From Liverpool’s proud football scene to the pockets of Liverpudlian culture hidden from the national eye, Ken Grant has been capturing the city and its environs since the 1980s. Though subjects and situations vary, threaded throughout virtually all of his work is a tendency to portray those cast aside by society. Dereliction and demoralisation make repeat appearances, as do the everyday lives of the working class.
It was at the end of the 80s that Grant would begin to photograph the Docklands area north of Birkenhead, a stone’s throw from Liverpool across the River Mersey. He’d go on to spend the best part of a decade capturing the area between 1989 and 1997, the resulting photographs – many of which unseen – figuring in his new book, Benny Profane.
The photobook borrows its name from the protagonist of V, the 1963 novel by Thomas Pynchon which follows the life of the titular former US Navy sailor. Parallels have been drawn between the character’s journey straddling light and dark, and the people Grant captures in his photographs, who “navigate their own journeys towards some kind of stability in an era where little was [stable]”.
Now, though, Benny Profane’s home is no longer the east coast of America as it is for much of Pynchon’s novel. Instead, it’s Bidston Moss, an old Merseyside marshland that was primarily used as a landfill from the 1930s, until the site was closed around 1995.
Benny Profane bears the hallmarks of Ken Grant’s style – predominantly square framed images, shot exclusively black and white. While it has characterised his photographic archive, working in black and white was initially something of a practical decision: “I first found a way early on to work fluently and freely and I could control everything by hand with black and white,” he explains, noting how it served useful for clip testing film – a technique used to help determine a suitable time frame for developing film.
However, his longstanding affinity for black and white comes down to an inner connection. “It has an emotional register that appealed to me. From Bill Brandt’s Top Withens to the kitchen sink dramas I grew up with, I enjoyed the shift into some emotional state black and white would bring,” he says.
Grant’s photographs of Bidston Moss and its people have a relaxed sense of familiarity about them, unsurprising given he spent a lot of time around the docklands when he was young. “I’d known the area for a long time. It’s at the edge of dockland and not far from where my father had a joinery workshop,” he explains. “I worked there from an early age, fished in the docks with timber rods I made and lifted timber from the wood yard that overlooked the Moss. Looking across the North End from that hill, you could see how everything played out, industry, the river, homes and the sprawling Moss…. Sometimes there’s things you can’t ignore.”
There’s trust evident from his subjects too, which likely owes itself to Grant’s etiquette. He works gently, empathetically, in contrast to some of his contemporaries in the field of documentary photography who deal in brash portraits that capitalise (albeit playfully) on intrusion. “I’m slow and I only photograph when I think I’m on a level with everything. I don’t fight, I don’t steal,” he explains. “There’s always an agreement that I photograph if everyone’s OK with it and, in a few cases, no means no and means no forever. I respect that.”
Like his photographs, the making of the book was also a paced, considered process – so much so that it’s taken nearly 30 years for it to be published. “Other photographers have encouraged it over the years but I’ve never felt the need to rush to have what I do validated, or scramble to be seen,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to take the slow route – to find a living, help people, do something that matters and say nothing until you’re sure.”
“I’ve made many dummies [of the book] over the years and made regular edits – some with literally hundreds of pictures. I made a decision early on to leave it until it felt right,” he continues. The book finally came to fruition when the publishers approached him about it, convinced in part because of his trusting relationship with Rudi Thoemmes of RRB, who he first worked with on his last photobook A Topical Times for These Times: A Book of Liverpool Football.
Following the closure of Bidston Moss, it became part of a regeneration project. “Things have changed,” says Grant. “The River Streets have been flattened and residents dispersed. The Moss has been landscaped and turned to a sprawling, densely planted nature reserve. The wider dockland and overflows are familiar, hardly changed in the last 30 years,” he adds.
He borders on nostalgic, but is accepting of what’s become of the area. “Things pass, things move on. Several of the people photographed died young. It’s not an easy part of the world to live in,” he says. “I think of these people and see them in the pictures.” It’s this human quality that underscores Benny Profane, something seemingly absent from how the area is depicted more widely. The regeneration of the area was part of The Newlands Project, which remembers it as a “the site [that] was giving a negative impression of the area,” with no mention of the many people who frequented it.
Changed or not, it’s still a place Grant calls home of sorts. “I return a lot – this is where I feel I know myself best, so I’ve walked and photographed here with no plan or cut-off…. So there’s no major shocks, just a sense of attrition and polarity – panel beaters in dock sheds and warehouses tidied for residential use cheek by jowl.”
“Even though the land has changed, there is a sense of what happened there if you look carefully. It’s used for dog walking or teenage escapes but it’s a hill rolled over deep mounds of compressed gas and vents. You can almost feel the pressure coming from the earth itself. I still photograph it. Photographing pressure in the times we’re facing isn’t a bad thing to try and do.”
Benny Profane by Ken Grant is published by RRB Photobooks, and is available from July 25; rrbphotobooks.com