Strange and Familiar • at the Barbican

‘Strange and Familiar’ is a sort of portrait of Britain as seen from the outside. Curated by Martin Parr, it shows the work of international photographers viewing Britain between the 1930s and the present.

The venue is hard work for a first-timer, the Barbican being the archetype 1960s concrete complex with a maze of multi-level walkways and poor signposting. Inside the Arts Centre is pretty similar but we eventually find the third floor gallery and the start of a great two hours or so viewing over 250 images from 23 photographers.

Photography is not allowed in the exhibition. These installation images are from the Barbican Centre press download Dropbox.

The exhibition is arranged on two floors, with most photographers assigned a full gallery space (the others had a complete wall or two) so the images are grouped by photographer rather than thematically or in chronological order. On the whole, the historic/nostalgic images are on the upper floor and the more contemporary images are on the lower floor.

I have to say that I was more comfortable with the upper floor images than with some of the more contemporary stuff, which will probably show-through in the following paragraphs. Given the size of the exhibition, this review cannot be comprehensive but will consist of edited highlights.

Edith Tudor Hart documented social issues of poverty, unemployment, children and her husband’s patients during the 1930s. Images are mainly of backstreet London, but also some from the mining areas of Wales and Northumberland. Her treatment of the subjects is not as hard-hitting as we would expect from a modern photojournalist, and I had the impression of a sanitised or pictorial view.

The Henri Cartier Bresson space mostly showed the English enjoying spectacles from the 1937 Coronation of George VI to the 1977 Silver Jubilee. It is fascinating to see how crowd behaviour is unchanging through the decades, dressing up, finding vantage points and (most interesting) using cardboard periscopes and mirrors-on-sticks to get a better view. I am reminded of the modern phenomenon of selfie-sticks and of holding up mobile phones to ‘view’ open-air concerts; technology changes, human nature remains constant.

Away from the pomp, we saw people on park concert benches in the rain and one memorable image of a woman at London Airport, dressed in a mink coat and Margaret Thatcher hat, reading the Telegraph special edition covering Churchill’s death.

Robert Frank photographed in London and Wales, 1951-53 (before ‘The Americans’). The images of the Welsh mining community record a hard life, not glamourised but not playing for pathos either.

Paul Strand photographed in the Outer Hebrides in 1954. The set was a mix of posed environmental portraits, some building details and a few landscapes. All of the portrait subjects are gazing directly at the camera and I got a feeling that we know these people and their environment.

Something very different, and difficult to categorise, is the Sergio Larrain work in London during four months of 1958-59. His photography of that period is described as a ‘spontaneous response’ to what he saw, often from unusual vantage points and with blur. The view of the girl and pigeons in Trafalgar Square seems to be the signature image in any article about him – with good reason.

Gian Butturini, Frank Hubicht and Garry Winogrand showed us the ‘Swinging London’ of the late 1960s, although with slightly different treatments. Butturini looked behind the scenes and showed us the poor and homeless, and conventional commuters, as well as a few stereotype 60s hippies. Hubicht concentrated more on youth culture, haircuts, fashions and peace demonstrations. I particularly enjoyed “Time, Gentleman, Please!”  with a bowler-hatted City gent telling the time for two mini-skirted girls – suggesting an amused mutual tolerance of two different cultures sharing the same city. Winogrand also contrasted the youth boutique culture and clothes with the much staider older generation. However, I got the impression that some of his subjects were trying too hard, maintaining a pose. In one case, a young man with cravat, circular sunglasses and immaculate hair, I had to look twice to be sure he was not a mannequin.

Candida Höfer photographed Liverpool in the late 1960s and , apart from noting that a no.73 bus goes to Penny Lane, there was no evidence of a “Mersey Beat” culture. We see staid clothes and industrial scenes.

Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura photographed in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The Peress images are a monochrome ‘work print’ for a project entitled ‘The Prods’, dealing with the Orange Order, ceremonial, parades and crowd reactions. Okamura’s colour images are more disturbing, taken during fighting or its aftermath. The floral tribute and black flag next to a bloodstain on the pavement has its own menace.

I did not ‘get’ the Bruce Gilden exhibit (seen in the montage at the start of this posting) of enormous, closely cropped and rather grotesque faces. Golden tells us that he was looking for subjects ‘whose faces, and particularly eyes, scream a story’.

Hans van der Meer showed a set of large colour photographs of football matches in the lower leagues, played on village and town pitches, with no grandstands and few spectators. The image titles named the teams and the league, with delightful examples such as St Bedes 3 v Heckmondwike Reserves (score 0-5) in the Yorkshire Old Boys League Division 2. It is sad that it takes a foreigner to remind us that the national game is played at all levels, for the sheer enjoyment of it, without the money and glamour of the Premier League.

Raymond Depardon shows us Glasgow in the 1980s, a time of transition for the city. It is a difficult set to view, with colour images of poverty and the tenements, but it also shows us Brits doing what we do best, making the best of things. The signature image is also on the cover of the exhibition book, a pair of elderly newly-weds, posing with the wedding Rolls-Royce, and tower blocks and industrial chimneys in the background.

Tina Barney looked at the other end of society, making ‘posed informal’ portraits of the upper classes with and 8×10 view camera. These are environmental portraits, using locations and props, and do not name their subjects, preferring titles such as “The Two Students” or “The British Cousins”

Finally, given my interest in typologies for Assignment 2, I have to mention Axel Hütte and his typology of housing estate architecture from the brick buildings of the 1940s and ’50s to the concrete jungles of the 1960s and ’70s. These are rather sterile images of exteriors and the interiors of common parts.

Overall, the exhibition is a fascinating view of Britain as seen by the outside. I get the impression that the majority of the photographs selected are the ones that Martin Parr would have taken himself, had he been there at the time.