'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Martin Parr, one of the most renowned documentary photographers of modern life, is not everyone’s cup of tea.
When Henri Cartier-Bresson – Grandfather of street photography – attended an exhibition of Parr’s in 1995, he reportedly said: “You are from a completely different planet to me.” Although not quite extraterrestrial, Parr’s satirical, comic and voyeuristic images starkly contrast with Cartier-Bresson’s candid humanist photography. However both are united in their honest chronicling of a vast, ever-changing society.
Strange and Familiar at the Barbican, is Parr’s latest creative venture – this time swapping his role from image-maker to curator in an attempt to collate an exhibition of photographs depicting Britain by international photographers. Cartier-Bresson is one of them. As is Garry Winogrand, Akihiko Okamura, Edith Tudor-Hart, Robert Franks, Hans van der Meer, and many others; each lending their own individual style and perspective to what is a colossal display of the social, cultural and political identity of this island. A country that – as Scotland resumes its push for independence and Wales hints at similar plans on the horizon – seems to be on the verge of splitting apart. And with the EU referendum fast approaching, now is an significant time to consider what it means to be British.
The exhibition celebrates Britain in all its guises – embracing our flaws, idiosyncrasies, cities and diverse characters – through portraits, documentary and street photography, as well as architectural photography from the 1930s to 2014 . The title of the exhibition is spot on; viewers regularly emitted a small chuckle of recognition at a familiar stereotype – ashen skies, drizzle, bad teeth, flag-waving royalists, bumbling aristocrats and our national appreciation of tea.
Garry Winogrand, a street photographer from the Bronx, New York, expresses an outsider’s curiosity at British quirks. Using a wide angle lens on his Leica enabled him to capture more than the human eye would normally see. He offers a view of London in 1967 and 69 which captures it as a living, breathing organism, with people wandering the streets, lost in their own world; two little old women point at a big red post-box, a man plays bagpipes in front of a row of urinals, and a grand gentleman stands poised wearing a monocle – random moments that portray the quirkiness of the capital. Winogrand depicts pubs, bowties, bagpipes – but through a unique, slightly skewed perspective, accentuating diagonal lines and creating a distorted composition which appears as if the ground is shifting, perhaps encapsulating the subversive atmosphere of the swinging sixties. His fascination with the commonplace, makes the viewer question it too.
On the other hand, Japanese photojournalist, Akihiko Okamura, presents Belfast through casual snapshots – capturing the troubles of the 1960s and 70s as they unfolded. His subtle, subdued images look like stills from an action film; a demolished house lies in piles of rubble, as two little girls dressed in pinafores and bonnets gaze at a memorial in the middle of the road, or women clutching mugs prepare to set up a tea party in a street. Okamura illustrates the ‘business as usual’ attitude which pervaded the city – people got on with their lives despite the devastating conflict raging around them. The images still create a sense of melancholy, but are a refreshing change from the harsh way war is usually represented in the current media.
The major theme which flows throughout this exhibition is the juxtaposition of two worlds; the privileged upper class – nannies pushing prams in Hyde Park, bankers striding purposefully across the street and Oxford undergrads in full regalia – and the working/lower class– Welsh miners, East End tenement blocks and toothless tramps. No one depicts the poverty-stricken better than Edith Tudor-Hart, an Austrian photojournalist who came to Britain in the 1930s and was believed to have also been a Soviet spy. Her photography – like her political views – supported a radical, reforming agenda. She used her camera as a weapon to highlight inequality, saying: “In the hands of the person who uses it with feeling and imagination, the camera becomes very much more than the means of earning a living, it becomes a vital factor in recording and influencing the life of the people and in promoting human understanding.”
One prominent photograph of Tudor-Hart’s is of a dirty faced boy staring hungrily into a bakery window in Whitechapel – an image which is indicative of the times. The early 1930s saw high unemployment and widespread poverty due to a sharp economic decline. The East End in particular was filled with slums, which featured heavily in Tudor-Hart’s photographs – in one, a family of nine huddles together at the back of their flat. There is a pervading sense of melancholy and struggle throughout these images; by using her camera, Tudor-Hart is sharing the plight of these people and trying to create change.
Similarly, Robert Frank, the Swiss-American photographer known for The Americans – a photo series which depicted the gulf between the American dream and the harsh reality – captured two very different spheres in Britain during 1951 and 1953. Frank portrays the British bankers in London, juxtaposed against the Welsh mining village of Caerau. Smartly dressed men in suits and top-hats march down smoggy metropolitan streets, while coal-streaked miners stare gloomily into the lens, framed by craggy hills; seemingly showing two disparate lands, rather than one country. The social commentary highlights the chasm between the upper and lower classes in Britain, which still seems as relevant today as it did in the 1950s.
