I was in Ken Grant’s MA class when he was teaching Documentary Photography at Newport in Wales. You’d bring out an unedited mess of pictures and Grant would start talking in his mellifluous poet’s voice, his thoughts weaving in and out of the pictures, connecting music, literature and photographers to them.
He touched on places where life shone, where soul came through, and left the rest alone; it was never about you, or the images, but about the wider world, the quiet moments, what you might do and what you could do. Then you’d leave the room, never quite sure what had happened, but always knowing that what mattered was the meaning and the rhythm and the soul, and that what you could do was what you hadn’t done. It was the gentlest of eviscerations.
The same poetic thoughtfulness infuses Grant’s photography, much of which is based around his hometown, Liverpool. It is work that, through acclaimed shows at the Format Festival in 2013, and the publication of two books last year, No Pain Whatsoever and Flock, has brought Grant fresh recognition. It’s richly deserved. Grant has been photographing for more than 30 years, and has passed through the nine circles of photography hell, in a career that has never been easy, but he has always been committed to the people and places he has photographed.
“I was very young when I started photographing,” says Grant. “I worked for my father as a joiner in the holidays. When I was 12 or 13 I used the money to buy a Polaroid camera. It meant that I had eight pictures for the summer. It was square and I had to make a choice about what pictures to make. My father worked refitting shops for months at a time and he got a lot of unskilled labour in to help him. I met a lot of people that way, people who were transient and passing through. It wasn’t intimate but it was intense, meeting with people who had conversations about how they lived their lives. I was privileged to be there, a quiet presence in the room, the tea lad who would listen to the conversations about money and family and football.”
Grant absorbed these stories from the adult world and slowly they emerged in a photography that shows how people live, but also how they think and rest and breathe. It’s neither simplistic nor romantic, but is rather a holistic photography, as informed by the bleak short stories of Raymond Carver, Richard Yates and Flannery O’Connor as it is by the Scandinavian black-and-white tradition that so clearly influences it. “I started to realise that there are a lot of these quiet activities that are unspoken or unheard of, that are neglected in photography or writing,” Grant says. “But then you’d have people talking about how they kill time in a heavily industrialised environment, about going over the wall on a Friday afternoon… You’d have the official version of life, but then you’d have the unofficial take, where all these quiet moments came through. That’s the version that I photograph.”
Near and Far
Grant draws an analogy between the quietness of his pictures and the ebb and flow of the river trade in Liverpool – seasonal work which rose and fell with the tides that brought the ships to dock. There’s a slow rhythm to his work that he finds a parallel in writers such as Alasdair Gray, James Kelmann, and Erik Voss, authors who talk about the insecurity and the vulnerabilities of people who work in mundane jobs with low pay but, through a combination of spirit and will, manage to survive – most of the time. As Grant photographed 1980s Liverpool, he also began doing editorial work with journalists from overseas on assignment in the region, and soon found photography opening up to him. “I did a lot of work for Liberation,” he says. “They used photography in a very forthright way. Their journalists would come over to do a story, but sometimes the brief was open and they’d say to me, ‘What’s the story, what can we photograph?’ We’d end up doing something I was interested in. So we’d both get a story out of it, but I’d also get something that would have a longer life.
“Some of the things I photographed were much more warmly received abroad,” he adds. “I’d go and photograph the dock workers every two weeks, but the pictures were only published in France. If I’d been waiting for newspapers and magazines to commission something, I’d never have done half the work I did.”
Grant traces his ability to get out and photograph, to make work in “little pockets of activity”, back to his apprenticeship in image-making, while training as a technician in Wirral. “I’d go to the library and I’d find things like Lee Friedlander books, and wondered how they ended up in this library on the Wirral,” he says. “Then I found Tom Wood, who was teaching there, and Tom would add this dimension of the importance of how to make work, how to keep going and how to find ways of doing things as cheaply as possible. So at that point it was also about getting a group together to buy film in bulk or finding the cheapest possible out-of-date film.”
