Britain through the lens of outsiders
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In his 1948 book Camera in London, the photographer Bill Brandt — who was born in Hamburg in 1904 to an English father and a German mother, and who finally settled in England in 1934 — wrote: “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country.”
For the Swiss photographer Robert Frank, who met Brandt in London in November 1952, this meant remaining alert to the emotional registers of people and places; it meant valuing intuition over reasoned understanding and being able to sense what might exist beyond appearances. Frank had moved to New York in 1948 but was soon restless. He visited London for the first time as part of a five-year period of travelling abroad, during which he would forge a personal style of picture-making that prioritised emotional connections over narrative detail and was predicated on his position as a roaming “outsider” or “stranger”, acutely receptive to the atmospheres of places newly seen.
For other roving photographers, however, the significance of the traveller’s eye was precisely the opposite. It was to do with the clear-eyed act of noticing and describing often the most ordinary things. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who travelled around America in 1946-47, found that he was fascinated “by the things so familiar to Americans that they forget them . . . ”.
Though they adopted different creative positions, both Frank and Cartier-Bresson saw contact with what was unfamiliar to them as a vital source of creative stimulation and inspiration. In Strange and Familiar, the new exhibition curated by the British photographer Martin Parr, which opens at the Barbican next month, these two pivotal figures of 20th-century photography act as markers: it is their outsider’s “receptiveness”, as Brandt called it, that not only distinguishes their work and adds so much to its historical value but also gives the exhibition its binding theme.
Strange and Familiar covers a broad spectrum of work made by international photographers in Britain across approximately 80 years of its history from the mid-1930s to the present day, and in doing so adds a previously unrecognised chapter to the story of photography in this country. The works are clustered around certain transitional moments: in the late 1930s during times of economic hardship, constitutional crisis and the looming spectre of fascism; in the mid-1950s, as Britain’s international influence diminished and internalised romantic ideals of a national “heritage” gained momentum; in the late 1950s and early 1960s, on the cusp of a cultural revolution; and in the 1970s, a period of political and economic uncertainty and escalating conflict in Northern Ireland, yet one in which public investment was galvanising a new independent photography culture in Britain. Throughout this later period, under the radar of a native photographic community just finding its voice, a number of international photographers were, quietly and privately, also making important bodies of work in Britain. Like many of the works in Strange and Familiar, they would not be seen or published until much later but in different ways they all now expand our understanding of photography in Britain at that time.
From the 1920s onwards the arrival of foreign photographers into Britain had radicalised all areas of professional photography. Some had avant-garde interests, among them Curtis Moffat and Paul Outerbridge from the US and László Moholy-Nagy, displaced by the rise of fascism in Germany. Though Moholy-Nagy only stayed for two years, before leaving for Chicago where he directed the New Bauhaus, other German émigrés, such as Bill Brandt, Felix Man, Kurt Hutton, Walter Nurnberg, Wolf Suschitsky, his sister Edith Tudor-Hart and the photojournalist, film-maker and publisher Stefan Lorant (co-founder of Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post), chose to settle in Britain and went on to shape the course of photography in this country.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s visitors such as Sergio Larraín (from Chile), Evelyn Hofer (born in Germany but living in New York), Cas Oorthuys (from the Netherlands) and Bruce Davidson and Paul Strand (from the US) would see the country through competing subjective viewpoints. In 1967, even Garry Winogrand, in the spotlight because of his inclusion in New Documents, that year’s landmark exhibition at MoMA, New York, was briefly distracted by the lure of London. But in his little-known photographs of streets and parks the signs of the “swinging” city do not glow brightly. Winogrand’s most affective photographs are, like Frank’s, those that catch the febrile atmosphere of the time rather than attempt to fix its co-ordinates. A few years later the Italian photographer Gian Butturini would also spend a month in London. His resulting book, London (1969), is a severe black-and-white collage of photographic impressions that registers the darkening of London’s bright mid-1960s optimism.
In the 1970s, Akihiko Okamura, a Japanese photojournalist who had first visited Belfast in the pivotal year of 1968, continued to photograph in the city. Eventually he moved his family to Dublin to facilitate his commitment to documenting the experiences of people caught up in the conflict. In the summer of 1977, while Okamura photographed the protests that preceded the Queen’s visit to Belfast as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations, another young Japanese artist, the 22-year-old Shinro Ohtake, arrived in London for the first time. A few weeks later saw the release, on May 27, of the Sex Pistols’ single “God Save the Queen” with its collaged picture sleeve by designer Jamie Reid. Ohtake’s wide-eyed response to Britain, in photographs, drawings, ephemera and collaged scrapbooks, makes an interesting parallel to the inventive do-it-yourself bravado of punk, reflecting some of the collecting and assembling strategies, if not the acerbic tone, of Reid’s Situationist-inspired art and graphics. At a time when so many British photographers were embarking on their own projects of discovery, Ohtake’s book, UK 77: Digging My Way to London (finally published in 1997), is a delicate outsider’s alternative.
