i-D rewinds to the 1980s with an exclusive look at a photographer’s forgotten archive.
Photographer Kenny Manson recently unearthed a batch of old negatives from the 1980s that he took on his first camera, a Pentax ME Super. The developed prints reveal his hometown, Liverpool, struggling to cope with the harsh austerity of the Thatcher years. It was during this period that Kenny first began experimenting with photography, recording the abandoned docks, neglected housing and bleak landscapes that plagued the city in stark contrast to portraits of his contemporaries. He photographed those finding new ways to engage each other and be creative, embracing a rich musical heritage and making sure their voice was heard as the government continued to dismiss them.
Discovering Kenny’s archive by chance on Facebook, I was amazed to find the images hadn’t been exhibited anywhere yet. Agreeing to showcase the photographs for the first time on i-D online, Kenny shares memories and stories and explains why he still calls Liverpool home.
Tell us a bit about yourself now and then? Well, these photos were taken when I was in my twenties – I’m now forty-seven and live in the northern end of the City of Liverpool. I’m a freelance photographer and I’m working on a representative selection of my photographs of Liverpool in the eighties with the intention to exhibit them. I first started taking photographs when I acquired a Pentax ME Super and didn’t know what to do with it! I decided to enrol at night-school and took photography at O-level, going on to take an A-level and then a City & Guild course before I applied to University in the nineties. In 1996 I graduated with a BA Hons in Photography from The University of Westminster in London. I’ve also been a musician for many years and have played in a number of bands, most notably The Holding Section, Kit, Dust and Return of the Native.
What was it like being young in 1980s Liverpool? To me the eighties in Liverpool were fantastic, though tough. There was a real D.I.Y culture, mostly due to the massive unemployment that the city had to endure in the Thatcher years. People seemed to get involved in creative projects of one form or another. The good thing about being poor in Liverpool at the time was that most other people were in the same boat so we helped each other out more, which made the city feel like it had some form of solidarity. I’d hate to have been that short of cash at the time in London and watched people walking past with their Harrods bags! In Liverpool, if you couldn’t afford to go out, you could always find solutions. There were usually big parties every weekend where you could see bands playing or just meet and exchange ideas, so there was a real positive vibe in the city. It seemed like everyone was getting involved with the arts or music. It makes sense to me now why so many actors, musicians, artists, poets and sports people came through from the city in that period.
The pictures have a documentary feel to them – was this conscious or were you just taking photos of what interested you? I was conscious to a degree that what I was taking would probably one day be of some historical interest, especially the photographs of The Albert Dock and Gerard Gardens. I was quite interested in documentary photographers at that time and had just bought the Bert Hardy book ‘My Life’ which had a huge impact on me. Bert Hardy was one of the main photographers for a time at ‘Picture Post’ and I loved the personal feel to his pictures, the way he could get people to relax and just be themselves. I also admired the works of August Sander, Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
What was your relationship with the band The 25th of May? I knew The 25th of May because me and Steve Swindelli (the singer) were in the same class at school. I was involved in a band myself at the time (The Holding Section) and had lost touch with Steve since school. I bumped into him at a party and told him I was doing photography and he told me his band were just in the process of being signed to Arista Records and asked if I was interested in taking some promotional photos of the band. I ended up doing three different sessions with them which produced some nice photographs. Sadly, the photos never ended up being used as the band line-up changed a couple of months later so the pictures were of no use and by then I was busy playing in my own band and couldn’t take any more pictures with them.
Do you still record Liverpool in your photos and does the city continue to inspire you? Yes, although my style has probably changed a bit. I think when I studied at university, I lost something which has taken a few years to come back to me. I studied a lot of postmodernism, Semiotics and post-structuralism at university and although looking back it was interesting, I now think overall it was in some ways creatively destructive for me. It’s been like learning to walk again which isn’t too bad a thing as I start from afresh again! Liverpool does still inspire me and behind the new glossy image of the city there are still the same people getting on with their lives. That’s what I hope for now more than anything, that the spirit of the people will prevail no matter what changes might come.
Text: Frankie Mathieson