From setting up the Open Eye gallery, to launching the Bluecoat Press, Colin Wilkinson’s focus has always remained true: to document the city he loves, and introduce the rest of us to the surprising, the overlooked and the (all too often) lost images of a restless city.
“When I set up the Bluecoat Press in 1992, my idea was to create a local publishing house primarily concerned with photography…” Colin tells SevenStreets.
It didn’t quite turn out that way. But we’ll get to that bit later.
“Back in 1973, I started the Merseyside Visual Communications Unit, an arts organisation concerned with film, video and photography. We moved to the corner of Whitechapel in 1976 and became better known as Open Eye.”
We just about remember the location. A sooty huddle of centuries-old shopfronts which also saw the birth of News From Nowhere, and is now home to the plasma screens and ‘Curry and a Pint for a Fiver’ bars of Queens Square.
How times change. And, for that matter, buildings too.
“I started the Open Eye Gallery because of my interest in photography – and primarily documentary photography. Part of my idea was to hold regular exhibitions of local photographers’ work, both historical and contemporary,” he admits.
These days, of course, Open Eye is a one of the country’s best respected photographic galleries, attracting exhibitors – and visitors – from across the globe. And Colin’s moved on (just in time: the gallery is moving to the grim Mann Island development. But at least it gives us hope that the building won’t be completely devoid of culture).
“The pay was pretty dreadful at Open Eye, and I had two young kids, so I left in 1982 and started a commercial photography company. During my time there I started publishing postcards for the International Garden Festival, posters and my first book – a colour book on modern Liverpool.”
So began Colin’s interest in documenting – and preserving – historic and compelling contemporary images of Liverpool. His collection now numbers over 5000 rare and delicate old postcards, slides and prints.
“The first few Bluecoat Press books included The Streets of Liverpool, Liverpool Then and Now, Looking Back, The Dockers’ Umbrella and Liverpool from the Air,” Colin says.
But, ironically, while Colin was concerned with documenting the ghosts of Liverpool’s past, it was another series of books altogether that lead to the Bluecoat Press’ biggest success: Tom Slemen’s Haunted Liverpool collection.
Not that you can blame him for taking his eye off the main shot. Or the chance to cash in.
“The high street booktrade is going through a dreadful phase,” Colin says. “Ten years ago, I had over a dozen outlets in the city centre. Now I have three. Book shops are a threatened species. Once they have gone, they won’t come back.”
And, should you be a Slemen fan, we’re going to break this to you gently: the series has, finally, met its grizzly end.
“The last in the series Haunted Liverpool Casebook has just been published,” he says. “After this, Bluecoat Press will not be publishing any further Tom Slemen titles.”
Faced with dwindling outlets for his cherished photographic collection, Colin set up his Streets of Liverpool blog this year. He’s just posted his 100th image.
“The blog came out of my belief that photographs ‘belong’ to their community,” Colin says.
“I dislike hoarding away images that are important to the history of their community. My own collection has been built up over many years – but contains many fascinating unseen images of Liverpool. My long term aim is to persuade other collectors and archives to ‘liberate’ their images for public consumption.”
“What I find fascinating about the internet is that it pervades all parts of the world. I’m getting over lots of hits from places as far afield as the Vatican City and Guatemala. After nine months and 100 posts, I feel that I am just starting out on something really worthwhile…”
It’s a site to lose yourself in. Each image is accompanied by a fascinating mini guided tour, and brief historical context. You’ll be grateful of the tour: so severe have our city’s convulsions been its hard to orient yourself. Often, it’ll be a solitary facade you’ll recognise. It only seems out of place because, more often than not, it’s the only building still standing today.
But, lest you think Colin’s a complete convert to the digital world, the book lovers amongst us needn’t worry too much.
“I will at some point publish a book – but there’s plenty of time for that…”
Main image, Houghton Street, connecting Williamson Square and Clayton Square, prior to the construction of St John’s Market.
All images: Colin Wilkinson’s collection, with thanks.