Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ Barbican Art

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, packed with poignant, arresting, funny and striking images, beautifully laid out, thoughtfully designed and carefully displayed.

The exhibition

It is an exhibition of photographs of Britain in the 20th century as observed by foreigners. 

Leading British photographer Martin Parr has chosen generous selections from 23 international photographers who visited Britain between the 1930s and the 2000s to convey how they captured the social, cultural, and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. As Parr explains, the subject matter maybe familiar (or over-familiar) to us inhabitants of these rainy islands – but seen through alien eyes and lenses it becomes something new and unexpected. Hence both familiar and strange at the same time.

Each photographer has an alcove or room to themselves with a selection of around 20 images each. Reading the lengthy wall labels about each photographer and then paying careful attention to each image is a profoundly pleasurable and satisfying experience but also very filling. It took me a good hour and a half just to do the top floor (13 photographers).

Photobooks

Alongside the photos on the wall, the exhibition is lined with display cases containing rare and out-of-print 20th century photobooks. In fact Parr, in his introductory speech at the opening of the exhibition, explained that the whole project arose from his habit of showing and sharing his own extensive collection of photobooks about Britain and wondering what a wonderful idea it would be to display their images more publicly.

Some of the photobooks are directly related to the exhibits on the walls; but others include work by photographers not actually included in the show (like several featuring the work of László Moholy-Nagy and, the one that caught my eye, The Battle for Waterloo Road with photos of bombed-out London by American photo legend Robert Capa). It is another element which adds to the feeling of profusion, of a super-abundance of imagery and art.

Accessible design

The exhibition is designed by London-based architects Witherford, Watson, Mann, and is noticeably stylish, subtly varying the colours of the walls, the way the photos are hung (different patterns and layouts for each photographer), for the way there are benches scattered about for the strolling punter to sit and reflect and, most strikingly, for the big ‘library’ space on the ground floor with tables and chairs and a generous selection of photobooks to sit and leaf through. It is a photography fan’s dream come true.


Part one – the first floor

Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-73) (15 photos) studied at the Bauhaus and was a communist émigré from Germany who married an English doctor and then used photography as a left-wing instrument to awaken social consciences. She took photos of the poor in London, south Wales and the industrial North East, among the slum housing of Tyneside.

Edith Tudor-Hart. Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

Edith Tudor-Hart – Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

She was also, the exhibition casually mentions, a world class spy for the USSR, who helped in the recruitment of Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies, which muddies your perception of her imagery and your sense of her motivations. But there’s no doubting the power of her photos and the variety of locations she was able to access.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) (24 photos) One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment set out a theory of how to capture a moment which tells a story, and the 24 photos here are certainly vivid and telling moments in the great civic pageants he chose to attend (the coronation, Royal Ascot etc).

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Just from these first two photographers you get a strong sense of:

  1. England (not the rest of the UK)
  2. in fact, lots of London
  3. the weather’s awful, grey skies or rain
  4. toffs in hats…
  5. … contrasted with abject poverty

Robert Frank (b.1924) American photographer and film director (15 photos) the selection here is taken from his work London/Wales, a photobook resulting from his photographic forays into London (top hats, posh) and the coal mining districts of South Wales (bleak, poverty-stricken).

Six of his 15 photos were of miner Ben James or his family, depicted in their knackered poverty. There’s one of him washing his upper body in a tin baby bath in the front room which really brings home the privations of the period.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Of strong left-wing sympathies, American photographer Strand visited the Outer Hebrides in 1954 and took a series of photos there. Compared to the naked poverty recorded by Tudor-Hart, Strand’s portraits of the islanders seem highly posed, and they radiate the pride and dignity of their subjects. He is one of the few photographers in the exhibition to snap inanimate objects, framing square-on shots of natural or man-made material which powerfully captures their grittiness, their feltness. He feels more consciously artistic than the previous three.

Cas Oorthuys (1908-75) (24 photos) Dutch photographer Oorthuys was a left-wing artist in the 1930s. In the 1950s he collaborated on a series of pocket travel books featuring, among other locations, London and Oxford. There were the usual London buses, relaxers in Hyde Park, students at Oxford, they are all very well done, but I found his images a little posed.

