Photographs by Holly Falconer
Text by Elizabeth Breiner
Page design by Silvia Maietta
Mankind’s desire to harness the night and profit from its conquest with so-called “artificial sunshine” is no better seen than in Blackpool, England, site of the annual Illuminations festival and unlikely home of pioneering advances in light technology. Not only prolonging the social and business day, but also seamlessly weaving the kitsch and the commercial into an ever-expanding afterhours spectacle, the Illuminations in its modern incarnation – replete with the latest in lasers, fiber optics and more – has become something of a strange and self-referential celebration of its own history. Recently opened, the festival will continue into November, attracting millions of visitors over the course of its two month duration.
In the late 19th century, to great fanfare, the working class resort town introduced some of the first electric streetlights in the world along its now iconic Promenade, with the number of visitors present for the globally televised unveiling nearing 100,000. Inspiration for what would become the Illuminations festival came from the first royal visit to Blackpool in 1912, for which a highly novel array of decorative garland lights were installed; these proved so impressive and popular that locals demanded the installation be recreated a few months later, and again the following year.
Thus Blackpool Illuminations was born, and despite a decade-long hiatus caused by the First World War, they were back and brighter than ever by the mid-1920s. The 1930s even saw Blackpool as one of the first places in Britain to embrace neon lighting, commissioning unique designs for its Illuminations festival from the company founded by Georges Claude, the ‘Edison of France’ and inventor of neon. Now as new and improved technologies continue to be integrated, it is still tradition combined with a delight in the visual excess and unpredictability of the festival that draws the crowds, who revel in the phantasmagoric blend of the old and modern, tawdry and artful, and high- and low-brow references to pop culture and celebrity, children’s stories, national icons, art and design, the natural world, historical events, and more.
“Last November I went to Blackpool to photograph the town’s annual illuminations. I’d last visited the city in my early twenties, and memories of its camp festival of lights had stayed with me since.
The Illuminations were established in 1879 to prolong tourism in the colder months, and every year from late summer until November over one million lamps light up the seafront’s main road.
Gaudy delights await: mermaids, astronauts and go-go dancers all hover above the drivers below. Huge tableaux depicting tales of pirates, Egyptian tombs and Alice in Wonderland jostle for attention with sponsored creations: local jewelers touting their glittery wares or huge letters spelling out ‘i’m lovin’ it.'”
— HOLLY FALCONER