that they record?

(KG)
Not really. For me they feel contemporary. What was amazing is that in Derby earlier this year when I took part on the Format international photography festival, people were saying, Oh, I loved that time. There was no labelling and compared to the other exhibitions, I supposed it is slightly it seemed it must have felt out of kilter. They are gradual. Some of the stuff was made in the 2000s.

It comes from my interest in people like Jimmy Forsyth, Jack Hume or Milton Rogovin. photographers who build archives over time.

Rogovin recently died aged 101. He was an optometrist and was on the wrong side during the McCarthy era in America. He ended up losing a lot of his business. Something happened. He would take afternoons off and photograph the citizens of Buffalo. What is interesting is that his wife would come with him and she was an equal part of the process I think. The pictures are beautiful and there is a beautiful book called Triptychs. The triptychs are fascinating as he would photography the same person, woman family or child ten years apart. Some of them aren't triptychs, because there is a gap and you realise something has happened. Is he dead? Is she alive? Did something happen? It is also the structure that gives us the space to recognise that something happened. They are square format beautifully made photographs.

(HC)
What drew you to the square format?

(KG)
The first professional camera that I bought was a Rolliecord, which was cheaper than a Rollieflex. It was the same shape as the Polaroid camera I'd known growing up. So from very early on I was making square pictures. I also had a 35mm camera, and other types, but there must have been some logic for me to be working with a square format. Of course, the negatives are greater quality and you can see things like the plasters or rings on someone's fingers which might have been distorted or lost with the grain of the medium format camera's really quite exciting to have so much detail.

In the 1980s there were really sharp lenses and there wasn't anything separating you from what you were photographing. It was that simple really. But the square itself just seemed much more dramatic: you see it in Bill Brandt's work in Bournville in Birmingham. There's a conundrum, because we're used to seeing a more pastoral format.

(HC)
That sounds like photography 101. Do you teach your students about full frame?

(KG)
Yes. Don't crop. But I suppose that's a big challenge. Almost everyone uses digital now, though some people still use a 5 x 4.

(HC)
Do a lot of your students still use large format?

(KG)
Yes, some -they typically grow a beard and start listening to Mumford and Sonsbut they do and it is a rite of passage. The reason I mention it, is that we are facing a challenge now, because it is not too easy to get a medium format digital camera without spending a lot of money. I use a Canon 5d, but it has a format that takes us back to the Tony Ray Jones format. A lot of students are cropping with pieces of gaffer tape on 6 x 7 format and then crop it in post-production. It's up in the air at the moment. I was reluctant, but I use it, and have used it since about 2009 after a commission. I really like it but I am conscious of it. I keep trawling the internet for cheap Japanese medium format cameras. Occasionally they bring them out for the amateur market but they don't have the flexibility in terms of functions. It is a funny era. I got a medium format camera for 90 quid in the late 1980s. It was okay, but I couldn't get one in digital now.

(HC)
For the new series, are they all on film?

(KG)
Yes, but I scan the negatives. I've kept my digital and film separate. I've also been working on a commission in Hereford for the last 5 years with a digital process. I keep them separate. With digital, though, I can enlarge them to the way that people see. You couldn't make images the size of those from No Pain Whatsover, even with a medium format. I have to put noise in some of the photographs.

(HC)
Can you talk about the difference in size and scale?


(KG)
It comes back to digital. At home I have lots and lots of boxes of 5x7 paper and print out and print out. I have a machine and they get to that size and you can print them a bit bigger, but by the time you get to 15 x 15, I would start to wobble a bit to see if I could control the printing the way I wanted to: all that is completely gone because I scan in and work through the image on the monitor until I am happy with it. Then I make the large prints that are probably more stable than ever before because of all the imperfection in my chemistry. It gives me loads of possibilities. When I did that Derby show, I did a few tests before I exhibited. I got to realise the prints the way I always wanted to. But not necessarily everything can be that size. If you think about coming from a technical background and working with Tom Wood and the others, every print has a boiling point. The prints seem right at a particular size, but wouldn't work any bigger. It's interesting to see the Tony Ray Jones show, now that they printed them larger than they ever have done in the past. This all gives us possibilities. I do like the way that the scale of a picture can encourage people to respond in different ways. I did a show in Liverpool recently and they were all intimate pictures, and shown as quite small prints. Some other pictures I can print larger, but that also tallies the fact that they look good and work at that size.

