Hey there—I'm Lars Mensel, a writer and photographer from Berlin. This is a journal of things that happened to me.
“Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.”
Blackpool — a somewhat ominous sounding name to foreign ears — is a city on the Northern English coast. Often dubbed the “archetypal British seaside resort”, it was a popular holiday destination for families from nearby cities like Manchester and Liverpool. Here’s a picture from the turn of the century, courtesy of the Library of Congress:
Vacationers regularly packed beaches and frequented the incredible amount of attractions. In fact, it seems as though Blackpool city planners made sure that every fun under the sun could be had there:
Blackpool was a booming resort with a (…) promenade complete with piers, fortune-tellers, public houses, trams, donkey rides, fish-and-chip shops and theaters.
To round things off, they constructed a replica of the upper thirds of the Eiffel tower – on top of an aquarium – as well as an amusement park. And those piers? They didn’t build just one, but three.
Getty Images has some lovely pictures of Blackpool in its prime, taken by photographer Bert Hardy around 1951:
Since I’ve been using the past tense and archival images, it won’t surprise you that those days are over. As air travel became affordable, families stopped frequenting Blackpool and the town began to decline. Judging by my British colleagues’ reactions when I mentioned my visit (“Were you filming a documentary on knife violence?”), Blackpool now evokes dread rather than “dream destination”. It has remained a place of fun (there are more attractions than ever), but seems to have become a place for drinking and stag parties, a far cry from its golden past. But that doesn’t mean it should be discounted.
During the 24 hours we spent in Blackpool, I kept repeating one sentence: “This is such a strange place.” And therein lies it’s modern-day attraction: It’s unlike anything you have ever seen. Almost defiantly, Blackpool has doubled down on the fun. The entire promenade including the historic piers are now packed with attractions: You can have your palm read by a psychic, ride around in a horse-drawn carriage, shoot water guns and eat cotton candy. It’s a year-round fun fair at city scale.
There is, of course, a lot of bad taste on display. Right off the promenade, you can get terrible tattoos displaying your Welshness or Scottishness. There is a place called the “Barvarian”, where you can dance the night away on beer-drenched benches. Or you can go to Ma Kelly’s, a pub with three locations in Blackpool, where you can stand on a thick carpet and drink cheap beers, as a live musician plays some crowd pleasers and feathered background dancers show their legs.
But Blackpool is also very true to itself. Peer behind one of the stands on the pier and you see that all the old infrastructure is still there: Intricate Victorian railings, painted over countless times, now a mere backdrop to the latest auto scooter or water park. Like inspecting the rings on a felled tree trunk, you can see all the historical layers of Blackpool out in the open. The buildings are historic, the architecture reminiscent of a glorious past. The place might seem surreal, but it also makes all the sense in the world: It’s a logical conclusion not just to the city’s history, but that of the entire country. It is out of step with what we would consider hip or contemporary, but raw in its authenticity.
A few months ago, I stumbled upon a black and white image of a starkly modernist clock somewhere on the internet. It was the central time piece of the Preston Bus Station, a terminal built in the late 1960s, and either an eyesore or a brutalist masterpiece, depending on who you ask. On the photos I found of it, the place looked like something fallen out of time, a 1960s reality somehow magically preserved until today.
We found ourselves close to Preston the other day and decided to stop in the town to pay the bus station a visit. In homage to the original photos I took of it, I shot my pictures in stark black and white — which also emphasis its geometry.
Berlin’s Tegel airport is often praised for its hexagonal shape and the fact that you can find the hexagon in the floor tiles and column footprints. The great thing about the Preston Bus Station is that it’s also designed from the outside in: The interior matches its space-station like exterior with stark white tiles, concrete beams, and a cafeteria, which I am sure hasn’t changed it’s menu in 50 years.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin describes an interesting way of judging “realness”:
The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object. One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” (…).
One of the best insight from his famous essay is something I had never previously considered – possibly because I had grown up in an age of reproduced, broadcasted art. It is the loss of immediacy that used to prevail when an actor performed before an audience versus performing for a camera (for later viewing).
What matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance – in the case of the sound film, for two of them. (…) for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.
The same is true for photography: no matter how “accurate” a photo, it can never be real. The camera may not lie, but any photo has stripped away the “aura”, that which only exists in person, and which arguably constitutes the real.
On a rangefinder camera, you focus by aligning two pictures – the camera’s projection of what’s in front of you against the actual reality. You turn the focus ring on your lens until slowly, the two panes merge into a sharp picture.
I was reminded of this whilst traveling on a bus in Mexico, looking through the window at the landscape going by. For years, Mexico had exerted a special fascination on me, a country a couldn’t wait to visit, and now I was finally seeing it with my own eyes.
It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of travel: that process of aligning the image in your head with the reality on the ground. I had envisioned Mexico to be colorful, hot, North American without being North American. I derived those images almost exclusively from books and photos, little impressionistic fragments I pieced together to a vague idea. Walking the streets of Mexico City, those ideas collided with reality. They weren’t wrong, but the experience felt like looking through the rangefinder. My picture was slightly off: Reality was less fantastical, dustier and grittier, but also all the more wonderful because it was so concrete. Crickets chirped. My living room plant existed as a mighty tree. Taco stands on every corner. Such lovely people. Yellow walls. So many dogs.
Nothing is ever quite how you imagined, because it’s so much more than you could possibly take into account. The schoolgirls, looking inquisitively. The hummingbird, blazing by. The low, rectangular buildings, hand-drawn signs. All the food, familiar yet never before seen.
The images in my head have been replaced by these impressions, but I can’t help but want to go back, soak up more of them, and see more of the grit, variety, humidity, and overall intensity Mexico has to offer. It’s become more real, and with that all the more alluring.