Cas Oorthuys - London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Cas Oorthuys – London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Sergio Larrain (1931-2012) (22 photos) Larrain was from Chile and came to visit and photograph Britain in the winter of 1958-59. He brought a consciously modernist or arty approach, with shots deliberately taken at angles, from odd vantage points, with deliberately out of focus elements, all giving a sense of buzzy black-and-white dynamism.

Sergio Larrain - London. Baker Street underground station. 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Sergio Larrain – London, Baker Street underground station 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Larrain’s photos (and the preceding works) all give the accumulated sense of a hard-pressed, dogged people living in a cold, depressing climate, and dominated by the top hats of the effortlessly posh.

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) (20 photos) a German émigré to the US, Hofer provided the pictures to several 1960s photobooks, text by V.S.Pritchett, made during visits to England in 1962 (black and white) and 1974 (colour). She used a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera which was, apparently, cumbersome and slow. Hence her photos, especially of people, look very static and posed which, cumulatively, gives them a distinctively formal and rather solemn feel. Posing at a wedding.

Bruce Davidson (b.1933) The American Davidson is represented by 13 b&w shots from his trip here in 1960, and five colour pics from 1965. His photos of Brighton and Hastings beach make the English seaside look the forlorn pitiful thing it so often is.

Gian Butturini (b.1935) The Italian Butturini visited England in 1969 and captured images of the late-period Swinging city, hippies, stoned parties and loud gigs, which resulted in his coolly laid-out photobook, London. After soaking up 150 powerful images of poverty and discomfort, it is a relief to see some people actually enjoying themselves.

Frank Habicht (b.1938) A German, Habicht was a freelance photographer in the 1960s when he came to London and produced the photos which went into the photobook, We Live In London. London was, by all accounts, a permissive paradise, which means lots of beautiful young women took their clothes off, and his 12 photos here are the first to show a bare boob. The sight of these happy, scantily clad young women makes you stop and reflect what an incredibly long way the country had come in just thirty years from the bleak 1930s poverty so powerfully depicted by Tudor-Hart. (Not that we should make the common mistake of forgetting that lots of the country continued to live in one-up, one-down, outside toilet squalor for decades to come.)

In 1967 and again in 1969 American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-84) travelled through the UK, using a wide angle lens and creating deliberately askew compositions.

  • man in bowler hat
  • posh man wearing monocle
  • man in kilt playing bagpipes in a public toilet
  • woman in top hat standing by a huge phonogram

Winogrand’s 24 images confirm the cumulative sense that England is neither nice nor lovable, and how little its essential infrastructure has changed: terraces of brick houses, cracked paving stones, ugly unhappy people, dogs barking at each other. The commentary says these photos are little known and this appears to be confirmed by the way I can’t find any trace of them on the internet.

Candida Höfer (b.1944) German photographer Höfer takes a very conceptual approach to photography, exemplified by her visit to Liverpool in 1968, the city of poets and the Beatles. But instead of bohemian hi-jinks, this installation shows precisely 22 square black and white photos arranged in a Teutonic grid shape, which strongly convey a sense of loneliness and alienation among the 1960s developments, in the windy bus stations, the grimly functional waiting rooms, the soon-to-be-demolished tenements and eerily empty docks.

Candida Höfer - Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Candida Höfer – Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Akihiko Okamura (1929-85) Japanese photojournalist Okamura moved to Dublin to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland right at the end of the 1960s. His work from this time is represented by 23 low-key, colour photos which I found absolutely brilliant – showing army barricades, road blocks, demonstrations and bombed out streets, and spots where civilians have been wounded or killed – but all underplayed and understated. Probably the most powerful is a simple image of six milk bottles on a doorstep – amid so much mayhem and death, it is impossible not to feel terrified by their fragility and vulnerability.

Akihiko Okamura - Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Akihiko Okamura – Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Gilles Peress (b.1946) Frenchman Gilles Peress is represented by an installation of 51 black and white photos presented as a continuous band along the wall, titled The Prods, the result of annual visits over nearly two decades to Northern Ireland. These were brilliant, ad hoc snaps, blurred, exposed, capturing people, life, a culture, in a stream-of-consciousness visual narrative, bowler-hatted Orangemen marching, two kids standing on the crappy brick gateway to a church, Protestant couples snogging after a march or lying in the sunshine.

