A Commitment To Merseyside
by Siobhan Davis
Siobhan davis examines the collection of open eye gallery and its history of working with local photographers
The dark interior of a traditional pub, unevenly lit by large windows and a scattering of old fashioned light fittings, is crowded with men enjoying a lunchtime pint. Suit clad customers rub shoulders with casually dressed locals as their combined attention is directed toward a figure on the right of the frame. A woman, her back to the camera, is picked out by the chiaroscuro lighting. Dressed in a loose fitting white basque. frilled around the top of the thigh, she leans forward unhooking a suspender fastening. Barely visible in front of the woman, a man's face concentrates on the spectacle before him. The content of the photograph is not immediately apparent. It demands that the viewer takes time to examine its depths, to question what it's about.
The photograph belongs to a sequence of five pictures in the archive of the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool. There is no documentation relating to the series except the name T. Kriger written in pencil on the cardboard mounts. However, viewed collectively, the photographs provide some context. The pub - 'The Dominion' - with its slightly run down old fashioned façade, stands alone on the corner of a street, opposite the dock wall. The vehicles parked outside suggest the early to mid-1980s. Inside, a more graphic close-up of the woman, clearly portrays a lunchtime stripper and her animated audience. Along the wall behind the spectators are framed historical photographs of the bustling docks. An additional photograph in the sequence sees one of these images hanging above the heads of four seated men. Two are engaged in conversation, the centrally placed figure gesticulating enthusiastically as he converses with his smiling companion. In contrast, the two men nearest the camera are lost in their own thoughts. Slumped in resignation, these men seem crushed by the image above their heads. At a time of high unemployment, the decline in shipbuilding. and political militancy and isolationism in Liverpool, the image encapsulates the dichotomy between the quirky, extroverted, ever positive elements of the Liverpudlian character and a more self pitying and negative opposite.
Nearly thirty years on, as a historical record, the sequence offers a glimpse into a period in the city's history marked by hardship and change. The tradition of the Friday afternoon stripper - light entertainment for workingmen armed with cash filled crisp brown envelopes - seems anachronistic and ironic. Along with providing a poignant social historical record, the photographs also represent the documentary urge in British photography during the 1970s and early 1980s, and, as part of the Open Eye archive, contribute to the developmental history of a regionally based photographic organisation.
Unlike the collections of museums and national galleries. which have been compiled within the boundaries of collecting policies that follow aesthetic, historical, or subject specific remits, the development of the Open Eye archive has been indistinct and sporadic. Often steered by the interests of those in in the organisation at any one time, it has both suffered and benefitted from fluctuations in public funding, organisational restructure, and movements in location. With no spare money to invest in cataloguing and storage, the archive had been stored in a mixture of boxes at the back of the director's office, resulting in some 1,500 works being rarely seen or considered. By sorting and cataloguing the archive, it has been possible to loosely trace the way Open Eye has variously worked within the local community, encouraged local practitioners, and participated in the wider photographic arena over the past 36 years.
The Merseyside Visual Communication Unit (MVCU) - from which Open Eye would develop - started life in 1973 as a small organisation making films for local community groups in Liverpool. The inspiration for MVCU was the Canadian Challenge for Change programme; an organisation set up in 1966 to advance "adult education and participatory development through community produced media". Challenge for Change provided a channel through which marginalised groups could present their concerns and difficulties to those in authority. Working along similar lines, MVCU initially produced three 16mm films.
By 1974, with funding from Merseyside Arts, the MVCU had moved into its first city centre premises, introducing basic video editing facilities. In the autumn OF 1976, the organisation relocated to the old Grapes Hotel on the corner of Whitechapel and Hood Street, where it would reside for the next 13 years. The move to the Grapes allowed the introduction of darkroom facilities, which were followed by a sound recording studio, cafe and film screening area. Colin Wilkinson, one of the founders and first director of the MVCU. visualised an organisation that would provide facilities and training for local people, which functioned differently from formal educational institutions by combining instruction with the realisation of a tangible product.
