“L – A City Through Its People”

Open Eye Gallery, until 7th March 2021, free

What other UK cities give so much weight to their own sense of identity are Liverpool does? I ask this as a genuine question. I grew up with London in easy reach, a place which doesn’t suffer from any lack of confidence. Besides, London is so big that whatever you want to be true about it can be. Liverpool has reasons for having a much more unified and self-defined identity, which has evolved out of a series of political & social circumstances you’re likely familiar with. But the longer I’ve lived here (12 years and counting), the more indistinct the lines between self-perception, municipal PR and lived experience have become.

Two photos - one of people walking past The Park pub on a LFC matchday, and the heads of people walking down the road to the game.

I believe in Liverpool. And I understand that I sometimes play a role, through my writing, in playing into certain narratives. I want to write stories about a city full of vibrance, ambition and defiance because that’s the place I want to live. And it’s easy to write because it can be true! But at what point does this become unified to the point of losing all diversity and nuance? This is the question I keep coming back to on this trip round Open Eye Gallery.

L – A City Through Its People is actually three separate exhibitions under one umbrella. Emma Case’s “Red” is a visual story about fans of Liverpool Football Club. “Scottie Press” celebrates 50 years of the community newspaper. And “Tell It Like It Is” brings together photos of Liverpool as it was 40 years ago by Ian Clegg with written responses by Laura Robertson. They’re united by their shared use of street- and community-sourced photography to tell stories specific to Liverpool.

There’s something about telling the story of “a city through its people” in the city you’re talking about has to direct the story you’re going to tell. Although the story of Liverpool never shies away from addressing the hardships that have been faced in the past, the overall impression of L-… will be positive, won’t it. Because who would be interested in offering themselves for public consumption in any other way? But it means it follows well-trodden paths, and what troubles me is the space between how much is true, and how much it’s been constructed to play into the myth.

black and white photo for four teenage girls on a bench swing

But let me start with some counters to the cynicism this implies, because I know there is truth to be found here. The series which which I have the most personal experience is “Red”. As a Liverpool fan who goes to as many games as I can snag a ticket for, I recognise many of the scenes Case has selected. I’ve queued outside the chippies of Walton Breck Road, and been lucky enough to have the trips away for these actions and captured feelings to speak directly to me.

I really enjoy the way the “Scottie Press” show has been put together for this. So many of the photos are so ordinary – of gatherings, football teams and days out – but this is the point! What does life look like through the eyes of residents? If they’re all very similar, perhaps this is because until very recently we only took cameras out for special occasions. The community sourcing of images is a risky approach which could end up feeling easy or unambitious. It’s to the credit of exhibition creators that there’s lots to explore here.

At the same time, ‘ordinary’ doesn’t have to mean ‘familiar’. But it does here. My issue with L -… as a whole is essentially that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table beyond these familiar tales. It feels content to stick with well-worn stories rather than try to ask anything new.

black & white photo of the side of a woman's face looking up and left, against the highly vertical view up Liverpool's Radio City Tower.

Could it have been different? One thing that’s clear throughout is the levels of very careful curation which have taken place. Curation which doubtless involved a whole lot of editing. And what stories and perspectives ended up on the ‘no’ pile? It’s notable, for example, how few non-white faces there are in L…, which given the year and the Black and minority histories we know have long histories in Liverpool, is at best unfortunate.

This isn’t to say the show is entirely without nuance. As stated before, we know these stories are (and justifiably so) a central part of Liverpool’s idea of itself. Scottie Press’ headlines tell tales of battles fought – and sometimes lost. While Laura Robertson’s brief poetic accompaniments to “Tell It Like It Is” hint at everyday lives and a vein of sadness and/or tiredness which provides depth to the figures in Ian Clegg’s photography.

It’s also worth asking: should it be different? Whatever the truths of what is told here, self-mythologizing can be a really useful tool in bringing the ways of life we want into existence. And I reckon that whatever happens in 2021 – and let’s hope it’s mostly good things – we’re gonna have a heck of a lot of reckoning with questions of how we want to be. The lack of racial diversity needs addressing for sure. But as for the rest of the story – maybe in looking for something new, I’m missing out on the chance to absorb what’s already good.

This idea doesn’t save L -… though, in my view. Certainly, each of these exhibitions would be worth holding in its own right. But as a whole I feel like it’s too weighed down by conforming to an overarching grand idea of what Liverpool is. That each would fare better as a story of the city away from each other’s company, and allowed to breathe, The pity is that the true Liverpool values are here to be observed organically, it’d just be more pleasurable and significant for them to feel less forced.

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