Part two – Downstairs

Downstairs are ten photographers covering the period from 1977 to the present day, these works are generally a) in colour b) shown as massive prints.

Shinro Ohtake (b.1955) Ohtake is ‘one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists’. He came to England in 1977, year of the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols, understanding nothing of the language and began photographing everything he saw, and also collecting detritus and ephemera and pasting them into scrapbooks. He is represented here by 24 big b&w photos arranged in a 4 x 6 grid of so-so scenes, plus display cases with maybe 100 small prints – so-so because they descend to almost everyday level ie are not as strikingly special as much of the work on offer elsewhere.

Tina Barney (b.1945) American, Barney’s portraits of the British upper classes are huge, three or four foot tall, colour photos of people posed in semi-formal surroundings. Because of their scale and colour, the commentary refers the tradition of big formal oil portraits and maybe there is the ghost of John Singer Sargent buried deep in these images (very deep). Big shots of two Eton boys, a waiter and customer in a posh restaurant, the butler attending on the owner of a big country house in the drawing room by a formally laid table. The commentary says they ‘touch’ on class ie they record the rich. The example below is the only one which doesn’t capture an overtly well-heeled subject.

Tina Barney - The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Tina Barney – The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Raymond Depardon (b.1942) Frenchman Raymond Depardon was commissioned to make a photobook of Glasgow and so came to visit in 1980. But his images of a city ravaged by unemployment and industrial decline were, in the end, turned down for being too depressing. The series is represented by 21 colour shots of drunks passed out in the street, urchins in back alleys, derelicts outside gambling shops, more drunks huddled in the gutter, a boy crying against a boarded up shop front. What a terrible place to be a child, or a human being.

Rineke Dijkstra (b.1959) From the Netherlands, Dijkstra came to prominence for her series of teenage girls on a beach (two of them are currently on show at the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A) In 1994 she came across the Buzz Club in Liverpool and was fascinated by the queues of under-dressed teenagers waiting outside in the shivery cold. She took a series of portraits of these young teenagers, represented by three massive colour examples here. I found these heart-breaking examples of the way barely pubescent girls are pushed into wholly inappropriate clothes and behaviour by an adult society obsessed with sex.

Jim Dow (b.1942) American photographer represented by six very big colour photos from his series Corner shops of Britain – no people at all, just the interiors of the disappearing breed of small local shops, a nostalgia for chippies, corner stores, haberdashers,  a general store, a woollen shop. Entirely empty of human presence, the humanity captured in the array of dowdy products.

Axel Hütte (b.1951) is a latterday representative of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity which flourished between the wars, recording with Teutonic precision modern social architecture. His 12 big b&w shots are empty of people, instead recording the lines, spaces and vistas created by Peabody estates, 1960s tower blocks, concrete walkways and stairwells of Brutalist concrete. I like clear lines, squares, rectangles, formality, so I warmed to these frigid images.

Bruce Gilden (b.1946) American Gilden was commissioned to take images of people in and around London, leading to the photobook A Complete Examination of Middlesex (2011), then another project to record the working class of the West Midlands, recorded in Black Country (2014). He is represented by six absolutely enormous colour photos in extremely big close-up of some staggeringly ugly English people, the faces of the men an exploding landscape of skin disease, scars and acne, and the several women all grotesquely made up, spouting hairs and wrinkles. It is quite an assault on the senses to face such ugliness in such unremitting detail.

Hans van der Meer (b.1955) Dutchman van der Meer goes to the other extreme, with his project to photograph Sunday league football matches. From an artfully placed step-ladder he uses a wide angle lens to capture the breadth of muddy football pitches on which the players scamper like matchstick figures, in fact the commentary points out his debt to the Dutch tradition of landscape painting in which teeming figures swarm over, say, an iced-over lake. The eight very big colour photos here were commissioned by the National Media Museum in Bradford in 2004.

Hans van der Meer - Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

Hans van der Meer – Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

The final room in the exhibition is given over to a video which, on closer examination, is a silent slideshow of hundreds of colour photos taken in the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham by Dutch photographer Hans Ejkkelboom (b.1949). He has arranged the images into grids and sequences according to similarities of dress, colour, shape, design, logos, patterns of what people are wearing etc. The commentary says he is ‘questioning the construction of identity and self-representation’, which means he is pointing out that huge numbers of people fondly imagine themselves to be individuals while wearing the same mass-produced tat. The slideshow is haunting and hypnotic and a fitting finale to an amazing show.


