Tell it Like it is: Interview with Laura Robertson & Ian Clegg

Three Lads on Bikes, Maud & Elaine Street, L8, 1979. Ian Clegg

Tell it Like it is
Interview with Laura Robertson & Ian Clegg

L- A City Through its People opens 2nd December – 7th March 2021, Open Eye Gallery

Interview: Patrick Kirk-Smith

Three Lads on Bikes, Maud & Elaine Street, L8, 1979. Ian Clegg

“I’ve got these photographs under my bed” was the line Ian Clegg introduced himself with, talking about a box of black and white photographs of Liverpool he took as a teenager. The images capture an insider’s view of Toxteth, before the riots, before managed decline, and well before the Baltic Triangle became the city’s cultural hub in the 00’s. 

Laura Robertson, editor of The Double Negative, and Open Eye Gallery’s Critical Writer in Residence, was intrigued. And it’s led us where we are now, the (sadly postponed) launch of Tell it Like it is, one third of a new three part exhibition opening in December at Open Eye Gallery.

They met over that line eighteen months ago. It seems like a different world now. Everything I was working on then has passed through various stages of postponed, and we’re nearly through to another year of unknowns. But for Laura and Ian, it was the start of a project which has come at exactly the right time.

The archive actively challenges us to reflect on our Liverpool. To write, to document, to photograph, to share our thoughts on a city we might have started taking for granted. Look back forty years to when these images were first taken. How much has changed? What about ten years? Capital of Culture? Or, do what we’ll all be doing next year, and look back over twelve months of global chaos that disconnected our worlds at home; to the world just outside our door.

The cohabitation of word and image at Open Eye Gallery is a chance for everyone to reflect on their own worlds, however big, however small, however distant, and share that. The resultant project, Tell it Like it is, is a chance to re-contextualise our relationship with Liverpool.

I met with Laura and Ian, as is customary for 2020, over Zoom to find out a bit more about the project and where it came from:

PK-S: When’s it being extended to?

Laura Robertson: We’re due to open when lockdown finishes, 2nd December through to March next year. It’s a group show, Tell It Like It Is is upstairs in Gallery 3, and downstairs is Scotty Press and The RED Archive, of LFC fan photography by Emma Case, footballer Jimmy Case’s daughter. The three shows together are like looking through a family album, it’s really positive and joyous. It’s a celebration of community photography – our pictures of our Liverpool, how we see it. It’s been such a lovely, positive, creative show to work on.

131 High park street L8. 1979. Ian Clegg

PKS: It’ll go down well. There’s a move towards the hyper local in terms of curatorial output from the big galleries, showing artists from Merseyside, and talking about issues on our doorsteps.

LR: This is a universal theme. Everyone lives somewhere. I was so struck by Ian’s photographs when he first showed them to me. Some of them were really familiar, but some were just from a different planet; versions of Liverpool I didn’t recognise at all. I grew up through the 80s and 90s, Ian’s a little bit more vintage than me, and he was taking these photographs through the late 70s, 80s, while he was a teenager. We both grew up in terraced houses, me in Anfield, Ian in Toxteth with his nan, and grandad and his uncles and aunties on the same street.

Ian Clegg: You could walk round the corner and see relatives, or play football with the local kids and come back for your tea. It was an interesting place. I just suddenly realised the place was changing rapidly, and I needed to point my camera at the things that were changing. So I had all these pictures and I didn’t know what to do with them. I was at Wolverhampton Polytechnic at the time, and suddenly a project came up so I carried on with them. A couple of tutors saw it, but they’ve been in storage ever since, until I bumped into Laura.

LR: At the time, I was writing Present Tense, The Double Negative book reflecting on Liverpool European Capital of Culture, and Ian said, “I’ve got these photographs under the bed. I’ve not showed them to anyone since my tutor at Wolverhampton Polytechnic saw them, and hated them, and told me off for being so depressing.” Which I thought was hilarious, given how we think about socially engaged photography now. 

He showed me pictures of his walks from Toxteth to the Baltic Triangle. You know, Liverpool’s changed so much in ten years since Capital of Culture, but in 40 years, the speed of the transformation of Liverpool into this tourist city is incredible, when you consider managed decline and what we went through in the 80s. Some of these photographs were taken in 1980, the year before the Toxteth riots. Just look at how much we’ve done without the help of Westminster, with the help of Europe.