(HC)
Can you talk about the editing process for the book?

(KG)
A guy in Liverpool by Lime street station had a lab and would do Laser prints. He gave us such a cheap deal, I'm sure we put him out of business. Anyway, I would get an awful lot of those pictures together and start to lay them out quickly in a sketchbook. Because I knew the pictures, the quality didn't matter, whatever makes the process fluent works. A large part of the process is about coming back to it when you feel like you have time to, looking, working through and revising. It seems easier to explain this now -at the moment there's a vogue for people like Jorg Colberg to video themselves flipping through books from cover to cover. Imagine doing that, but for months on end with regular cut and paste revisions. That's the process really, I flip through it, over and over again and it raises questions about the structure. I am not precious about it. Then I get people, I really trust to go through it. One friend might say something like, The last four pictures are all about hands and couples. I maybe hadn't seen it, because tonally they were spread out, and we get snow-blind again. Most of the time I work on these things myself, until I've reached a point where I need fresh eyes on the work. It's not slow for me, because I make edits very quickly, but there is always time between them because of other work. I come back to it again and again to be surethings do change. I drum through it and reach a point eventually when it can't change. By the time I showed the Close Season to Dewi Lewis, for example, he went through it slowly and carefully a few times and then said fine.

(HC)
What sort of institutional support was there for photography in Liverpool?

(KG)
It was modest, but it was active. It was beneficial and started out with great energy. There was the Open Eye, which was a record label, gallery, café, film cooperative -lots of things that depend on the energy and vision of a small group of people. I was on the board of directors at the Open Eye Gallery for 10 years, and that was through an interesting time as it moved from one site to another. It's now close to the Tate in the Albert Dock and seems to be popular, though I'm no longer part of it. It was always slightly strange to us that there was such a rich vein of photography in the city, but no degree course or research base in photography. Universities seemed to see it as a facility on route to somewhere elsethere's a chance that that can change someday soon, it seems a shortcoming.

(HC)For you what is the differences between A Close Season and No Pain What So Ever?

(KG)
Interior and exterior. That was my starting point. A friend of mine, Chris Shaw, who did a book called Life as A Night Porter (2006) used to say he was suspicious of landscape photographers: perhaps because he thought they never get involved, what right do they have to float around detached? He saw them as obtuse and provocative. I understand what he meant but for me it's not that straightforward. With the Close Season, a lot of what I wanted to do was make a piece of work that would get close to people. I was interested in trying to communicate that kind of intimacy I understand in what I photograph. In No pain whatsoever the starting point was the exterior - I think it's still possible to communicate a sense of intimacy, of the vernacular -you don't have to be over the threshold to make sensitive picturesRobert Adams is living proof of that. In The Close Season the external pictures are a form of interruption. In No pain whatsoever the exteriors are still be about people but perhaps the people are reflected in the landscape and leave their influence on the way it has been shaped. (HC)
There is a sense of intimacy to the protected interior spaces in The Close Season.

(KG)
They are people's homes and privileged places to be inside of. I never underestimate that.

(HC)
Even though you see yourself as a detached image maker, if feels like you couldn't have made these pictures without being part of the community.

(KG)
No I couldn't. I do still make work outside of Liverpool, like The Garden series that I've been making in Italy for the last ten years, but I don't speak Italian too well, even though I try, so of course I can't do the same thing or work in the same way. It's kind of interesting to think about. I wasn't thinking about this at the time, but on reflection, how do you make images with sensitivity. So maybe, I can find different ways of responding to a place.

(HC)
Do you consider your work to have a political function, to serve as a critique of Thatcherism?