Thoughts

What an immense cultural change took place in the 30 years between around 1935 and 1965! It didn’t affect the majority of the population but still, it began opening doors to new ideas and higher expectations of life which are still clanging open for every succeeding generation.

Recurrent images

Certain topics are so recurrent as to become clichés – London with its top- or bowler-hatted gents in the City, and its posh extensions to Ascot or Glyndebourne, private school children and nannies in the park, London buses, the London Tube – compare and contrast with working class poverty, the slums of the East End or Liverpool or Tyneside or Glasgow, the terrible lives of South Wales coal miners, there are lots of urchins in countless back streets. And then a horrible glut of images from our very own civil war in Ulster.

Absent topics

Which makes you reflect on the subjects which aren’t here. Britain had quite a big theatre, classical music and art scene in the second half of the 20th century. Nothing of that here. In fact, Britain along with the United States more or less invented rock music and spawned some of the biggest names in pop and rock and disco and punk. Nothing here.

Although we all live in cities, the British are notoriously sentimental about our countryside which can be ravishing, from the cliffs of Cornwall through the rolling West Country to the mountains of Wales or the spectacular Lake District. Nothing of that here. We are also a nation of gardeners, in love with thousands of species of flower and plant. Not reflected here. We invented football and cricket and rugby. Not here (with the exception of Hans van der Meer’s Sunday league shots, the exception which proves the rule).

People

It’s overwhelmingly an exhibition of people, and people on the streets or in urban settings (with the notable exceptions of Hütte’s empty housing estates, Dow’s empty shops and Höfer’s derelict Liverpool).

I wondered if this is some kind of intrinsic bias in photography itself, which biases it towards the human face and form?

Are people just more interesting than buildings or hills – is the part of the brain which processes faces and expressions and postures capable of infinite stimulation?

Or, if you’re a freelance photographer and paid to produce a photobook on London or England, do you dare not include buses and taxis and men in bowler hats? Is the narrowness of the subject matter a function of the photobook commissioning process?

Or, given that the entire show is curated by Martin Parr who has a well-documented fascination with the strangeness and quirkiness of people, does the focus on people and the absence of many other ‘British’ subjects reflect his particular interests?

Or a bit of all three?

Trends

A few obvious trends emerge over the 70 years the show covers.

  1. The prints get bigger, a LOT bigger, reflecting maybe the technology which allows for bigger prints, maybe the trend for photographers to think of themselves as Artists, commanding the same size and status as painters.
  2. More colour – as you approach the present day more of the photos are in colour. Colour, as I noticed at the exhibition of Martin Parr’s big colour prints at the Guildhall Art Gallery – is more unsparing, shows up blemishes and imperfections. Black and white for romance and glamour (even scenes of poverty have a certain nostalgia in black and white); colour for irony and satire.
  3. As a result of the above two trends, the most obvious thing about the more recent photos is their distance and detachment, bordering on cruelty. Tudor-Hart or Strand’s photos are full of compassion. Modern colour photography, on this showing, is characterised by its heartlessness.

Photography and identity

One wall label suggests that it is a ‘timely’ moment for an exhibition like this to shed light on our national identity, at a time when the independent or devolved nations are threatening the complete unravelling of the United Kingdom. But is it?

That unravelling shows no sign of happening any time soon. And, anyway, the show doesn’t shed any systematic light on cultural identity – instead it captures scattered moments, personal views, or aspects of quite narrowly conceived photographic projects: only tiny aspects of Scotland (the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s, the mean streets of Glasgow circa 1980) or Wales (lots of miners), and only the Ulster of ‘the Troubles’. And time and again England is represented by London and London is represented by the same shots of buses and bowler hats, cheeky chappy market traders or hippies in Notting Hill.

So I don’t think the exhibition sheds that much light on issues of national identity. I just think it’s a massive collection of quite brilliant photos, which can be enjoyed in their own right as works of art and, taken together, comprise a fabulous journey of discovery through the visual worlds of some of the world’s greatest photographers. What’s not to love?


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

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1 Comment

  1. AL Barbican la Gran Bretagna raccontata dai fotografi internazionali | Vita da Museo

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