Evertonian Nuns, Church St, L1, 1980. Ian Clegg

PK-S: How much of this project is about that transformation? Is it looking at 70-80, or the in between, or the transition from then to now?

IC: We’ve called it Tell It Like It Is because we want feedback from people who remember it a different way. We don’t want it to be just a reminiscence. We want this project to move forward. I think it’s great that I’ve teamed up with Laura because the narrative helps to decode the images. And working with Open Eye, they’re encouraging us to work with the community, and we want people to look at these images, write about them and create their own images. We’re giving them a single-use black & white camera. The hope is that they’ll react to these images, go and do something they want to do.

LR: Really early on, when we were talking about Ian’s photographs, we were talking about the power of new work. If we were working together we didn’t want to just do an exercise in nostalgia, we wanted to create brand new work. So our collaboration takes three stages: First stage is the exhibition at Open Eye, with new writing from me which is plastered all over the walls to give a bit of an atmosphere to the photographs and open up discussion. The second stage is a series of winter, lockdown friendly workshops where we’re posting out cameras to people at home. People who are isolated in the Liverpool City Region and further afield, people who want to connect, make something, be creative, and talk to other people about where they live. And the third stage will be a celebratory event next year which we’re really looking forward to. But that’ll be decided with the workshop group.

And it is a pilot. But I really wanted to work with Ian this year especially because I knew Don McCullin was coming up at Tate Liverpool, who is an absolute legend in photojournalism. And Ian and I found his approach to city photography really interesting, and strange and rich, considering the way work came out as weekend features in magazines. But he wasn’t from Liverpool, and he compared taking street photography to war photography, in the fact that you don’t have to travel to a different country to make good photojournalism. His take was that there’s a war going on our streets and it’s related to poverty. So we’re really interested in what those old photographs did, in terms of what some people might think of as poverty porn, and this nostalgia that people might think is unhelpful.

PK-S: There’s one word on the website, ethnomediaology, which is StoryLab’s word, but the simple version is that it’s immersive research; you live within the culture that you’re writing about. So how does that chime with the Don McCullin archive, because obviously McCulllin is a documentary photographer who turns up, takes photos, leaves. Quite sensitively sometimes, but sometimes not, so how does that relationship work?

IC: Without being offensive to him, he is a bit of an interloper. And we’ve got one up on him in that both of us are from Liverpool. We don’t want to celebrate poverty porn, we want to look at the images and say, “look we lived there, it was alright but this was what it looked like.” People came up to me in the street and said “Take my picture mister.” We weren’t embarrassed about living there, but I saw it changing. I saw whole streets missing. One weekend I’d visit nan, and the next a whole street would be gone. So Don McCullin had an agenda, he earned a living from it, and I respect him massively. I was a teenager learning how to do photography at uni, so these photographs are a bit more raw. Laura thought I’d put an effect on with the black corners, but I just had the wrong lens hood. [laughs]

LR: He was learning as he went along. They were all unedited, and Ian’s chosen to leave them as he found them, so you can see the edge of the frames. You can see they’re by a teenager. This thing about taking photographs, and writing about where you live as opposed to just visiting for a day or two, these are the questions we’re going to be exploring in the workshops, to ask in what ways that they impact the resulting image and narrative. 

IC: I was learning at the time, and these workshops are open to beginners. We’ve recruited a full class of people of different ages, backgrounds, experiences, who are all just really keen to make new work. You don’t have to be a photographer or a writer to come to these workshops.

PK-S: How important is it that you’re mailing a camera out to people? That they’re not just on zoom? That they’re actually going out and taking photos?

LR: Like everyone else we’ve had to be really flexible with lockdown. We’ve been planning this for eighteen months. We had walking tours planned where we took photos along the way, with meet ups that’d probably end up in the pub. We’ve had to think carefully about what people really need at the moment, so we can work together properly, not just on zoom. Ian came up with the idea to use the same HP5 film that he originally used, and they look very grainy, other worldly. We’re simply posting notebooks, pens and cameras out to people, and then they send the films straight back for processing. The physical, analogue, prints are sent back to your house within a matter of days. We want to send something physical in the post, to tell people we’re thinking of them.

This is a Ship Not a Site, Docks, 1979. Ian Clegg