Inspired by Amber Associates. the photographic cooperative based in Newcastle which had opened the Side Gallery in January 1977, Wilkinson opened the first gallery space at the Grapes with limited funds from the Arts Council of Great Britain and Merseyside Arts Association. Reflecting the ethos of Side, which combined under an umbrella of documentary practice, locally generated contemporary and historical photography with the work of national and international practitioners, Wilkinson approached Colin Thomas. a local photographer who had been documenting the lives of young people in the Halewood area of Liverpool, to launch the new space (Halewood, September 1977). At first, the gallery consisted of one room and, with an initial programme of just four exhibitions, was to some extent an experiment to gauge public interest in a permanent photographic gallery for the city. Located close to the bus station and with a slightly run down and perhaps less threatening appearance than the Walker Art Gallery nearby, Open Eye drew an eclectic audience. The exhibitions: American Viewpoint (December 1977), Film Ends by Mark Edwards and Chris Steele Perkins (January 1978), and Landscapes by Franco Fontana (February 1978), along with the Colin Thomas show, received varied responses from visitors. bur overall indicated there was "considerable support for the continuation of the Gallery".
Following the initial experimental period. the space was expanded to two rooms in March 1978, and a policy was developed for programming. Two main objectives were agreed: bringing important touring exhibitions to the city and showcasing the work of local photographers. Initially, this approach faced certain limitations. The gallery had minimal financial resources, there were few good touring shows available, and, importantly, there was no tradition of exhibiting local photographers' work in the city. In order to attract such practitioners, Open Eye held its first group exhibition in April 1978. According to the gallery's newsletter. the show "generated a very favourable public response" and proved "an undoubted success in bringing local work to the public's attention". For Wilkinson, Nineteen 78 served as a means of finding out what local photographers were doing and, as a result. Simon Critchley. Royston Jones, Peter Hagerty and Neil McDowell were given one- man shows at the gallery, signalling to other photographers "that, at last, there was a serious venue for their work" in the city.
While Wilkinson had conceived of an organisation that would work as a cohesive - the photographic workshops and Unit – the photographic workshops and facilities producing work of a standard suitable for the gallery - this was not the case. However, the publicity generated by the 1978 open did increase the number of local photographers seeking to have their work shown at the Open Eye. Such interest called for the development of a selection policy for future opens. It was decided to appoint a panel of independent judges - avoiding accusations of bias - to select no more than eight photographers who would be invited to show their work; a pattern which would continue for a number of years.
Director. Hagerty was interested in expanding the scope of the exhibition programme beyond its existing local and documentary based remit to encompass a wider swathe of photographic practice. It was during Hagerty’s directorship that the Open Eye collection was begun. Unlike Amber, which had consciously started to build a photographic archive of the north east, collecting work produced by the cooperative along with exhibition purchases and donations, the collection at Open Eye began as purely incidental to the exhibition programme. The organisation of MVCU - now divided into five departments - was fragmented in terms of funding. The film and video departments received money from the British Film Institute, photography was funded by the Arts Council, and the sound department was largely self sufficient. In contrast, the gallery received little official funding, which meant that money was juggled by Wilkinson to help finance the exhibition programme. The idea of paying to show photographers' work did not sit easily with all the members of the organisation, many of whom did not share Hagerty's enthusiasm to move beyond the local context. As such, Wilkinson and Hagerty negotiated the purchase of prints as A tangible product to justify the cost of some shows (e.g. Colour Photographs, May 1981, by Bob Phillips and Joel Meyerowitz). By balancing the programme with exhibitions by local practitioners, community groups, and shows featuring historical photographs of the area, it was possible in some degree to appease the other parts of the organisation and host exhibitions That reached beyond their locally based viewpoint.
