I recently purchased three photographs on eBay. They weren’t very expensive and aren’t particularly outstanding examples of the photographers’ art but they are very interesting and quite intriguing. They are quite small (about 4 inches by 3 inches) and at some point have been unceremoniously torn from an album or scrap book. This is a pity because not only has this caused a fair amount of damage it has also separated them from their provenance.
But there is no mistaking that one of them is definitely taken in Liverpool. This makes it likely that the other two are also taken in the same city. Of the other two one has a location that is virtually impossible to identify and the other one might be possible to identify but would take a lot of work.
The print that is easily identified is a view of Water Street in Liverpool. It is instantly recognisable and the vague outline of the entrance to the Town Hall at the top of the hill confirms the location. But in fact most of the buildings that can be seen have been replaced although the character of the street has hardly changed. Apart from the Town Hall possibly the only other building in the view that still survives is Oriel Chambers. Built in 1864 with extensive use of plate glass in its façade it was then and remains today a startlingly modern building. But it can hardly be made out in this print, situated at the end of the second block of buildings on the left.
What is clear from the image is that the street is decorated with bunting, suggestive of a high profile occasion being celebrated. In this era this would often mean a royal event which could be a royal visit or (judging by the costume, transport etc) the coronation of Edward VII which took place on 9th August 1902 after an earlier postponement. I would guess this to be the most likely occasion.
What’s interesting about this photograph is that it is so casually composed, it is clearly not professionally taken and is a typical snap probably captured on a box Brownie. These were introduced at the start of the century and made photography both instant and available to all.
Detail from the photo
So this photographer stood upstairs on the back of a tram and, holding the camera at waist height, looked down into the viewfinder and took a picture looking up the hill as the tram trundled down towards the Strand. It is a moment in time and a moment of time.
The view reminded me of the recent BBC television series The City and The City starring David Morrissey. Water Street was one of the locations used to illustrate the two cities of ‘Beszel’ and ‘Ul Qoma’ which exist in the same overlapping space but enjoy quite separate existences. It was possible to pass from one city to the other but fraught with difficulties. Water Street provided the set for one of the places where it was possible to see across the border. Other parts of Liverpool provided many of the locations for one city or the other. It was an entertaining series based on a book by China Miéville which was certainly new to me. David Morrissey explains the story like this:
The concept is strange, it is a detective story told in this city, which is actually two cities that share the same footprint, but there are very strict regulations about the fact that one city cannot see the other city’s populace, they can’t look there, they can’t acknowledge them or interact with them and that creates all sorts of strange rules. Inside there is a secret police force called Breach and they are there to make sure that nobody breaks those laws of interacting between the cities.
Here is a screen grab from the programme showing Water Street:
Oriel Chambers is on the left
A stylish and imaginatively created set. But our unknown photographer, standing on the upper deck of a briefly stopped tram, succeeded in creating an atmospheric picture of his own at some point in the early years of the twentieth century.
I will return to the other two photographs in another post.
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