The north of England has long captured the fascination of the wider nation and beyond. Liverpool and Manchester are both heralded as cultural epicentres, having collectively spawned some of music’s most iconic bands and left a lasting impression on club culture. Meanwhile, photographers, filmmakers and fashion designers from the past and present have been inspired by, and have in turn inspired, the image of the north.
However, Preston – a relatively young city, having only been awarded city status in 2002 – has often escaped the attention afforded to its neighbours. That’s not to say it’s undeserving. For Adam Murray and Robert Parkinson, the city has always had a lot to offer, there was just no outlet to express it. And so, in 2009, Preston is my Paris was born.
Preston is my Paris initially took the form of a photography zine – black and white, photocopied, hand stapled, self-published, free. They only distributed between 50 and 100 copies of each issue around the city, however as time went by, Preston is my Paris incidentally found a wider reach and influence in other parts of the country. “Our aesthetic was relatively fresh at the time and people seemed to gravitate towards it,” Parkinson tells us.
Murray and Parkinson produced a total of 15 issues of Preston is my Paris, the contents of which are now being published by Dashwood in a new book, Preston is my Paris 2009-2019. The book features a wealth of archival material as well as excerpts from community figures discussing life in the area. One charming contribution was written by Iris Lunt, who the duo met along with her late husband John in a pub one evening. They immediately struck up a lasting friendship; a Polaroid of the elderly couple even made the cover of one of the original zines.
It’s touches like these that illustrate just how much of a meaningful local initiative Preston is my Paris (PPP) became. The idea of a community project often invites eye rolls, evoking images of neighbourhood allotments on one end of the spectrum, and flimsy initiatives designed to offset gentrification on the other. However, a community project is essentially what Preston is my Paris always has been. Shout-outs aren’t reserved exclusively for reputable figures and institutions, but are extended to “Iris, John, Lemmy, Rob, the guy at Bargain Booze, the poet man, Robert’s Mum and Dad”.
Though the zine ceased publication in 2011, it didn’t mean the end of the road. Over time, PPP evolved into a more expansive creative project with various guises – including live events, where Parkinson would occasionally DJ – designed to involve the community in new ways. The events addressed a need among local creatives; there was a healthy community of students on arts courses, but they didn’t have much to engage with.
Much has shifted in the last decade, on a personal, cultural and societal level. “From my point of view the city has changed drastically,” says Parkinson, who had studied and grown up in Preston for nearly ten years. In the face of austerity, the city adopted a new cooperative economic framework known as The Preston Model, and has staved off attempts to steamroller its treasures, like Preston Bus Station – a brutalist landmark, whose future was once hanging in the balance. The station has been of particular focus for portrait photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, who has documented it several times, and went on to become one of the most renowned creatives that PPP brought up through the ranks.
The publishing landscape has altered over the course of PPP, too. While they used a zine format simply to keep the sale price down, zines have since become a fashionable medium. “I don’t have a problem with publishing utilising different formats – sometimes this can be exciting,” Murray says, adding that it often opens the door to new audiences who might not be able to afford expensive books. “What becomes more problematic for me is when a low-cost production format is sold at a very high price. This is when the work seems to have lost touch with the original purpose of the format.”
Of course, amid these external changes, their own lives have evolved over the last decade. Parkinson continues to explore social engagement and northern identity in photography. Meanwhile, Murray has since taken a more curatorial route – his hugely popular exhibition North: Fashioning Identity, which he co-curated with Lou Stoppard, is still touring the country nearly three years after it launched.
Faced with rapid turnarounds while the zine was in production, they didn’t have much time to properly process things, Murray says. Putting the book together finally gave them the opportunity to reflect on both then and now – and it’s reminded them of just how far they’ve come. However, Parkinson points out that they’re under no illusions about who was always at the heart of it all, and that PPP was never about their own wider ambitions. As Parkinson puts it: “Without a doubt it was always made for the people of Preston.”
Preston is my Paris 2009-2011 is published by Dashwood Books on November 1; prestonismyparis.co.uk