In order to publicise exhibitions, the gallery published a bi-monthly newsletter entitled Open Eye. This publication ran to 18 issues from January 1979 to December 1981. During its short existence, it grew from a simple eight page newsletter to a twenty eight page magazine. Devoted solely to the medium of photography, Open Eye dealt in detail with the exhibition programme and publicised photographic workshops and activities. It was not an organ for the MVCU, which perhaps served to deepen the ideological differences between the gallery and the rest of the organisation. Retrospectively, the publication provides an interesting record of Open Eye’s early development and the ambitions - not always realised - of those involved. The widening scope of the exhibition programme is evident from the published statements and intentions of the photographers, which also reflect a critical discourse on the role of photography at the time. Hagerty aligned the publication with an American oriented interpretive and reflective approach to writing, rather than the more political and practical tone of contemporary British publications. The national emphasis on politically conscious and socially engaged practice was also downplayed in the exhibitions shown between 1979 and 1981. In general, the exhibition programme was "heavily biased against the documentary photograph" with preference "shown to... more experimental and personal photography". This stance was not taken to devalue contemporary documentary practice, but was an attempt to balance what Hagerty saw as "a bias in favour of the documentary photograph in Britain" at the time.
In 1982 Wilkinson and Hagerty resigned From Open Eye to pursue a commercial photography and publishing venture. While only a small number of photographs had been acquired bv this time, the range of work - from E. Chambré Hardman's Birth of the Ark Royal to Patrick Shanahans's 5x4 selenium toned portraits of punks in Liverpool, and Joel -Meyerowitz’s colour seascapes - does reflect the ambitious and varied exhibition programme favoured during the early years.
Under the direction of Neil Burgess (1982 - 1986) and John McDonald (1986 - 1989), Open Ey’s exhibition programme underwent a change in emphasis. Burgess felt a strong commitment to work being produced on Merseyside and initiated a number of projects which commissioned work from local practitioners. An important outcome of such projects was the development of the archive. Burgess recalls that:
"building a collection was a key aim of mine. I felt that it should exist as a record of what we were doing, but also... as a resource for the future. I made it a rule that we should always try to acquire at least one work from every show. That wasn't always possible and in some cases the print ‘walked’. but with anything we originated ourselves it was part of the deal with the photographers or the institution."
During 1983, Open Eye set up the Liverpool Free Studio in various locations around the city. Photographers - including Tom Wood, John Stoddart and John McDonald - photographed people off the street against a plain background. Many of those photographed project an air of self confidence as they confront the camera, suggesting through their posture and gaze the extrovert Liverpudlian spirit. The portrait of a teenage boy, denim clad with checked shirt buttoned to the neck, head tilted slightly back as he looks down into the camera, aptly captures this quality. Despite social and economic difficulties, these portraits record the face of people getting on with life.
John Stoddart, one of the Free Studio photographers, had developed his practice using the facilities offered by MVCU. After leaving the army, and while working In various jobs around Liverpool, he had started photographing the city. Enjoying the support of the organisation, Stoddart continued to improve his technical skills. A selection of work from the exhibitions New Evidence (February - March 1983) and Everton (February - March 1985), show the photographer's development as a social documentarian. Stoddart's perceptive images of Orangemen celebrating the 12th July, through to the degradation of run down estates, offer a penetrating view of the city and possess both aesthetic quality and social historical value.
Under Burgess, Open Eye participated in collaborative work with other organisations in the region. In 1986, in conjunction with the Cornerhouse and the Bluecoat Gallery, they commissioned three photographers and three painters to explore the connections between Liverpool and Manchester. The photographic commissions, undertaken by Martin Parr, John Davies and Vanley Burke, while receiving some unfavourable reviews at the time - seemingly lacking enough political comment and failing to illuminate any connection between the cities - have, through the passage of two decades, accrued value both as examples of the photographers' developing practice and as records of regional change.
Similarly important bodies of work were created through the Project Assistance Scheme, which awarded photographers grants of £500 to fund their own projects concerned with the northwest. Around ten awards were made between 1985 and 1986, which resulted in exhibitions such as Transvestites by Steve Conlan and People at Leisure by David Turner (April - May 1985); and Seascape by Rob Williams and Urban Landscape in Liverpool by Paul O'Donnell (May - June 1985). As part of the award agreement the photographs exhibited were kept for the archive.
