While stationed in West Germany during the early 1950s, photographer Mike Coles’s older brother worked as a tank driving instructor for the British Army. As rationing in the UK continued for years after the war, treats were few and far between for the young boy coming of age in the seaside town of Bridport in West Dorset.
“Every time my brother came home on leave, he brought presents,” Coles fondly recalls. “In 1952, he brought me a German 35mm Regula camera and at age eight, I immediately became hooked.”
Coles later enrolled in art school in Bournemouth and then in London, and became keen on social realism and documentary photography. “I was a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson,” he says of the famed Magnum Photos member. He also admired the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Don McCullin.
In the late 1960s, Coles began making his way as a young photographer. “My memory of the time was of optimism,” he says. “I don’t remember worrying about the future or getting a job. As a country boy in London, I found it all very exciting, although my grant from Dorset Council of £416 a year was barely enough to live on, necessitating all kinds of part-time jobs.”
During this time, Coles and fellow students got together and began traveling the country on photographic trips in an old Hillman car. “Our first trip to Blackpool was in 1967,” he says. “In sexually liberated and hedonistic London we thought we would go up north to see what the cloth-capped brigade were doing with their whippets and curd tart. Rather a sniffy attitude as it proved!”
In Blackpool, Coles pursued his interest in photographing holiday goers reveling in moments of seaside bliss. In the new book Blackpool 1967 (Café Royal Books), he brings together scenes of everyday life: the beach days, pony rides, chip shops, bingo parlors, street barkers, burlesque dancers, tattoo shops, and other sundry amusements.
“Overwhelmingly, the people there were warm and friendly, much more so than London. There was still a sense of being in a post-war period – everything was pretty cheap,” Coles says.
“Looking back there seemed to be an innocence to a seaside holiday. It was the only opportunity working people had to get away and have a good time for a couple of weeks. But you wondered how mundane work must be in the ‘satanic mills’ to need such holidays.”
Blackpool 1967 is out now on Café Royal Books.