(KG)
Not really, no. I think it is impossible not to be influenced or guided by what's taken place in Liverpool and in the Northwest. Liverpool seemed to be a special case, because even left wing commentators in the 1980s were saying that someone should put a fence around Liverpool and float it out to sea. In Liverpool, there has always been an antagonism to authority, specifically distant authority that seemed to be less than sympathetic or fearful of a lack of subservience. There has always been antagonism, but also irreverence. I'm not confident with politics, some would argue we live in a time after politicsdon't, sadly.

It has always been difficult for me to generalise about that time because in Liverpool there is a completely different relationship to work than there might be for a Welsh industrial region or a Northeast shipbuilding town, because of the casual, transience of work in Liverpool -that seems to have grown from the river trades. A lot of my work was influenced in some small way by policy decisions, other peoples decisions affect us all, so it's kind of there, but I've always been conscious of people having a level of - I wouldn't say independence, because decisions are made and there are consequences - but maybe an irreverence because you just find a way to get by. People started to find alternative ways of living. All these folks were doing the same kind of thing and seemed to be saying the same thing: Okay, so you are throwing this at us and this is how we are going to deal with it.

So, it was only in the later part of her reign that I really started being conscious about the decisions that Thatcher was making. Margaret Thatcher was never really mentioned because you would be talking about things that were a bit more urgent in daily life. But thenof my life has been photographing disputes or dock strikes. There was a clear sense that a kind of legislation was being put into place that would contain people. Even the Labour Party was treated with suspicion in Liverpool for long periods of timeso now.

But Thatcher was always a kind of spectre. She came through Liverpool a couple of times and did one of those handbag tours where she said, This is wasteland. We need to do something about it. Michael Hesteltine, who was one of her cabinet ministers, came to Liverpool after the Toxteth riots in 1981 and asked for more government money to revive the place, in part. It was interesting because he tried to get certain things to happen, which I now look back on quite fondly: there is a Garden Festival and development that didn't last and the Albert Dock down by the waterfront where Tate Liverpool now is.

Recently when I exhibited in the photo festival in Derby there was a lot of interest in my images as an indictment of the Thatcher years. The writer Brian Viner, for example, in the Independent newspaper really laid it all out: Thatcher did this and Thatcher did that. Of course she did, but that wasn't really what motivated me. Of course I donated to the striking miners and went to benefit concerts but I wasn't motivated like Chris Killip who was actively photographing the miners' strike in 1984. The presence of politics is always there in life, but it's not a signpost or starting gun for me to make work.

I remember meeting the photographer and polemicist Allan Sekula in Liverpool in the early1990s. Allan did a small piece of work on the dock workers and some of us helped him gain access to places. He came like a whirlwind. I was always suspicious of this kind of work but we did a Saturday afternoon panel session together and it was like a rocket taking off. I found him incredibly sharp, articulate. He spoke with such clarity. There was never a moment when anyone felt disenfranchised - the dock workers, the dock workers' wives. And one of the most powerful things about Allan was that he ended so many of his comments with we need to take action.

But the thing to remember is a lot of complicated conditions had prevailed in Liverpool since World War One in Liverpool -these were long-term tensions. It wasn't something that had Thatcher created. Photographing some of the places in No pain whatsoever gave me cause to think of the more local rhythms in life -though looking from outside I can see why journalists resort to shorthand.

(HC)
For you, then, what is the function of photography?

(KG)
It's autobiographical, enriching, confirming. It's about tracing through some of those things, trying to hold on to things, trying to articulate something, trying to remember something, trying to work out where we are... I like that sense of connection, going back, remembering those people, making sure that they are still there.

I was in Liverpool in July photographing people who were the sons and daughters of the men and women whose christenings I first photographed. It's no big feather in my cap. It just means I'm still going back, still active. But I feel really privileged to be in that position.

