Words by Val Williams
Photographs by Hannah Blackmore
In 2011, Hannah Blackmore began a series of photographs which documented closed and decaying shops and business premises in the seaside resorts of Margate and Ramsgate. Blackmore had grown up in Ramsgate, leaving to study at the London College of Communication in 2008. Vacant is a hymn not only to time passing, but also to the materiality of the physical world- a tribute to the lyricism of peeling paint, the ghosts of signs and the memory of exchange- buying and selling, the provision of services, now long out of fashion.
On returning for visits to Thanet, Hannah Blackmore saw that the seaside she had grown up in was changing rapidly:
“It was distressing to see the streets of my childhood going through such a significant downturn.
The shopfronts in the area were full of character, reflective of the businesses and traders which occupied them and imbued with the unique sensibility of the seaside. I wanted to make a document of the area before it would fall into further disrepair. My aim was to create an honest record of how the streets and shops were at this time, I had no intention of masking the realities of the situation.”
Blackmore is interested in the hidden and the melancholic; her 2010 film Occupied is a meditation on an antiquated tool shop, close to closure, as its elderly owner opens up for just a few hours a day. Filmed as moving stills, with occasional speech, it is gently paced and full of detailed observations. The background soundtrack is a ticking clock and Blackmore’s eye alights on a wall of business cards, stained and foxed, jumbles of tools and boxes and brooms. A dog wanders over to his bed and a silver carriage clock perches incongruously on a crowded shelf. Memory, ageing and histories are constant in Blackmore’s work, whether the shuttered shops and businesses on the Isle of Thanet in Vacant or the slowly dissolving order in The Unchanged (2011), in which isolation infuses a suburban interior. Her interest in the decline of commerce in seaside towns became clear in her 2011 film The Keepers of King Street, as the last vestiges of the once thriving second hand trade in Ramsgate struggle to keep going. Blackmore’s work is novelistic, literary; it dwells on nuance of object and speech. She is fascinated by the patterns of life, by the strangely familiar. Militaria enthusiasts browse in Sabre Sales, a shop selling uniforms, buttons, helmets and memorabilia in Nothing is Sacred (made in 2015 with Jimmy Irwin); as the shop winds down towards closure there is not so much regret, but rather an acknowledgement of the inevitability of change.
Vacant is a series of 35 photographs. Made in the same year as Margate began its lengthy and uneven journey towards cultural change (heralded by the opening of Turner Contemporary in 2011), it emerged at a pivotal point both in the decline of the British seaside, and in UK politics. Street riots in London in 2011 and other British cities were unprecedented, and the fierce welfare cuts contributed to a growing social unease. Hannah Blackmore’s Vacant could be seen as a metaphor for a nation that was facing remarkable changes and challenges.
On a local scale, traditional shopping patterns were changing rapidly and small family-run shops and businesses were closing down. Communities on the coast were in flux as a new demographic emerged. Hannah Blackmore’s photographs are a lament, but are also full of vitality and excitement- dereliction and decline have long been favourite subjects for photographers. Many of the shops she photographs still had their signs- ‘Sandy–Wiches’ sandwich shop, ‘P.C. & Cellular’, ‘The Old Cottage Pub’, ‘Waterloo Cleaners’ and ‘Mr Allsorts’ house clearance. Every now and again, there is a glimpse of the closure of a dignified, traditional business- the double-fronted ‘Pharmacy’, the elegant ‘T.W. Stigant, Clothier and Hosier’, shops which had clung on until change was irresistible.
Like distressed dowagers, they cling to their classiness until the end.
‘The Dog and Cat Grooming Salon’ and the ‘Art Workshop’ have moved on; ‘Happy Fry’ fish and chip shop and ‘Friendly Valley’ Chinese takeaway no longer greet hungry customers. Many of the shops had shed their retail identities long ago- boarded up and barricaded with wire mesh, they are forlorn and neglected, covered with graffiti or sometimes just gaps in the street. Not all had beautiful frontages- many were the kind of small shops which were bound to fail when tastes moved on and new fashions in shopping emerged. But some are grand, finely proportioned, their windows and doors still intact. ‘A.Hall & Co’ fish shop still has its finely written sign, and the outline of a gracious façade can be seen behind the makeshift hoardings which hide its windows.
The former ‘Post Office’ in Bellevue Road Ramsgate has kept its distinctive frontage, and ‘Ye Olde Town Launderette’ in Margate has a tattered elegance.
In Vacant, Hannah Blackmore has made a memorial, a document of place and history which can only grow more valuable over the years to come. Shops are a reflection of society, important receptacles of our histories. Photographs are the keepers of our fragile memories, evidence which can be seen and stored, recalled in a glance. Like many photographers, Hannah Blackmore sees the need to record change – like Peter Mitchell’s Leeds townscapes from the 1970s or Atget’s documentation of Paris at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Vacant is both history and monument. Stranded and oddly magnificent, these poignant remnants are preserved in perpetuity through photography.
A selection from the series is included in Seaside: Photographed, which opened at Turner Contemporary, Margate in May, 2019 and is co-curated by Val Williams and Karen Shepherdson.
Prints from this series are available via Open Doors
See the selection here
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