A small boy trudges home from school through coal-dark Victorian terraces, while in the docklands beyond, an iceberg-bright ship gleams beneath skeletal, robot-like cranes.
One of the most famous images by Irish-born photographer Edward Chambré Hardman, “The Birth of the Ark Royal”, immortalises the newly-built craft on the eve of its launch. In doing so, it also captures Liverpool at a moment of postwar prosperity. Yet with its seductive chiaroscuro and those ominous machine men, the picture hints at the gloom to come. By the late 1970s, Liverpool was a case history for social disadvantage.
Yet Liverpool rose again. Today, its waterfront houses a cultural centre that is a hub of Britain’s regional arts scene. The latest arrival is Open Eye, a not-for-profit photography space that is the guardian of Hardman’s image and 1,700 others.
Open Eye has been a bedrock of Liverpool’s photography scene for over 30 years. Founded in 1977, it was an early pioneer of the medium as an art form.
In those days, the gallery was part of a bigger arts complex which had strong links with Liverpool’s music scene. Today, the archive boasts images of 1960s Merseybeat stars.
Describing itself as a “heady mix of art and activism, a DIY operation run on a shoestring”, those early, edgy days even saw the gallery – a few doors away from a radical bookshop – fire-bombed by far-right hoodlums.
The gallery’s new incarnation is a measure of how times have changed. Previously housed in a 200 sq m Edwardian workshop in the historic Ropewalks area, it now occupies 380 sq m in a corner of Mann Island, a complex of three sleek, wedge-shaped edifices whose black glass facades sheath offices and apartments.
The move to more spacious premises was fuelled by a desire for a larger space that could display the monumental visions favoured by contemporary international photographers and also make shows culled from Open Eye’s own archive.
The search for a new home began in 2005. However, as Open Eye’s director Patrick Henry recalls, the small, public organisation soon found itself at sea “in a very unfamiliar world of property developers”.
The answer was to recruit its own champion from the corporate ranks. Steve Parry, managing director of Neptune Development who are the lead developers of Mann Island, became a trustee of Open Eye. An offer to make their home in a space in the corner of the glass-roofed courtyard in one of the glossy black buildings soon followed.
London-based architects RCKa have exploited the awkward proportions to gracious effect. The result – clean but intimate, discreet yet dynamic – is ideally suited to the blend of grandeur and detail of much contemporary photography.
The two opening shows strike a balance – between global and local, past and present, personal and political – in tune with Open Eye’s objectives. The headliner is Mitch Epstein, the New York-based photographer who won the Prix Pictet this year for “American Power”, a series of images chronicling the complex rapport of the US with its energy industry, eight of which are displayed here.
On one level, these images possess the dry, documentary clarity of the perfect witness. Yet Epstein’s choice of large format emphasises the implacable indifference of the industrial behemoths to a society struggling to maintain its human dimension.
Epstein’s predilection for painstakingly layered images and potent tonal intensification hint at a latent romanticism beneath the reporter-cool rigour.
On show in the archive gallery upstairs, Chris Steele-Perkins chronicles the social rituals of 1980s Britain with images of wince-making intimacy. Taken from his 1989 book The Pleasure Principle, here are the debutante balls, chilly beach holidays, Sunday cricket games and rightwing rallies from which are woven the fabric of modern Albion.
One of Steele-Perkins’ most famous images is that of a young, porcelain-skinned Thatcher smiling radiantly at a party conference unaware of a nearby delegate’s terrified grimace. Raw, funny, painfully real, like all Steele-Perkins photographs it testifies to that collective national spirit the lady once doubted.
Beware however, taking our cultural health for granted. Had Open Eye delayed their application for funding by another year, public-sector cuts would have prevented their presence here. Indeed, in 2007 £400,000 of crucial funding from the regional development board was suddenly withdrawn.
“There was no space for a social or cultural argument about the value of what we were doing,” Mr Henry recalls. Instead, he persuaded the board that Mann Island’s developers would sue if the project did not go ahead.
With just four full-time staff and a spend of £1,000 a square metre (compared to £8,000 at Tate Modern), the little gallery’s struggle to survive, involving both a collaboration with big-business and a facedown with government, is itself the stuff of post-modern epic. Little wonder Epstein and Steele-Perkins look so at home.