When time passes people have time to think about what you do and what kind of role you play. A few people came up to me who would never usually say anything - people who you knew were there, but would never communicate with you. It is really gratifying when someone like that, someone who may have been photographed years before, comes up and says, I haven't seen you in ages. And people age, so you're looking thinking, Who is it? Who is it? Oh, shit, yes, it's Albert Peake!

I used to go to Albert's café years ago - what I would call a simple cafe, with a window hatch that was opened on Match days. They would have hot drinks and burgers. In the winter, when it was cold, I would go in there and photograph it and the camera would steam up. I photographed his sons too over the years, one of whom has since died, and when I did that show in Liverpool in May, the sons were in the pictures. He saw that show and must have clicked and it must have made sense. I have photos from 1995-6 of him doing afternoon treats for the kids outside the Granton Pub in Granton Road. The Pub is now gone and he lives somewhere else out of town, but he came home for an event in July.

All those things are maybe nothing for some people, but they're incredible to me. Sometimes I can't remember people's names a week later but I remember their faces -and he remembered me and remembered what I was doing. He said, I've got those pictures. Now, I don't remember giving him those pictures, but that was always part of the process. I used to go home after being in the pub or the football and process, dry, print and go back on Sunday and pass them out. God knows where I got the energy, but you just did it. It was part or the process. If I didn't it would be a chink in the armour. People would ask, Where is he? Where are those pictures? Whereas now, I can just email pictures or transfer them and everyone can use them as they want. It's almost nothing, but it is still part of the process.

Some of the things I was photographing this July, I wouldn't have been able to photograph unless things were already in place. We did a show in the Walker of pictures by a studio photographer called Keith Medley. He made portraits on glass plates and took multiple exposures on a single plate. I was going to a meeting about the show and as I was getting off the train from South Wales I was thinking, Well, its July, there is bound to be a parade. So I go up and start photographing and people I hadn't seen in 20 years, start saying hello. So I go back and follow the parade down to St. George's Plateau and a guy, Stevie Bell, comes around the corner on his motor scooter and says, how are you? I say. I'm alright. and asks if I would do an exhibition of the pictures in his social clubthat was the first time I've ever dug out those pictures. That meant, I had to go back to Wales and start digging out all those pictures at parades and at their days out. There are 1000s of these. I made little sets. Eventually, There was 150 pictures none of which they felt like they were right for the 'No pain'book. They were too much about a little place going on. It's another book one day. So, 150 pictures did it and we did the show as the Stevie Bell invitation edit. Steve Bell didn't get to see the show in situe, though we took him sheets of pictures to see -he was too ill and died a month after it was installed.

(HC)
In some ways it seems only appropriate to show this work in a social club in Liverpool.

(KG)
Yes, that is part of the problem and part of the solution. The response was incredible. It corresponded with a Photography festival we had in Liverpool, and Mark Durden and I curated the Keith Medley Walker show and this at the same time. On the Saturday, we made it an open day with fliers and placed them all around the bars, the football and the social book. And I got there at about 10 o'clock in the morning and the women, Bev who runs the social club now. The reason she asked me to do the show, is because the fellow who runs the social club died, just before the show was on. It is all complicated. The life expectancy of men in Liverpool is something like 60, whereas in London it is 71. It is not an easy place to be on a number of levels. Bev gave us some help and she said, Have you put all the posters around? I said, yeah, yeah. And she asked, What else have you done? and I said, What do you mean? She said, Have you put it on Facie? It took me about five minutes, and she said, Wait and clicked about on her phone and a half hour later, she opened the doors and all the people who had been photographed were waiting. Dozens of people. It was incredible, years were wiped away- and all because of social networking. They were really, really good. People had their cameras and shared the pictures instantly -some were joking, saying take that down, my hair is terrible, others simply named everyone in the scenes they were inthe value of the pictures seemed clear. People work out what you were doing for all those years and they get it -they understand the purpose and the value of photography. The downside is that sometimes I feel like the Grim Reaper -because some people just aren't around anymore. Hardly surprising I guess -things are rarely straightforward're not here long.

Ken Grant

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