In January 1989, Open Eye moved to new premises on Bold Street. This relocation and development received funding from the City's Urban Programme. Bold Street was large enough to house the gallery on the ground floor and accommodate the film, video and animation facilities above. At first, all the organisations which had grown out of MVCU or had joined the Community Art Trust (CAT) - Open Eye Film and Video, Women's Independent Cinema House (WITCH), and Community Productions Merseyside - moved into the new premises. However, in 1990 CAT dissolved leaving just the Open Eye Gallery.
Under Dave Williams' directorship (1989 - 1996), there were ambitious plans to raise funds to purchase a 33 year lease on the new premises, to install darkroom and processing facilities, create subsidised studio space for aspiring photographers and to found an agency to represent practitioners in the north west region. In an article from the Daily Post, Williams underlines this development as a "pivotal moment" for the organisation, contextualising the need for change within a hostile funding climate.
While there were no longer practical workshops and courses, Open Eye continued to host portfolio sessions for local photographers. The exhibition programme remained focused on documentary practice, hosting touring exhibitions and showing the work of locally based practitioners (e.g. Rivers Edge: Observations front the Mersey Estuary, March - April 1989, by Rob Williams and Care in the Community, May - June 1989, by Tom Wood), projects such as, Bhangra Beat (1989), which addressed the Asian communities of Liverpool and Bradford, were commissioned by the gallery, and collaborations with other photographic organisations continued. As technology developed in the early 1990s, Open Eye embraced multimedia shows as part of the exhibition programme. These included video and audio visual productions. the publication of exhibitions on floppy disc, and the creation of an electronic archive, which documented "the social, cultural and economic contributions of Liverpool's Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Asian communities".
Despite Williams' plans to develop Open Eye into a ‘fully-fledged media centre’, the gallery was forced to close following the City Council's sale of the building to a commercial company. Open Eye re-launched in November 1996 in its current Wood Street location under the directorship of Paul Mellor and a new board of directors. Funded by a lottery grant, the new premises placed the gallery in the heart of the developing cultural quarter of the city surrounded by independent shops and bars - a far cry from its Whitechapel roots and the passing trade provided by Liverpool Bus Station. The relocation and reorganisation of Open Eye a widening of the organisation's programme to include: original work by new/unknown photographers, exhibitions of historical significance, exhibitions with an international perspective, site specific exhibitions external to the gallery and collaborative work. This new remit is reflected in the exhibition programme, where there is a reduction in the amount of shows featuring locally based photographers or subject matter. Despite this change, there has continued to be commissioned work concerning the north west - most recently The Water's Edge by Michelle Sank (2007) and Made Up by Nancy Davenport (2008). both of which were commissioned under Patrick Henry, the current Director.
On the verge of relocation, perhaps it is an apt moment to reflect on the history of Open Eye, and to consider the future direction Of the organisation. The new premises on Mann Island, close to the new Museum of Liverpool and other cultural institutions at the Albert Dock. will take the gallery out of a central location to embrace a new type of passing trade. For the first time, Open Eye will include a designated storage space tor the archive, and a third exhibition area, which offers the possibility to show work from the collection. An integral part of Open Eye's development is the introduction of an education programme working with targeted groups on Merseyside. This programme will draw on the archive as a unique resource for projects. While the exhibition programme at the gallery will continue to have an international perspective, the potential development of a collecting policy - shaped by the existing content and diversity of the collection - will enable support for locally based photographers and projects that will feed directly into the collection, and allow for retrospective collecting based on the institutional history of the organisation. This type of approach has already proved successful with the acquisition of the Cities on the Edge project - derived and coordinated by John Davies - which was not exhibited at Open Eye, but is complementary to the content of the archive.
Collections of photographs, like those at Open Eye, are both an important record and potential resource for an organisation. Unfortunately, because they have often been accumulated in a sporadic and indistinct manner, very little documentation exists to make them accessible. Retrospective cataloguing can be time consuming and costly, leading - I am sure - to the existence of other small archives lurking unused in offices and store cupboards.