“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
― Carson McCullers
It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that the past is another country. But that this country, this green and pleasant land should be seen as ‘other’, experienced through ‘foreign’ eyes, provides an interesting perspective on our identity.
The power of the photograph is that it allows us to see ourselves as others see us. My goodness did I really look like that, wear those glasses, have that hair style? Don’t I look young/slim/naïve? Did we honestly behave like that? How odd. I had quite forgotten until now…
Curated by the British photographer Martin Parr – best known for his satirical, yet affectionate technicolour images of the British enjoying their leisure in tacky seaside resorts – Strange and Familiar at the Barbican Gallery, London, includes the work of twenty-three international photographers from the 1930s onwards who have responded to the social structures, clichés and cultural changes within this sceptred isle. There’s street photography, portraiture, along with architectural studies by a number of celebrated modernist photographers that reveal the diversity within this small island from the Outer Hebrides to Northern Ireland, from Welsh coal mining communities in their death throes, to boys at Eton. It also brings together an extensive photobook section of many rare and out-of-print publications.
At a time when the very notion of Great Britain is in danger of dissolution, as Scotland and Wales continue to murmur about becoming independent nations and England suffers an identity crisis while it tries to decide whether or not to leave Europe, these images hold up a mirror to reveal how others see us: both as an odd, class-ridden post-imperial little island floating in the north sea, and as a modern, culturally diverse society.
“England”, wrote George Orwell in 1946, “resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”
But as I arrive at the Barbican it’s a sunny day and people are sitting by the waterfront chatting and drinking wine or working on their laptops sipping a latte. The contrast between this well-healed vision of contemporary London and Orwell’s Britain of the 40s is enormous. Then the country was poor, dark and cheerless, with a culture of make-do-and-mend and know-your-place. The exhibition starts with Edith Tudor-Hart’s images of the East End, along with those of the deprived housing in Tyneside. A black and white photograph of Gee Street, Finsbury, London, taken in 1936, shows two women – a mother and grandmother? – crammed with 6 children into the backyard of a slum dwelling. Shot from above they seem imprisoned in the tiny space. A line of tattered washing flaps overhead and a battered tin bath hangs on the soot-streaked wall. The place is mean, dirty and probably damp. Child poverty, unemployment and the sort of deprivation we now associate with the Third World marked the interwar years in these islands. So it’s hardly surprising that children got sick. A 1935 black and white photograph shows toddlers – naked except for goggles, socks and sandals – arms outstretched to receive ultraviolet light treatment at the South London Hospital for Women and Children. This vision of underprivilege is in marked contrast to that of an aristocratic woman in a long Edwardian skirt and checked mackintosh sitting on a bench in Hyde Park two years later.
The exhibition takes us on a journey through a Britain that, in the 1930s, was closer to the Victorian smog-filled world of Dickens than to anything we might recognise now, through the key historic events of the 20thcentury from King George VI’s 1937 coronation, to the political protest that erupted in the 1960s and marked the beginning of the sweeping cultural changes in attitudes to sex, class, drugs and music, up to the bland, post-industrial landscapes of the present day.
For many of these international photographers the unfamiliarity of Britain allowed their imaginations free reign. Born in Switzerland in 1926 Robert Frank contrasted the world of the city gent in his ubiquitous bowler hat, strolling down the street with his rolled newspaper, cane and sense of entitlement, with the black faces of Welsh miners queuing against a desolate backdrop for their wages. A black and white photo, taken in 1952-3, shows a hearse in a misty London street, which is completely empty apart form a small skipping girl, a road sweeper and a distant coal lorry. This was a world still recovering from the traumas of war.
Shinro Ohtake arrived here his 20s knowing neither the language nor any people. His coolly observed photographs taken in the 1970s – with their Lyons Maid Ice Cream booths, street markets and suburban streets – read like a stream of consciousness, a diary on British life. The ‘outsider’ status of these photographers allowed them to observe the nuanced layers of the social environments in which they found themselves. Though the London Sergio Larrain encountered during the winter of 1958-9 was already showing marked differences to the one observed by Robert Frank. Something of a flâneaur, Larrain roamed the underground and travelled on the top of buses capturing the nascent energy of the post-war recovery.
But it is essentially class, privilege and poverty that are the dominant themes of the eighty years which make up the history of this exhibition. The first real cracks appear in the rigid hierarchy during the 1960s. Garry Winograd captures the mood of revolt and sexual energy of the Swinging ‘60s: the young women with flowing hair, the young men dressed as Edwardian mods or wearing denim beneath bushes of unruly hair, carrying the revolutionary newspaper The Black Dwarf.
Sometime in the early 1950s, the radical American photographer, Paul Strand, heard a radio programme about the traditional songs of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and decided to spend three months there, drawn to the islands simple, self-sufficient life that stood in contrast to the industrial re-development on the mainland. The result was a series of remarkable portraits that John Berger noted possessed ‘an infallible eye for the quintessential’.
In 1977 the Queen visited Belfast as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations. The tribal clashes and protests that surrounded her visit were caught by Aki Okamaru, while the French Magnum photographer, Raymond Depardon, commissioned by The Sunday Times to record images of Glasgow in the 1980s, reveals the grey poverty of the Gorbals interrupted only by a splash of colour from a red car parked outside a tenement building or a small girl’s pink dress.
Concluding the exhibition is a series from the Dutch conceptual photographer Hans Eijekelboom that explores the nature of identity by illustrating the ubiquitous fashion choices of those in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. But it’s The New York photographer Bruce Gilden’s tightly cropped, stark colour photographs where he has focused his unrelenting lens on the ‘invisible people’ of Dudley, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton – places that have witnessed decades of industrial decline – that throw a harsh light on the ‘under dogs’ of contemporary Britain. His aging, peroxide blonde from Essex, her lashes laden with black mascara, the toothless, red-veined face of Peter from the Midlands and the blotchy asexual portrait of a middle aged woman having a perm in a West Bromwich Beauty Parlour are reminiscent of the dark dysfunctional imagery of the Ukraine by Boris Mikhailov. Recorded without sentimentality or comment, Gilden presents those excluded from the growing prosperity of British life and from which many might be inclined to turn away.
Gee Street, Finsbury, London ca. 1936
© Edith Tudor-Hart National Galleries of Scotland
Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London
12th May 1937
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum photos
Street on the day after the Battle of the Bogside
Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, august 1969
© Akihiko Okamura courtesy of his estate, Japan