Towards the end of UK 77, Ohtake’s images turn to colour. In preparation for his visit to Britain, he had bought a second-hand Nikon SLR camera and about 50 rolls of film, but only a few of them were colour. It is indicative of a time when, internationally, “creative” ambitions in photography were still almost exclusively imagined in black and white. In Britain, colour still had the taint of advertising and overt commercialism attached to it. But in the late 1970s, a very small number of British photographers, picking up on the chromatic signals coming across the Atlantic (from William Eggleston and others), were beginning to experiment with colour: Paul Graham’s Café Interiors exhibition at The Arnolfini in Bristol and Peter Mitchell’s A New Refutation of the Viking IV Space Mission at Impressions Gallery in York being two early examples from 1979. As the creative potential of colour photography gathered pace in Britain, black-and-white documentary photography became increasingly moribund; a sign of creative complacency in the face of the new social struggles taking place in Thatcher’s Britain. Colour now represented a sharper form of realism. It was unsentimental, more likely to expose the awkward ironies and simple strangeness of ordinary life, and in the hands of the new colour photographers it could be scathing in its criticism of the kind of country Britain was becoming. This was the colour of the shopping mall, the primary painted DHSS office, the red and yellow glow of a McDonald’s on every street corner.
The French Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon was not part of these developments but he was used to working in colour and also understood how it might be used to reinvigorate the language of documentary practice. In 1980, he was commissioned by the Sunday Times to make pictures of Glasgow and his resulting photographs tell an unremittingly bleak but not unsympathetic tale of urban deprivation and decay, in which minor notes of colour — a girl’s pink dress, a red parked car, the regalia of Orange Order marchers — only serve to reinforce the sense of gloom spreading through dark streets and tenements. There is a gently ironic edge to these juxtapositions that powerfully suggests life grimly endured, the everyday circumscribed by desperate economic conditions, and hope forever falling away into despair.
Depardon’s vision of Glasgow, however, belongs to a prior photographic moment. Rather than create a new language of colour in response to changing contemporary conditions, he saw age-old problems and addressed them powerfully in a style that had been developing for over 40 years. His skill was to graft colour seamlessly on to the dual lineage of existential confrontation and observational narrative represented by Frank and Cartier-Bresson.
From the 1980s onwards, Strange and Familiar reflects the comprehensive changes that, following the impact of postmodernism, saw more conceptual, systematic uses of the photographic image by photographers and artists operating in a more international, homogenised art world. As part of this culture, artists such as Axel Hütte, Tina Barney, Rineke Dijkstra, Hans van der Meer, Jim Dow and Hans Eijkelboom developed distinctive patterns of picture-making that could be consistently applied across national boundaries. Their photographs are, in each case, also part of larger bodies of work — such as Barney’s The Europeans, Van der Meer’s European Fields and Eijkelboom’s People of the Twenty-First Century — which, against a backdrop of increasing globalisation, often suggest similarities between cultural contexts as much as localised differences.
While this new generation came to this country as independent artists, conceiving their work primarily for the gallery wall and for artists’ monographs, the photographers who visited Britain before them had generally been working for magazines or publishers or, like Frank, were intent on making personal picture stories that they later hoped to sell. In most cases, their visits involved little real planning or briefing from their employers. The value of their work depended on the quality of their reflexive responses to things happened upon by chance, to what was newly seen and immediately experienced.
Inevitably in attempting to navigate an unfamiliar country, these photographers brought their personal histories and certain prior expectations with them; forms of received wisdom based on national and cultural stereotypes would often act as signposts. But, equally inevitably, these welcome points of reference would soon evaporate into a more genuine sense of subjective discovery; instinct and intuition would override any preparation, and in this more exploratory mode the most ordinary things — the everyday objects, the commonplace rituals, the habits and values “so familiar to us that we had forgotten them” — might suddenly appear as extraordinary.
‘Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers’, curated by Martin Parr, is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, March 16 to June 19. This is an edited extract from the accompanying catalogue, published by Prestel, £35; barbican.org
Photographs: Shinro Ohtake/Take Ninagawa Gallery, Tokyo; Akihiko Okamura/Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan; Cas Oorthuys/Nederlands Fotomuseum; Sergio Larrain, Bruce Davidson and Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos
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