The sixties is regularly depicted within the exhibition, however Gian Butturini, goes further than the stereotypical shots of miniskirts, music festivals and hippies in Notting Hill, instead choosing to shoot a “true, bare version” of London. Despite being from Italy, Butturini captured the gritty reality of what life was like for Londoners, which contrasted with the feeling of liberation at the time. He portrays the marginalised and destitute, as well as normal everyday scenes, such as people waiting for the tube – but the images emanate a simplicity that is really captivating. In particular, Butturini’s photographs of the impoverished echo his own sense of disillusionment with society, giving a touch of compassion for his subjects.
My favourite set of photographs is by the Japanese photographer, Shinro Ohtake, who arrived on these shores in 1977 armed with his Nikon F Camera. His images are purely visual wonderings; light-hearted, simple, casual musings of his daily life in Britain. It was his first experience of a foreign country, and so he used his camera to engage with this new ‘alien’ environment. Therefore the images have a very reflective feel – dappled sunlight casts shadow patterns on a brick wall, a close up of fairy cakes 5p each, beach huts and a fish and chip shop sign – you get the impression that Ohtake is seeing these things for the first time and that sense of discovery translates to the viewer. Accompanying the photographs are his scrapbooks, which are filled with sweet wrappers, transport tickets, magazine clippings and anything else he could get his hands on – further reinforcing the scavenger/explorer style of his work, as well as the sense of building memories, however mundane they may be.
More recently, a series of portraits of working class people by the American photographer, Bruce Gilden, caused quite a stir as viewer’s entered the room and were met with faces on a humongous scale. A woman from Essex with a mask of thick foundation, spider leg eyelashes and scarlet lipstick stares straight at you, while a homeless man with only a couple of teeth, a bulbous nose and a face lined with clusters of veins gazes anxiously into the distance. The faces take up the whole of the composition, with the harsh light of the flash revealing every hair, pore, line and crevice. Gilden roamed the streets looking for “somebody whose face, and particularly eyes, scream a story”, thus creating a mix of arresting and unforgiving portraits – each one a map of that individual’s life. Some critics have called his work demeaning and intrusive, the Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan wrote that the “relentlessly cruel” portraits “dehumanise the subjects”. Whatever your opinion is, it is a shocking, yet vivid portrayal of human beings.
Of course I couldn’t not mention Henri Cartier-Bresson; dubbed ‘l’oeil du siècle’ or ‘the eye of the century’, the French photographer captured fleeting moments, when light, form and content fell together to create a story – the master of creating the extraordinary from something ordinary. In this exhibition, his photographs focus on people-watching as opposed to reportage. When covering events Cartier-Bresson would capture the reaction of the crowd, as opposed to the spectacle. For example, there’s a photograph of an old woman sitting on the shoulders of two serious looking men to get a good view during the celebrations of the 1937 coronation of George VI in Trafalgar Square, in another a man shelters (unsuccessfully) under a sodden newspaper – trying to escape the rain at Ascot in 1953. Cartier-Bresson’s Britain is one filled with eccentric, quirky characters doing random acts that, when frozen by the magic of the camera, turn into visual masterpieces.
This exhibition is certainly a lot to take in; an explosion of sights, angles, commentary and subjects, that requires time to digest. Therefore the photograph library in the middle of the exhibition – with comfy chairs and tables lined with photobooks – is a welcoming quiet space to chew over the images. What I will say is this; there are lots of recurring themes and imagery throughout the exhibition – class and poverty are two main ones, perhaps reinforcing how British people are obsessed with class. But also urban environments feature heavily, with one metropolis in particular taking the limelight – London. Every other photographer seems to have turned their camera on the capital. London buses, the underground, London streets, London architecture, the list goes on. Of course, London is a great British city – the heart of this nation – but there are numerous other cities up and down the UK that could have been featured (although, Candida Höfer’s brilliant images of Liverpool were included).
Our country is also famed for its green and pleasant land – the windswept Cornish coast, the vast Scottish lakes, the picturesque Cotswold villages – so why was there no landscape or nature photography? The only hint of this is Hans van der Meer’s panoramic shots of lower league football matches. There is an overwhelming focus on documentary and street photography, which reflects Parr’s interest in social commentary – forever snapping random scenes that depict people’s quirkiness. I suppose this is the trademark of a successful exhibition, as it encourages the viewer to question stereotypes and ask what other topics should be presented – how would British photographers depict Britain differently? Would they be more or less critical? More or less insightful? By displaying an outsider’s view, Parr enables us to see how we – as a nation – are perceived, and in doing so follows the belief that it takes an outsider, with fresh eyes, to see the truth – and, in this case, a camera to reveal that truth.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, is at the Barbican Centre from 16 March 2016 – 19 June 2016, Sat–Wed 10am–6pm, Thu–Fri 10am–9pm.
Originally published on St John Street News.