Liverpudlian graffiti memorialising fallen comrades, long-dead sausage dogs framed by an archway; flaxen haired lovers grass-staining flared jeans, hard-faced fishwives scrubbing their front-steps. The Barbican’s outstanding new photography exhibition documents eighty years of British identity, through snatched images of forgotten lives.
These might be British scenes, but these photographs have a foreign accent. The heaving Strange and Familiar considers how international photographers, including Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank and Paul Strand, have seen Britain from the ‘30s to today. 23 photogs and countless photobooks make up the show, which is curated by the legendary Magnum photographer Martin Parr. It’s difficult to think of anyone better placed to do so; Parr’s own life’s work has been to capture his nation on camera, with unshrinking honesty and a big old smile.
We are used to our own national idiosyncrasies; they are part of the fabric of our daily existence. Outsiders, then, are able to see things that we can’t. To Jim Dow’s (b.1942) American eye, though, the sign for ‘Live Eels’ in a seaside chippy is remarkable. A '60s bus conductress, with her ponderous metal ticket machine, delighted German-American photographer Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009), as did the Garrick Club’s stiff-lipped, penguin-suited Maître’d. Britain fascinated Henri Cartier Bresson. His pictures of George VI’s coronation are sheer joy: a man fast asleep in a pile of newspapers in the middle of the crowd, ‘Gawd Bless Yer’ daubed on an East End wall.
Over the course of this show, we’re shown a sea of bowler hats, countless cups of tea, Etonians, Oxonians, naked hippies swaying to The Stones.
But then, fondly documented eccentricities aside, there’s some pretty gritty work to be found. In the mid-20th century, photography was used as a force for social change. Parr shows us some tough images from Austrian photographer Edith Tudor Hart (1908-73), who moonlighted as a Soviet spy. Hart spent her time in East End slums; we meet grinning, filthy urchins, ten year olds smoking fags, bruising poverty. American Paul Strand fled McCarthy in the '50s and spent time in a rural Outer Hebridean community, threatened by the construction of a missile range. Italian Gian Butturini came to London in the ‘60s to unearth its darknesses, resulting in stark images of social injustice. A bleak 1980s Glasgow, undergoing painful transformation, leaks doom into the pictures of Raymond Depardon. Not a bowler hat or Etonian in sight.
There are moments of pure poetry in this show which soften the blows, and this lyricism is emphasised by Parr’s outstanding curation. Sergio Lorrain’s expressionistic street photographs are hung haphazardly, in a twilit room. We see a snatch of branch, a figure among circling birds, images verging on abstraction. The result is serene and surreal; a hypnotic respite for this clamouring show. Gilles Peress’ work is displayed in a continuum, around the walls of the gallery. His pictures are suggestive, rather than comprehensive, and the lack of chronology, or indeed explanation, emphasises this enigmatic poetry.
With 23 different voices in this exhibition (24, when you count Parr’s) there’s a lot to get through - and a real risk of running out of steam.
Don’t. This sprightly photographic marathon is a strange, familiar masterstroke.
|What||Strange and Familiar review: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers|
|Where||Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
16 Mar 16 – 19 Jun 16, Sat–Wed 10am–6pm Thu–Fri 10am–9pm
|Price||£12.00 Concessions: £10 Students/14-17: £8 Young Barbican: £5 Art Fund Members: £8|
|Website||Click here to book via the Barbican’s website|