Portraits of North East England on the cusp of change

Portraits of North East England on the cusp of change
Taken during the only dull week of a long, hot summer in 1966, Peter Brabban's 'Newcastle Project' captures a city in the process of modernisation.

Peter Brabban fell in love with photography in his youth with the encouragement of his older brother, Ted, who took him under his wing. Ted passed on his old Voigtlander camera and taught Brabban the art and science of developing photos in the scullery of their council house in Dipton, County Durham.

As a kid, Brabban often accompanied his family on shopping or leisure trips to nearby Newcastle. His knowledge of the city was limited until one week during the summer of 1966, when Brabban, then 18, started walking it with an old Exacta single lens reflex camera loaded with surplus black and white movie stock film.

“Newcastle was a black city, most of its buildings coated with a skin of soot,” Brabban remembers. “It was not a place that people from outside the region came to visit. The quayside was crowded with shipping and coal was still being loaded onto ships at the Dunston Staiths. Railways and industry not only crowded the riverbanks but also nudged right up to the centre of the city.”

A quintessential Victorian city with working class terrace streets and heavy municipal buildings, Newcastle, like much of the North East, was firmly planted in a long faded past. Looking to escape clichéd scenes of the dark, grimy Northern city, Brabban offered a measured approach, combining scenes on the West End where high-rise blocks had emerged with elegiac landscapes of a city in ruins.

“In a long hot sunny summer, commemorated, in a whole raft of songs about sunshine, I chose the only dull week to do my pictures of Newcastle,” says Brabban. “The viewfinder of the camera was so dark it was often difficult to see if the picture really was in focus. Added to this I didn’t have a light meter and so had to guess the correct exposure; I often got it wrong.”

But as made evident in the new book, The North East 1966-1982 (Café Royal Books), Brabban often got it right, creating a layered portrait of Newcastle at the tipping point. Gritty yet tender, Brabban’s photographs show the tension between the progressive and regressive forces at play, proscribed by traditional masculinity and hard drinking pub culture versus the counterculture. 

“In the worlds of politics and the economy, the generation gap was at play. The reins of power were firmly held by groups who had done so for decades. Despite clear evidence that the region was sliding into decline attempts to bring the structures into the modern world were rejected in favour of the status quo,” says Brabban.

“For the moment the voices for change were drowned out by the regional ‘establishment’,” he continues “but in the future these dissident voices, often expressed by a younger generation of political activists, would take centre stage, dragging the region into line with the rest of the country.”

‘The North East 1966 – 1982’ is out now via Cafe Royal Books.

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