By Paul Wright
The 1980s was a tough decade for many industrial towns and cities across the UK, and Liverpool with its rich industrial heritage was hit particularly hard. Around eighty thousand jobs were lost between 1972-1982 and the city was left devastated by the impact of de-industrialisation. The old tenements and tower blocks were being demolished and the lack of opportunity and despair had a major social impact on its inner city communities. As with other major cities across the UK, police fallout and inner-city 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 and casual fashions of the era, friendly faces and local characters who were proud of their city and the place they belonged to.
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, but he soon got acquainted 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, and 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 photographer’s Tom Wood (who was teaching at the college) and Martin Parr, who lived nearby. He would help out in Tom’s darkroom and spend his weekends following Tom, and occasionally Martin around the faded resort of New Brighton as they documented the area.
Rob was later accepted on to 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: “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 looked at commissioning 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 images of Liverpool’s Pier Head.
Rob:” 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 would give me free burgers.”
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. He continued to work freelance up until around ten years ago until both his parents developed dementia, when his mother passed away he returned home to Wick to care for his father.
Rob has released his first book, titled ‘The Dash Between’ on Liverpool’s Bluecoat Press. 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. All the photos in between are from his time spent on Merseyside.
A selection of Rob Bremner’s images will be on display at our exhibition at The Social in London (15th November – 31st December 2019) and at The Refuge, Manchester (30th Jan – 30th April 2020).
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