Island Stories, V&A/Famous in the Fifties, National Portrait Gallery, London

Subtitled Fifty Years of Photography in Britain and timed to coincide with the V&A’s forthcoming British Design 1948-2012, Island Stories is a very rich show. It would have deserved top billing ahead of the museum’s feeble diamond jubilee tribute Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton but is tucked away in the museum’s “old” photography space, next to the bookshop. Many casual visitors will miss it, which is a pity: it is too good to miss.

The show assembles small strong groups of 20th-century prints by British photographers from about 1950 onwards. Each series is well chosen, not from the best-known pictures of the period, but from great ones that have been seen rather less. A loose theme about industry and the people who used to make industry happen is the binder – so loose, in fact, that the show includes nudes and landscapes, but somehow they all fit in – and the exhibition as a whole forms a strong double essay, on how British society has changed, and on how British photography has changed in the same period.

There are agreeable reminders, such as of just how very dark Fay Godwin used to print, early in her career. There are masterpieces, such as Don McCullin’s searing series (dark in a different way) on the coal-pickers of north-east England, from 1963-4, a subject visited by both Bill Brandt and Chris Killip at other times, and here demonstrating McCullin’s virtuoso scrutiny of society, a bleak view even before he went to cover wars. And there are quirks of photo-history, such as Brandt’s ant’s-eye-view nudes.

Among more modern artists here, Nigel Shafran’s Ruth Book series from 1992-95 is a photographic Valentine too brilliant to call small, yet too private to call great. It comprises a series of pictures he took of his partner and its charm derives partly from the certainty that the photographer was not exploiting the sitter in any way. Shafran had been a fashion photographer of that gilded generation fostered by Dazed & Confused and similar magazines. As such, he knew that one is supposed to wait a few moments before taking pictures when a model has removed clothing, to allow time for the marks left by elastics to fade from the skin. So here he is, taking a picture of Ruth’s legs, not at all pruriently, with the pattern of endearingly childish knee socks still clearly imprinted on her shins. Doesn’t sound like much? Great photographs, like great poems, are often built of tiny things.

Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s very interesting Folk Archive series doesn’t really get its due, the necessary excerpting making it seem a ponderous and slightly condescending look at other people’s obsessions, which it really is not. A lovely modern diptych (of motorway verges!) by Mark Edwards had viewers on the day I was there doing a nice double-take: dismissing it, and then being compelled to come back, rethink, and end up apparently rather moved. And a perfect Martin Parr from 1975 called “Passing Naturalists, Pagham Harbour” is charming: two blokes, getting on a bit, identically uniformed in “sensible” outdoor gear, pass each other without a hint of acknowledgment, each desperate to be alone with a bittern, yet having so much in common that they really should introduce themselves.

What a show this is: skipping through it at speed like this means skating crudely over a lot of careful thought. As good exhibitions should, it offers lovely contrasts everywhere, in addition to the simpler pleasure of a lot of very good pictures. Raymond Moore is here, perhaps the most sadly neglected of all British photographers of the second half of the previous century: a genius of that business of building a photograph by means of frames within the frame. And Roger Mayne’s Southam Street series is still startling in its freshness and social acuity. Set in the period written about by the novelists Sam Selvon and Colin MacInnes, when the first West Indian immigrants arrived in London, Southam Street is also about the games that people could once play in city streets before we gave them over entirely to cars.

I chuckled at a still-life by John R J Taylor from the series Ideal Home (1990), of the control panel of a domestic oven, all steel and glass, inset into wood panelling with an arts-and-crafts repro door latch
and some pseudo-Mediterranean tiles. A tea towel hangs down. The knobs and dials are all of different sizes, tucked between imperative messages. Time of Day. Rostaspit. The more fashionable a thing is, the sooner it will seem absurd. The opposite is true of this splendid show, in which quite modest pictures have grown and grown with time until they fill the exhibition space with thought and talent and feeling.

At the National Portrait Gallery, meanwhile, there is a small display under the title Famous in the Fifties devoted to pictures by Daniel Farson, photographer, Soho denizen and grand-nephew of Bram Stoker. Famously hard drinking, Farson became one of the earliest television “personalities”, appearing on a succession of programmes for the British broadcaster Rediffusion (including the highly regarded This Week), when commercial TV first appeared in the latter half of the 1950s. He eventually settled down to a life of hack writing (and boosting for Francis Bacon, his most successful crony by far), and died in 1997.

For a brief period in the 1950s, Farson worked as a stringer for Picture Post – and it is from that period that the photographs in this exhibition are taken. Most are let down by a laziness that allowed sketches or drafts of photographs to pass for the finished thing, but two strong portraits merit a quick detour while waiting for entry to the Lucian Freud Portraits show. Both are of spectacular drinkers – Farson apparently didn’t go far in search of his material. Richard Burton, taking a drag on a cigarette with that exaggerated sigh that sucks in the smoke as if it were fresh air, and Brendan Behan with a fresh black eye and a cut from whatever scrape photographer and subject had got into the night before.

In each portrait, the simple lines of the background are on a tilt; a little thing, but just enough to suggest the angled way that big drinkers approach the world. Burton is handsome, but Behan, seen very close and squinting into the sun, is something more than that. There’s a touch of Marlon Brando about him: big, self-contained, a force of nature.

Both to September 19

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