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Barry Lewis photographs of Blackpool part II: Images of Christmas past

Photographing Christmas and the New Year celebrations was a very different experience.

I’d stay in a small friendly hotel, full board, with nightly entertainment in its tiny bar and an even tinier room where the sink overhung my bed. Christmas dinner in these places was shared with strangers, who became family and friends, and even included a present! Outside of these holiday-home comforts I’d shelter in warm pubs and steamy cafes from the strong winds and cold rain outside.

Life over those days was a continuous pub and club crawl, full of dancing, singing and laughter as the rain whipped past outside. The daytime trips outside, fuelled by a full Englishseemed to be full of Christmas shoppers, Salvation Army bands and tipsy Santas. The golden mile seemed so much longer in the blinding rain and I travelled around on an old moped that I brought up with me in the guard’s van on the train from London for the price of a tip and a wink… those were the days! The night was my friend, everyone was both welcoming and scarily determined to party hard whatever the cost. Many of my memories of those alcohol-fuelled evenings are only brought back into a warm, fuzzy focus, as I look back through the photos. 

They mark the beginning of my career in photography. I had been a chemistry teacher in the Midlands and my photography was a self-taught hobby. By a series of lucky breaks, I won a two-year scholarship to the RCAstudying under Bill Brandt, and never looked back. The timing was perfect as there was an explosion of new magazines all needing photography. I learned on the job, first through a contract with Vogue magazine, then freelancing as I built up my reputation and connections. It was possible to earn a good living whilst finding the best area of work that suited your personality – whether portraits, photo stories or architecture. If were willing to work hard, be nice, and always say “yes” to new assignments and try anything, then the world was your oyster. 

Now for young and emerging photographers everything has changed – magazines and companies are closing daily along and the internet and digital recorders have made many of the photographers rolls of film redundant. Young photographers are now leaving universities in increasing numbers yet with decreasing work opportunities. There are few jobs out there and many initially have dreams of becoming an “Art Photographer”, encouraged by the well-publicised success of the few. It is possible to make a living in photography, but it is really tough… though that should not put anyone off from following the practice, as long as it is your passion, rather than your income. 

Like bees to honey, Blackpool has always attracted photographers. It is the epitome of Britain at play, where everyone’s guard is down and pleasure is ruthlessly pursued. Holidays are for letting go, falling in love, meeting new people and trying new experiences in a safe setting. Against miles of sand and under an empty sky everyone is a stranger and for that short time both photographers and marauding seagulls are accepted and even enjoyed, especially after a drink! 

For me a good photostory is a visual mix evoking the sounds and smells, along with sense of people and place. It is like a movie but without continuous action and music. The evocation is achieved by the individual composition within each frame alongside the overall structure of the story unfolding – establishing shots, close ups of individuals, quiet moments, wild moments – a sense of the passage of time, with either gently fading between the scenes or jump cutting to create surprises. Looking through a sequence of still images can help bring up strong memories of childhood, as the viewer joins the gaps between the frozen moments to make their own movie. 

The decision on colour or black and white film when shooting a photo essay was crucial before digital. In this essay, colour was essential to telling my story, with reliant light on the long warm days and the garish colours of the British seaside in summer contrasting with the cold light of winter. Shooting the town in black and white can be a powerful and bleak statement but it’s not my Blackpool, which is all about warmth, excess, fun and surreal humour. A place to store good memories before returning to the harsher realities of daily life.

My favourite image from Blackpool is a beach scene at high tide, framed by the pier and crowded with people of every age (plus a dog), letting go in their own way – paddling, splashing and swimming. It’s a late warm afternoon, and all the individual anxieties within the crowd are dissolved by the mix of sun, sea and the sand between their toes. 
Barry Lewis’s photobook, Blackpool 1984-1989, is available now from Café Royal Books

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