By Paul Wright
The 1980s was a tough time for most working class cities, and Liverpool with its rich industrial heritage was hit particularly hard. Around 80,000 jobs were lost between 1972-1982 with the city reeling from the impact of de-industrialisation. The old tenements and tower blocks were being demolished and the lack of opportunity and despair was felt strongly amongst its inner city communities. Rioting ensued, and the city became embroiled in a class war with the Thatcher led government, who many felt let their city rot when they most needed help.
Rob Bremner’s photos captured the mood of these times, but also the everyday life and spirit of the people, the colourful fashions of the era, friendly characters and tight-knit communities who were proud of the city and the place they belonged to.
I’ve been a fan of Rob Bremner ever since stumbling across his collection ‘Liverpool unfinished’ a few years back (named unfinished as he still hopes to come back to finish the project). There’s just something evocative and moving about the images he captured of Merseyside during the turbulent Thatcher years.
I was pleased to hear about him putting together his debut photography book and was keen to get in contact with him to find out more about himself and the images he took during the 1980s & 90s. I was happy when he got back in touch and provided some background into his story and the photographs that he took.
Rob was born in Wick, a small village in the North of Scotland and left school at sixteen with no qualifications. He got his first job working in a garage, which he didn’t particularly like, so he managed to get in touch with a press photographer in Inverness who gave him a job on a youth training scheme (YTS). He didn’t know much about photography then, he just didn’t want to work in the garage anymore. The scheme only lasted six months but he enjoyed it and decided to pursue his newfound passion for photography.
In 1983 he enrolled on a photography course at Wallasey School of Art, just over the water from Liverpool, on The Wirral. Leaving his hometown of Wick, he swapped rural North East Scotland for the industrious landscape of North West England.
Whilst studying in Wallasey he became acquainted with the acclaimed photographer’s Tom Wood (who was teaching at the college) and Martin Parr, who also lived nearby. He would help out in Tom’s darkroom and spend his weekends following mainly Tom and occasionally Martin around the down at heel resort of New Brighton as they documented the area.
Rob was later accepted in to Magnum photographer David Hurn’s respected School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales. It was around this time he started to photograph the Everton and Vauxhall areas of Liverpool, then the third most deprived area of Britain with the highest rate of arson in Europe. Rob says “It was tough times, but I found everyone to be warm and friendly, and on rainy days they would ask me in for tea. I left my college Bronica in a pub one night after some dockers invited me for a drink, I returned the next day and they had left it behind the bar for me. I wish I could say I was a socially aware photographer, campaigning against Thatcher’s Britain, but I just felt comfortable taking photos there and liked the people”.
On completion of his course in Newport Rob came back to live in Merseyside, establishing himself as a freelance photographer in Liverpool. A local gallery was going to commission his Everton/Vauxhall work but this ended up falling through and struggling for work Rob ended up living in a bedsit and on the dole. Not being able to afford to work in colour he purchased cans of out of date 35mm black and white cine stock and It was during this time he took his black and white photographs of Liverpool’s Pier Head.
Rob says ” Liverpool’s Pier Head at that time was really just a dilapidated bus station where people went to catch the ferries across the Mersey. It was the last stop for most buses and older people with their free bus passes would alight there. There was a café, the staff were friendly and you could sit there all day sipping the same cup of tea and not be asked to leave. It was cheaper than heating a home. Danny who used to the run the burger stand gave me free burgers, nice man.”
Rob eventually managed to secure a grant from the Prince’s business trust and joined the enterprise allowance scheme, another government scheme to get people off unemployment benefit and become self employed. That’s when he started to get freelance work, mainly for trade unions and social housing magazines.
Rob continued to work freelance up until around ten years ago. Both his parents developed dementia and when his mother passed away he had to return home to care for his father.
Rob has never exhibited his work apart from a few images at a photographic festival in Liverpool in 2011 as part of a slide show.
Rob is currently in the process of launching his first book, which is titled ‘The Dash Between’. The title comes from the dash between the date you were born and the date you died on your gravestone, it is about human life. The book starts with photos Rob took whilst visiting his family on holiday, and finishes with the photos he took whilst looking after his father. The photos in between are from his time on Merseyside.
All images © Rob Bremner.
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