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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007
    Celebrating the Open Eye

    When as a youth and into my twenties I would frequent the Open Eye Gallery in its first home, an old pub at the end of Whitechapel, I never had any inkling of the broader context of British photography. So I didn't realise that outside of that place (and a few others scattered around the country) the wider arts world looked down on photography as a valid art form.

    Only today, listening fascinated to Peter Hagerty telling the story of how he got the Open Eye going, have I discovered that in 1979 photography was off-limits at The Tate; they couldn't see the art in the form. Photographers were cultural-class outsiders. I had always taken it as a given that photography offered as much inspiration and insight as any other form of visual art. I had always taken as keen an interest in the Open Eye exhibitors as in any other sort of gallery, screen, or stage artists. And I realise now that this profoundly instrumental aspect of my life I owe to that tatty, damp, run-on-a-shoestring idyll of my formative years, a place I'd pop into on most of my many trips to town.

    Hagerty was fascinating on the early history of photography in which Liverpool featured prominently. As one of the world's wealthiest cities it inevitably became a centre for technological innovation and Liverpool nurtured many photographic pioneers. And it was also fascinating to hear about his involvement in the championing of Edward Chambre Hardman: "Every city has its portrait photographers, I was interested in him because of his love for landscapes."

    When Hardman's masterpiece, The Birth of the Ark Royal, appeared on screen during this lecture I found myself deeply moved - partly because you'd need a heart of stone not to be impressed, every time, by that wondrous picture, but perhaps also because behind my viewing of it this time was Hagerty's story of how he got involved in helping to save the house full of pictures which in his dotage the failing, unrecognised, Edwardian genius was letting rot around him.

    And I also found it profound to reflect on the Open Eye's commitment in those early years (it may be the same today) to giving gallery space to little-known or unknown, often local or regional photographers. Again, I'd just always assumed that this was 'the norm', that a Liverpool gallery would of course feature the work of the Bootle Photography Project and their kind. Again, only today have I come to realise the distinctiveness of this approach - which was driven, Hagerty freely admitted, by a very limited budget, but of course signalled a whole lot more.

    I guess one effect of this was to encourage local photographers in their art, and many nurtured by the Open Eye have achieved wide recognition - Tom Wood, John (not me the other one) Davies. But another effect was to encourage susceptible youths like me, at a time when opportunities were few and self-esteem was low, that (a) the ordinary things of our lives were valid subjects for art and celebration; and that (b) we could, at little expense, express ourselves this way.

    Related perhaps to these things, a classic Liverpool exceptionalism also played its part in Hagerty's vision. This was amusingly illustrated in a brief remark he made about a local photographer who achieved commercial success through his association with 80s Liverpool bands: "I don't know what happened to him. He went to London and he's never been heard of since."

    Today's lecture became a trip down a very illuminating part of my memory lane. As Peter Hagerty showed slides of that old Open Eye building and talked about the many good (if edgy and unpromising) things it hosted I recalled the Photography for the Unemployed course I attended there in probably 1983 or '84. Being trusted to take away a fresh roll of film each week was something in itself, at a time when DHSS snoops and society at large had us all down as thieves and cheats; being helped to produce artworks the likes of which we'd never imagined we had in us, was quite something too. It's one of my most treasured photos, taken and printed on that Open Eye training course: a portrait of my nana, Jessie Davies: