Who are we and what have we been? This is the key question that photographer Martin Parr examines in the Barbican’s astonishing new exhibition which Parr has curated, of international photographer’s perspectives on Britain since the 1930s. What it means to be British and how the challenges of the twentieth-century shaped who we are has troubled historians for a long time, with cultural outlets recently beginning to catch-up presenting insightful exhibitions such as the Tate’s Artist and Empire show and Parr’s own exhibition at the Science Museum last year. But is how we see ourselves the same as how others see us? The answer is yes and no, and while the images displayed here are unarguably British, they show far more reality than our own nostalgic view of the last seven decades.
Our perspective of these years is a blur of pop culture images, heavyweight political stories and romanticised projections, a ‘Downton Abbey’ view of a history that never was. From the smiley victory rolled women of the 1940s to the mini-skirted dollies of the 60s and on to the power-suited greed of the 80s, our view is highly focused on metropolitan areas, especially London, and coloured by fashions, celebrity and periods of supposed societal ‘change’. But this is far from the Britain that the vast majority of people actually lived in and one of the most fascinating aspects of this exhibition is just how domestically unchanging Britain appears to be.
Through the eyes of over 20 external observers, we are a land of work and predominately working class people, of decaying buildings, unresolved industrial decline and poverty, but never of hopelessness judging by the number of happy looking scamps playing in the streets or people having a lovely night in the pub. There are the obligatory shots of bowler-hatted financiers and 60s youth enjoying rock concerts, but most overwhelmingly Britain is a place of Sunday football in the local field, of coal miners enjoying their tea, of seaside holidays and, unfortunately for all the republicans out there, of enthusiasm for the Royal Family, as flag-waving patriots hold street parties in honour of coronations, jubilees and royal weddings or happily sit among the detritus of London streets to catch the action first hand. Interestingly the middle and upper classes barely get a look in, this is a Britain of ordinary people living ordinary lives, battling in that charmingly stoical British way.
The abiding image of the exhibition is by American Bruce Davidson of two old people, sitting in their Sunday best in deckchairs on the beach at Hastings, drinking tea from a cup and saucer. Like Parr’s own work there is wry humour to this scene but also a clear human story of the obviously long-married couple at its heart braving the weather. It is so familiar an image yet seems long ago – who now would take an actual cup and saucer to the beach – but somehow this picture seems to epitomise everything we think about ourselves and interesting to see that it accords with how others also see us. As a long-term London resident it’s also hard not to be drawn to the shots of the capital including Chilean Sergio Larrain’s beautiful tube escalator at Baker Street station shining up to the sky as well behaved commuters stand on the right and the man in the centre close to the camera gives it an inviting perspective (1958-59), or the wonderfully humorous image of a quirky old lady sitting on the shoulders of two upright gentlemen in Trafalgar Square as she tries to catch the Coronation of George VI in 1937 pictured by Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson.
And it is these ordinary folk that make this exhibition so enriching and combining so many images from across the UK it is clear we have never adequately resolved the problem of industrialisation. Edith Tudor-Hart’s dramatic 1930s portrait of the tiny backyard of a slum dwelling in which a mother and her six children are crammed into one half, divided by a small washing line, while surrounded by broken chairs and rubble on the high walls. Similarly she recorded a dramatic picture of a group of children having ultra-violet light treatment, presumably for skin conditions, that this collection implies are the result of living conditions. Bruce Davidson picks up this theme in the 1960s in Wales as factory towers emit smoke into the greyed countryside as a white-dressed bride picks her way across the field to be married, or a small bespectacled boy pushes his teddy and doll in a pram as the entire background is swallowed up in industrial smog. These images remind us that not only were so many places reliant on the industries like mining that have left social decay behind them, but were themselves a double-edged sword that brought tough urban living conditions for many that have barely improved since.
One of the most pleasing aspects of this show is how multiracial Britain appears through the eyes of these photographers. Cas Oorthuys from The Netherlands took a series of pictures of Oxford in the 1960s including one of a two black students in their gowns and what is presumably their friend on his bike. Frank Habicht’s picture of Vanessa Redgrave carrying a peace protest banner in 1968 and fellow German Candida Hofer’s shots of turbaned schoolboys in Liverpool also help to reinforce this sense of Britain as a more multicultural society than is often depicted and it’s worth looking at the crowds in many pictures to see this long-existent diversity.
Some of the more recent work on the ground floor of the exhibition adds to the regional, and at times highly politicised, feel of the exhibition including Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura’s shots of Northern Ireland which give a sense of the effect of war in the1970s on the people living there including two dressed-up children at a street shrine with a backdrop of destruction in a terraced street, and various victory celebrations in Londonderry. Axel Hütte’s images of decaying tower blocks have a similar effect actually making you think about the lives they contain, and the unfulfilled hope of elaborate names like ‘Hamlet Court’.
But it’s not all doom laden stuff and American Jim Dow’s shop-window images benefit from improvements in photography that tap into our nostalgia for the corner shop, including the bountiful Scarborough sweet shop, a takeaway in Leicester and a wallpaper shop in Leytonstone all of which leap out at you. The move to digital images is captured brilliantly by Bruce Gilden’s stark and brutal portraits that end the show, of faces he captured around the country. Five intimidating faces glare down at you with very little background and instead you see every line and vein. These are not flattering shots by any means, almost grotesques in fact, as you see the bursting redness of alcoholism on ‘Peter’s’ nose, and the re-growing hairs on the eyebrows, upper lip and chin of the painted Essex women. But they’re not images to laugh at and somehow you can see the despair and hardship in their eyes which tells you that maybe nothing much has changed since the time of Tudor-Hart’s slum children. The fashions come and go, but the problems remain the same.
Strange and Familiar is an extraordinary exhibition that forces us to really think about who we are. As you walk through the decades and see Britain through the eyes of other people it certainly makes you think about how much has really changed. Each ages had its own concept of modernity but what is so clear in this exhibition is that only applied to a select few. There is a timelessness to it; outside of London, daily life hasn’t altered all that much, Britain is still decaying but life goes on. Most importantly, Britons still try to have a good time – we get dressed up, have a drink at the pub with our friends or a cup of tea and just get on with it. Unflattering it may be at times, but the perspective of these twenty-odd international photographers, under Martin Parr’s skilled curation, shows us that whatever happened to Britain in the last 70 years, life goes on.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is at the Barbican until 19 June. Tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.