As Grant’s photographic investment gathered pace, so did his pragmatic approach – he got by with teaching, training, running workshops and doing “work that had nothing to do with photography”, as well as assisting photographers such as Markéta Luskačová. “I did everything,” he says. “It shocks people that I still know how to hang a door, but that allowed me to keep on working in photography. It’s all these little jigsaw pieces of how to make a living from photography. I used to have a Josef Sudek quote on my enlarger. ‘Rush Slowly’ it said. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Life became less complicated when he began teaching on a more permanent basis, but he worked part-time for a long time, up until around 12 years ago. “The advantage was you could be quite stable with what was coming in, but you could be flexible enough to still do long term residences,” says Grant, who currently works at the University of Ulster in Belfast, having risen from part-timer to course leader at University of Wales, Newport, over the course of 15 years. “So I’d have access to a place for half a week or a summer and could continue with photography. Full time is different – when things are going well, you have to be pragmatic about how you use your time. Josef Koudelka used to work in the summer and then do his printing in the autumn and winter, but if there are too many responsibilities, or things don’t go well, then duties stack up and making photography becomes impossible. If you work full time, you can see people become institutionalised, they can get comfortable and not make that much work. You have to keep moving to keep making work.”
Fortunately for Grant, he’s also found teaching inspiring, both in terms of the students he teaches and the encouragement he receives from his colleagues. “I think I wasn’t that confident with my work; being at Newport and having people telling me that I needed to do something with it made a difference,” he says. “In Ulster I’m sharing an office with Donovan Wylie, so in the office we talk about photographs and what works and what doesn’t. Then when we’re out on a lunch break we’re doing the same, so we’re talking about pictures all the time. If you’re working around people you trust, they can tell you what works.
“The best students invigorate your work because you’re always thinking of what’s working or not working for them; you’re looking at why things work and how it can be pushed so that it goes that little bit further,” he adds.
Grant clearly has a fierce work ethic, but he says his photography comes from a deep emotional need rather than self-discipline. “My wife will tell you, there’s a gasket that blows when I’m not making pictures,” he says. “I have to make work.”
And for the most part, that’s in made in Liverpool. In The Close Season, he traced a path through what it is to survive in a city on the brink of a dereliction. In No Pain Whatsoever he reprised this but went deeper, to give a sense of place where personality, landscape and architecture all combine. There’s an unemployed man scavenging on a city tip, the hard-faced woman with steely eyes and bright permed hair, the two men on the cast-off mattress by the boarded-up houses. They are not pretty pictures, but they are intensely human, and despite the lack of exposure, his work was attracting attention. His images are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Museum Folkswang in Essen. Martin Parr bought an early book dummy in 1989 and, after a long hiatus, The Close Season was published in 2002.
But it was slow progress, with no bells and whistles, partly because Grant preferred it that way. “I guess part of it is down to me being ready to put the work out,” he says. “But I’ve always been making work. I want to be sure when I do something that it’ll last. These things take time to come through. In 2002, when The Close Season was published, there was no internet, there were no lists. All you had were a few newspapers and magazines that would show your work. Now books flood around the world in much more fluid time.”
Eventually, though, he just built up so much critical mass it came out – though not always via the channels you might expect. His work on the Everton district of Liverpool was shown in the Beaconsfield Community Centre in Liverpool’s 2013 Look Festival, for example, after Stevie Bell, who worked at the local [what?] centre, said, “You’ve been making this work for 20-odd years, isn’t it about time you showed some of it?”
“So I did,” says Grant. “Stevie died before the show, so on my website there’s a ‘Stevie Bell edit’, which shows the work that would make sense to him.”
Few luminaries from the photography world would have seen the exhibition, but for Grant that’s beside the point. What matters more to him is showing the work where the people he shoots can access it. “It’s always an important question for me – how do you get the work back in?” he says. “How do you get work so the people photographed can see it?…I wandered around the exhibition on a grey Saturday afternoon and it was moving to see people engaging with pictures of people they know, of places they know. They came in and saw pictures from 20 years ago, pictures of family and friends, of their younger selves, of people who had passed on. It was an exhibition where the audience relived memories that remain close.”
It’s photography that matters in a very direct way and perhaps that’s what keeps Grant going. “Sometimes you feel you’ve given people back their childhood because the pictures were made when people were children, and when they see the pictures they become children again,” he says. “To me, even when I meet them today, the people I photographed still seem young. But they grow up so quickly in these areas, so sometimes you feel like the Grim Reaper of photography because the people in the photographs are not that privileged. They have difficult lives and don’t always live that long.
“There are things I don’t want to leave behind,” he adds. “A book is a consolidation of sorts. A lot are compromised by how many pages or how much time you’ve got; ideally one day I’d like to see all my work in one big book, but whether that will happen I don’t know. Projects get finished in the sense that other things come up and take priority, but like the Beaconsfield Centre, I always want to go back. It’s never finished.”
See more of Grant’s work here.