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Blackpool architect celebrated in social history archive

Photographs are surely the greatest route to remembering, an accessible medium making up many a photo album, picture postcard, or even a keyring of a special time or event. But what else can photography do? Claire Walmsley Griffiths tells us how a project by a group of learning disabled photographers has led to the creation of an archive documenting an important part of Blackpool’s built heritage and social history.

Earlier this year after working on a project with a group of Learning Disabled photographers with Leftcoast in Bostonway, Hawes Side. A story was recounted by a manager of The Blackpool Centre for Independent Living. Neil Froggett explained how he had found an impressive marble plaque expressing that Hawes Side Library had been designed by an architect called John Charles Robinson. When the story was shared with photographer and ex-journalist Elizabeth Gomm a series of other buildings designed by him were brought to my attention. Buildings that seemed important to the residents of Blackpool including transport shelters, swimming pools and libraries. Shared spaces of community and memory.

As a group of photographers whose practice is routed in the community, the New Langdale photographers began to think about how we might work with images past and present of Robinson’s buildings to build a project. Inviting photographer Donna Hannigan to be part of the project we set about finding partners to create an Arts Council England bid with an aim to raise the profile of New Langdale photographers and explore how diversity can strengthen community.

In July we were awarded funding to spend a greater amount of time photographing and seeking hidden social stories attached to Robinson’s buildings, finding spaces to share and learn new skills with the New Langdale Photographers, and buying new equipment to support their photographic approach.

The first showing of the images is on the 5th of September at The Stanley Park Visitor Centre which sits beside the beautiful Art Deco cafe designed by JC Robinson. The centre is open from 11am-3pm dependent on volunteers and will run until the end of September.

At this stage, we have photographed many of the buildings we already know about: Bispham Tram Cafe/Stop, Bispham Lift, Layton Conveniences, Harrowside Bridge, Highfield Library, Bispham Library, The site of the old Derby Baths, the Colanades, Citadel, Blackpool Cricket Pavilion, Blackpool Golf Pavilion, South Shore Open Air Swimming Baths, Solaris Centre, Palatine Technical College, Highfield High School and the site of the old Collegiate Girls School. There may be others we may have overlooked. We have only spent a small amount of time touching on the topic and creating some conversations with local residents about attending the spaces. Already we have heard of couples finding love at Derby Baths, or at the library where short skirts were once not allowed. We know there are many community stories linking us all together through JC Robinson structures – many of which are held dear and are reassuringly familiar in Blackpool.

Donna Hannigan one of the practitioner photographers on the project explains why the project feels key to her.

“I am excited to be working on this newest project, exploring a rarely documented architect JC Robinson, and his wonderful art deco aesthetic of many local Blackpool buildings, some of which are connected to the local photography group, the New Langdale Photographers.

“I have previously worked with these fabulously talented photographers and one thing is always apparent the sheer joy they get out of taking and looking at their own pictures. I joined this project to gain a greater understanding of a piece of Blackpool’s history, as well as being able to engage with local photography enthusiasts in an environment where we can all learn from each other.

“The New Langdale photographers, alongside local socially engaged photographers Claire Walmsley Griffiths and Elizabeth Gomm, are in the process of visiting, photographing, and documenting each building. At each location, we are trying to focus on the overall architecture of the building as well as key details that show his aesthetic i.e. the red brickwork and the copper pyramid roofs.

“Let’s talk community! This is where I feel this project will flourish, involving Blackpool locals and hearing their unique memories linked to these places and embedding yourself into exploring a Blackpool that once was – learning all about its past and how others engaged with the areas through personal account and social stories.

“This could happen in a variety of ways, such as through an item from the past that’s connected to some or all of the buildings. It could pictures or stories that provide a deeper understanding of what these buildings looked like through the eyes of people who experienced them.

“It is important for the continued engagement with the New Langdale photographers and locals to provide open communication and create positive community connections. And it’s important to explore diverse ways to ensure this project inclusive for all.

“Anyone can get involved and share their own experiences, by email or social media, and it’s entirely up to them how involved they wish to be, from recorded interviews to a simple email explaining their engagement with these beautiful buildings.” 

Elizabeth Gomm is a well-known journalist and now photographer who has been working voluntarily with The New Langdale Photographers. She says:

“I’m really excited and privileged to be working alongside the wonderfully talented New Langdale photographers, plus socially-engaged photographers Claire Walmsley Griffiths and Donna Hannigan, on capturing images of the buildings designed by John Charles Robinson, Blackpool’s council architect from 1920-1944.

“We are also seeking the help of local people in unearthing pictures and stories about the iconic buildings that have been lost to the march of time, including Derby Baths, South Shore Open Air Baths, and the old Collegiate Girls’ School.

“Being with the learning disabled New Langdale photographers and their support staff is energising. They have so much talent and see things about a building that I may not even notice. Our adventure is like a walk back through time and will culminate in exhibitions, the first, at Stanley Park Visitor centre in September and another at the Grundy Gallery in the New Year.

“The project was born from a conversation New Langdale manager had whilst working on a project with one of his volunteer teams at the old Hawes Side Library. He was marveling at the Art Deco architecture when he saw a plaque showing it was opened just a few years before the start of WW2, noting that Blackpool was forging ahead and investing in beautiful buildings at a time when the whole of Europe was living under the approaching cloud of war. This made him want to know more about Robinson, the architect mentioned on the plaque.  

“Following conversations led to the conception of this project and we are now thrilled to have been successfully awarded an Arts Council England grant to support it, along with forging partnerships with local organisation and regional creatives to help take it forward. It’s so important to me because it puts no rein on the New Langdale photographers and I look forward to seeing them continue to develop as photographers and individuals as we go forward.

“Together we are highlighting the importance of architecture and its impact on our daily lives and showcasing JC Robinson’s contribution to our local street scene – something most take for granted and rarely consider.

“Gathering stories about the buildings will enable us to create a contribution to Blackpool archives so that these memories, which say so much about a place and its people, will not be lost.

“Every community is built on what went before. We hope that anyone who has a story about a JC Robinson building or a picture will come forward, whether a former beauty contestant at the open-air baths or a trader or shopper at the old St John’s market. It may be one of his libraries has an important place in your heart or that traveling in the North Shore Lift or waiting at Bispham Tram Stop has given you a story to tell.”

You can catch more about the project from last week’s BBC Radio Lancashire Interview here.

We hope the project, which runs until March 2024, will encourage a sharing of social history and the opportunity for New Langdale photographers to practice new skills including creating audio, film, and explore what else a photograph can do. The project will also offer community photography walks, the chance to photograph and be photographed, and an online archive developed to create further opportunities with the community and New Langdale Photographers.

You can follow the New Langdale Photographers on social media and keep an eye out for their forthcoming website. You can email your stories or get in touch through: [email protected]

Header image: Elizabeth Gomm – Carleton Crematorium. Image 1: New Langdale Photographers at Blackpool Cricket Club. Image 2: Donna Hannigan – Bispham Lift. Image 3: Elizabeth Gomm – Carleton Crematorium. Image 4. Claire Griffiths – Harrowside Bridge. Image 5. Dawn Ward – Stanley Park Cafe.

Partners include The Magic Club Youth Club, Aunty Social CIC, Friends of Stanley Park, The Grundy Art Gallery, Showtown Museum Project, Open Eye Gallery Liverpool, Revoelution Community Hub, and Leftcoast.

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