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.

 

 

Unseen City • Martin Parr at the Guildhall

An exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London EC2, and photography is allowed, the first time I have seen a big notice to that effect.

IMG_5055IMG_5066

I decided to view ‘Unseen City’ in the same excursion as the ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition at the Barbican because the two are connected by Martin Parr, curator of the Barbican exhibition and featured photographer at the Guildhall.

The background to Unseen City is that Parr has been the City of London’s photographer-in-residence since 2013. In this context, ‘City of London’ does not mean the buildings, streets and office workers, but the rarified world of Lord Mayors, livery companies, pomp, dinners and ceremonial. With unprecedented access to the personalities, events and ‘behind the scenes’, I wondered if he would do for the City what he had previously done for New Brighton (Parr and Walker, 1998). In my view, the answer is ‘yes and no’.

In the 100 or so images on display, we see a fair amount of formal images of events and people, but the playful eye and sense of fun is never far away. In this image of two ward beadles (whatever they are) the men are mirrored, and somehow commented on, by the statue behind them. Also, we see their suitcases and the fleeces and scarves which will replace or cover the formal suits once the ceremony is over.

IMG_5063

My favourite print is this one, musketeers from the Poulterers livery company at an Ash Wednesday event being watched by patrons of Pret a Manger. The expression on the nearest musketeer’s face says it all.

IMG_5061

In other images of the Lord Mayor’s Show, behind the scenes, we never quite see the proverbial ‘man with the bucket’ but we can be sure he is lurking in the wings somewhere.

The ‘… and no’ part of my answer comes because of the access that Parr has to his subjects, rather than being an outside observer as he was in New Brighton. As a viewer, I felt more like an insider than a voyeur. I also suspect that his city subjects are happier with the results than his Merseysiders.

Reference

Parr, M. and Walker, I. (1998) The Last Resort – Photographs of New Brighton by Martin Parr, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

The Last Resort • Martin Parr

I had intended to use this book (Parr and Walker, 1998) as part of my research for Assignment 1 (Square Mile) but it arrived late from the library. However, it remains of interest for the course in general. The book was originally published in 1986; I refer to the 1998 edition.

The book is in two parts, a six-page essay by Walker and 40 colour plates by Parr. There is no referential link between the two, except for a footnote to the text noting that Walker visited New Brighton in 1985 and Parr’s photographs were taken in the three seasons 1983-85. The link, of course, is the subject matter.

New Brighton is a seaside resort on the Wirral peninsula, built in the 1830s, popular in its heyday but starting to fall into decline after the First World War. By the time Parr and Walker visited in the mid-1980s the resort was a depressed area, the tower and pier long-gone, the ferries had stopped visiting and many shops and establishments were boarded up.

The Walker essay describes two visits to New Brighton during the dismal 1985 season, interviewing residents and leisure business owners. The essay style is very ‘colour-supplement’ and the attitude of the interviewees came across more as resigned than despairing. The essay sets up the backdrop for Parr’s photographs, taken during 1985 and the preceding two hot seasons of 1983 and 1984.

The 40 plates are mostly placed one per spread, on right-hand pages, but there are three spreads with two images on facing pages, where these juxtapose. The blank pages are not completely white, having random confetti-like small geometric motifs. My impression is that these, together with the device of placing the plate number in random positions on the page, echo the general sense of litter and untidiness seen in the images.

These are very saturated colour images (I understand that they were taken on medium-format Fuji slide film) and appear to have been taken in bright daylight with on-camera fill-flash. The pictures are not of New Brighton, except as background, but of the people who are using and enjoying it. We see them sunbathing, eating ice-cream or fish-and-chips, changing or feeding the baby and competing in beauty contests all apparently oblivious to the litter and general broken-down nature of their surroundings. With the exception of the ice-cream seller in plate 23, all seem to be ignoring the photographer, who cannot have been inconspicuous.

The image below is plate 40.

Mother concentrates on her tan, while the girl plays with a bucket and spade, both apparently oblivious to the large tracked excavator; the passer-by in jacket and long trousers is oblivious to both.

Badger (2010:161-2) notes that the book led to controversy with Parr, ‘a middle-class boy from Surrey, being accused of cynicism’ but was also immensely influential, particularly among young photographers of the time.

Badger (ibid) writes ‘Above all, it was about Britishness, about how the British muddle through, how they make the best of things despite crowds, bad weather and litter-strewn promenades’. Although he has a point, I suggest that this is a rather romanticised view of the book. My impression was more of an anthropological exercise and I felt a little like an intruder or voyeur in reading/viewing it.

Postscript: 30 years on and, unsurprisingly, the local tourist board websites (Wirral Council and Visit New Brighton) make no reference to Parr or Walker. They appear to show a resort that has ‘turned the corner’ with major redevelopments (theatre, leisure centre etc.) It would be nice to think that this came about, at least in part, due to ‘The Last Resort’

Bibliography

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography, How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille

Parr, M. and Walker, I. (1998) The Last Resort – Photographs of New Brighton by Martin Parr, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Visit New Brighton (2016) [online] at : http://www.visitnewbrighton.com (accessed on 20 March 2016)

Wirral Council (s.d.) [online] at: http://www.visitwirral.com/attractions-and-activities/places/new-brighton (accessed on 20 March 2016)

Square Mile – looking for inspiration III

Interesting to compare Martin Parr’s New Brighton images with David Bailey’s East End and Jimmy Forsyth’s Scotswood Road.

I noted a paragraph in ‘The Genius of Photography (Badger 2010:162) commenting on Parr’s The Last Resort thus, ‘Photographs of screaming babies, children with ice cream on their faces, in a litter-strewn environment, led to Parr, a middle-class boy from Surrey, being accused of cynicism.’ I wondered whether there was a difference in approach between Parr, as an outside observer, and Bailey and Forsyth who were documenting their own environments.

Martin Parr

Unfortunately, the book was not available at the time of writing this entry. A full set of images (small reproductions only) can be found on the Magnum website at http://www.magnumphotos.com/Catalogue/Martin-Parr/1985/GB-New-Brighton-The-Last-Resort-NN147024.html (accessed 19 February 2016)

A summary and a criticism of one image can be found on the Tate website at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/parr-the-last-resort-40-p11922/text-summary (accessed 19 February 2016)

Further commentary and some quotations from Parr himself at http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8073/martin-parrs-last-resort (accessed 19 February 2016)

These images are shot between 1983 and 1985 on medium-format colour film, very saturated and using on-camera flash. Nearly all are people pictures. Most appear unposed, but Parr and his equipment can hardly have been inconspicuous.

I expect to revisit Parr in more detail in later assignments and later course modules.

David Bailey

There is a selection of East End images in Bailey’s Stardust (Bailey 2014:55-67)

We see grainy monochrome images from 1961 and 1962, showing mainly buildings (some still suffering war damage) with some people pictures, and  a group of semi-posed colour portraits shot for a Sunday Times Magazine feature in 1968

Jimmy Forsyth

See my previous blog posting at https://chasbedfordocablog.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/jimmy-forsyth/

Commentary

All three sets of images would fit the “Square Mile” brief. I felt a better sense of connection from the two ‘insiders’, Bailey and Forsyth, than from Parr who felt more like a fly-on-the-wall observer. The posed portraits by Bailey and Forsyth had an air of tolerance or indulgence by the subjects for the ‘local boy with a camera’. With the Parr images, I felt more like an intruder or voyeur.

Bibliography

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography, How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille

Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust. London: National Portrait Gallery