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Blackpool Through the Camera

Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool

Humphrey Spender and Julian Trevelyan were among the millions of visitors to Blackpool in the summer of 1937. They were not there, though, to partake of the myriad diversions on offer along Blackpool's fabled Golden Mile, but to observe ordinary Britons at play. Spender, a documentary film-maker, and Trevelyan, a collagist, were part of a team dispatched to Blackpool by the Mass Observation project, a social research organisation set up that year by three young men, which hoped, through its many volunteers, to create, in words, photography and film, "an anthropology of ourselves".

The Mass Observation team were drawn to Blackpool because it represented an ideal of the English working class at play. As early as 1920, Blackpool was by far the most popular British seaside resort, drawing eight million people annually in the summer months. It had a famous tower, three piers, an extra-long promenade, spectacular illuminations, all manner of amusements – from fortune-tellers to fairground attractions to tattooists – as well as the country's first Pleasure Beach. It also, crucially, had the railway, which brought the holidaying hordes from the prosperous industrial towns of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

By the late 1950s, Blackpool was attracting an estimated 17 million visitors a year, but, as the Beatles signalled the birth of the modern pop era and swept away the last vestiges of Victorian Britain, Blackpool began its long fall from grace. The decline of traditional industries and the birth of the package tour put paid to Blackpool's long pre-eminence as Britain's most popular holiday destination.

This week, the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool is hosting a group photography show entitled Mass Photography: Blackpool Through the Camera. The exhibition's title, and much of its observational reportage, nods towards Spender and Trevelyan and their fly-on-the wall approach, but it adds up to nothing less than a potted social history of Blackpool though the lens of some of Britain's greatest documentary photographers, including Bert Hardy, Tony Ray-Jones, Homer Sykes, Chris Steele-Perkins and Martin Parr.

The curator of the exhibition is a German video artist, Nina Könnemann, who previously edited a catalogue about Mass Observation and became intrigued by Spender and Trevelyan's Blackpool photographs. "What they actually did was walk around a bit like a tourist and photograph and observe what they saw, rather than, say, delving behind the scenes or going a bit deeper," she says. "Their photographs are literally observational and it made me start looking at similar approaches." This, then, is Blackpool as an idea and then a brand, a place that changes but somehow stays the same, that grapples with the weight of its own – and England's – former glory.

Though the show includes some Victorian photographs, its thrust is 20th-century Blackpool. Perhaps the most absorbing set of photographs come from the collection of ephemera amassed by the late Cyril Critchlow, a magician and founder of the "Witches Kitchen", a museum-cum-theatre where he performed in the years leading up to his death, at the age of 85, in 2008. (He was celebrated in the Blackpool Gazette as "the world's oldest magician".) The photographs he collected, or possibly even took, of Blackpool in the 1970s, are extraordinary for their faded colours and sense of the town's hustle and bustle. "They were a real find," says Könnemann. "Some are almost like William Eggleston's work in their composition."

I was taken too by local photographer Geoff Buono's series about the box office on Blackpool's south pier, all of which were taken from over the shoulder of the ticket seller inside the booth who, one suspects, is a man of infinite patience. Elsewhere, the gaze is more contemplative: the greatly underrated Homer Sykes, who is best known for his often witty images of Britain's more esoteric folk traditions, catches a glum girl eating ketchup-drenched chips outside a burger stall. She is wearing a hat that says "Sex Appeal" but she exudes that almost tangible sense of stoicism that a British seaside resort on a grey day instils in even the most optimistic souls.

What emerges from most of these images, which Könnemann has chosen not to display chronologically or even thematically, is the sense that Blackpool is a place forever in thrall to its own semi-mythical past. Here, the nostalgic and the brashly new constantly collide, yet there will always be plastic bowler hats and candyfloss on sale as well as somewhere to have your fortune told.

Könnemann's own video installation, which forms a kind of contemporary coda to the exhibition, plays with Blackpool's ongoing identity crisis in the form of a film comprising edited footage culled from VHS tapes of the annual illuminations event.

"Every year the local shops sell VHS cassettes and, more recently, DVDs, of the same footage with extra material." She elaborates: "In my installation, there is a sense of this continuous, cyclical loop that suggests this strange thing that is Blackpool time. It really is a place that relies on the past so much even as it tries to reinvent and remarket itself. You sense that same feeling in the photographs, too."

The most dramatic picture of Blackpool life on display is also the most contemporary, the least nostalgic. Maciej Dakowicz is a Polish photographer best known for his garish, colour photographs of Cardiff at closing time, wherein all human life in extremis is on display. Here, he turns his outsider's eye on contemporary Blackpool in a single startling image entitled simply A Saturday Night Out in Blackpool, 2010. Freeze-framed in the pink and orange hues of the city's streetlights, four lads seem lost in some grotesque, alcohol-fuelled mime show that is both disturbing and hilarious. Here, for perhaps the only time in this illuminating show, Blackpool could be any town in Britain today. It is like a slap in the face from the present – Mass Observation with attitude. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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