Artist interview: Stephen Clarke’s Blackpool in the 80s and 90s

You may have seen Stephens’s images popping up on social media and with an edition of Cafe Royal Books just published, I invited him to talk about what photography means to him and photographing coastal towns.

Blackpool seems like it has always been a destination to be photographed and I always feel a “thrill” when I come across old images of my hometown. Stephen Clarke’s images capture the ‘Pool in monochrome and remind me of working a seasonal shift at the Pleasure Beach or the World of Coronation Street when the monorail was still in full operation and there were no high walls guarding the Thompson family empire. I wanted to know where Clarke’s images had started. The photographer is currently based at the University of Chester – a lecturer in art and design and critical and contextual studies. He teaches across a number of undergraduate courses: photography, fine art, and graphic design.

But the beginnings of his photographic journey began when he started taking photographs on his art Foundation course at Warrington. Like many art students who were armed with an SLR camera, his chosen camera was a  Pentax K1000, which he said he still uses. He worked then with a standard 50mm lens and usually shot Ilford FP4 black and white film. He described his approach as “simple” in relation to the technical aspects of photography. Being drawn to process his own film, to maintain control over the quality of the negatives. Historically he made prints in the darkroom, now he scans the negatives and retouches images for publication or printing. His first photographs were taken in St Helens, these were published by Café Royal Books.

I wanted to know how Clarke’s series of Blackpool images came about and what influenced him. Our conversation leads us right back to the beginning of his life and memories of family holidays visiting seaside resorts and capturing family snaps and cine films. Born in St Helens, it is no surprise then that he has photographed other coastal towns: Rhyl, Morecambe, and Southport, but he describes Blackpool as a unique place and says he is more interested in capturing a moment rather than being political. He describes a respectful distance and questions the seaside town as a temporary environment perhaps mimicking the coastline as waves come in and drift back out again. He suggests Blackpool is  carnivalesque, surviving as it is willing to go one rung lower – a place where anyone can be what they want to be.

Initially studying fine art at Newport, well known for its documentary photography course, he was mentored by Ron McCormick, who at the time was a leading lecturer on  documentary photography. Clarke also describes being fortunate to be taught by Keith Arnatt who was a seminal figure in British conceptual art. He mentions contact with Fay Godwin, Peter Fraser, and Ian Walker who were lecturers while at Newport. Those were the people that supported Clarke’s practice.

His approach therefore may differ from some technical aspects of photography. Clarke prefers to notice composition, line, light, and shade fed into by his fine art beginnings at art college. In fact, I noticed some of Clarke’s earlier work in a show I was also in in 2022, where his photographs took on a sculptural form using sellotape with interesting and playful elements of collage and photomontage. With this in mind, Clarke can also be found in collaboration with Blackpool-born artist and president of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers David Ferry.

On talking to Clarke via zoom it’s obvious that he has a good sense of humour, and a warm and friendly demeanour that no doubt allows him to remain inconspicuous when photographing communities. He describes photographing Blackpool as “the same” throughout the 80s and 1990s. To some degree, feeling invisible when taking photographs in a busy place like Blackpool.

“Everyone is taking photographs or engaged in activities, so no one really notices you. It can be an easy place to photograph – as there is so much happening and the built environment is so fantastic – but it can also have its difficulties. Like capturing the graphic landscape. It is so big and crowded that it can be problematic getting everything in the frame and liminal space between land and sea.”

His images, therefore, seem somehow celebratory away from the sometimes politically directed images that Blackpool is often depicted in. As a lecturer of photography in Blackpool through the noughties he says that his images were observations. Experience of being in a place. The people are accessories to the scene. When we look at the images perhaps we do not see much difference in the town’s appearance, but the cars, clothes, and perspective from the now-demolished Coral Island bridge depict a time past, and after all photography is all about time.

You can buy Stephen’s latest Cafe Royal Book here Stephen Clarke — Blackpool 1980s–1990s — Café Royal Books (caferoyalbooks.com)

See his latest show with Rob Ball https://robball.co.uk/ 

Daphne Oram Gallery – Arts and culture (canterbury.ac.uk)

6th March – 21st April
Opening times: 10 am – 4pm Monday – Friday
Free entry


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