copyright anna fox
Krakow seems an unlikely place to discuss the trajectory of British photography over the last 40 years, but in the absence of any such major survey here in the UK, the city’s annual photo festival provided a rare opportunity to discuss the past and look to the future.
For the last five years, Photomonth has followed the same format during May, presenting shows along a theme, together with a focus on one country as the “special guest”. But, says artistic director Karol Hordziej, “We came across so many trends in Great Britain that we decided to devote the whole programme to the photography of a single country”. And what’s more, he invited pretty much everybody who’s anybody in British photography along for the opening weekend.
The festival took the late 1960s as its start point, focusing on the work of a young man in his twenties who had just returned from the US with a hatful of ideas, but who would die tragically young. “In the space of just three or four years, Tony Ray-Jones dramatically changed the course of British photography,” writes David Mellor, who curated a large show of his work in Krakow, “introducing an agenda which is still being worked out today by those he influenced.”
Even if you’re not that familiar with Ray-Jones, who died in 1972 aged just 30 years old, you will have felt his influence through the work of the generation that followed him. Focusing on whimsical moments in daily life, he photographed Britain at a turning point, caught in transition between the old order of hierarchy and deference, and a new age of uncertain identity. He chose to photograph the seaside – “a world unto itself with its own moral code” – and re-enactments of old customs, such as the Bacup Coconut Dancers, eager to capture Britain “before it becomes Americanised”.
Having spent five years in the US, first studying at Yale and then living in New York, where he came into contact with figures such as Alexey Brodovitch and Joel Meyerowitz, Ray-Jones was not so much a revolutionary as a confluence of new American street photography and the more caustic tradition of British satire. Driven to make work that “tried to show the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people”, his pictures exemplify the best of both approaches, with their acute sense of comic timing, and their sense that something else lurks beyond the façade of keeping up appearances.
Facts of Life
It goes without saying that Ray-Jones and his posthumously published book, A Day Off (1974), made an enormous impact on the young Martin Parr, who featured in a group show in Krakow devoted the new documentary tradition that emerged in the 1970s, alongside his other great influence, Chris Killip.
Facts of Life, curated by Katy Barron, charts the years 1974 to 1997, when British photography came to world prominence for the first time since the beginning of the century, observing the “gradual movement from black-and-white, politically-motivated imagery towards a personal, emotionally-driven form of photography that operates on many levels”.
This journey begins with Chris Steele-Perkins and his pictures of Teds in the early 1970s, whose rebellious attitude and nostalgic loyalty to a time two decades past told something more telling about the social turmoil of the era than just the story of a particularly British subculture. Intrigued by “the energy, the style, the kitsch, the buzz, the hedonistic fuck-you-ness of it all”, the Teds symbolised the search for a new identity that rejected the strict, class-bound mores of previous generations, yet didn’t entirely aspire to be free of them.
In Chris Killip’s images of the North East, deep in the throes of Thatcherism and industrial decline, his subjects are marginalised through no choice of their own. But what marks them apart from the photographs of the economic depression of the interwar period is their intensity, which as Killip freely admitted, said more about him and his views than any kind of objective account of the situations he encountered.
In these photographs (published as a book, In Flagrante, in 1988), the romantic myth of working class stoicism is as shattered as the people he photographed, but they are not without a sense of loss for what’s been lost, and once more the coast figures as a metaphor, both for the community and its boken dreams.
Parr’s series, The Last Resort, and Tom Wood's Looking for Love, both photographed around the dilapidated seaside resort of New Brighton, near Liverpool, contrast sharply with Killip’s imagery in their use of colour, but a similar critique is at work. The garish realism of colour removed the veil of distanced artistry, which as Barron points out in her catalogue essay, appeared vulgar and voyeuristic to London audiences inured from the harshest extremes of economic depression, even though they were apparently well received locally.
Parr seemed to revel in the criticism of his work, that it exploited the worst aspects of British culture, and that sense discomfort southern viewers experienced was exactly what he felt too, and what he aimed for. And, as he was to later prove with Cost of Living, he was equally at home capturing the hypocrisies of middle class values. Woods’ pictures from the Chelsea Reach night club, with their “atmosphere of sexual promise and alcoholic abandon”, as Barron puts it, were less controversial perhaps because they implied no judgment.
Quite the opposite is true of Paul Graham’s work from the mid-1980s shown at Photomonth, which stems from a commission from the Arts Council to produce a personal work on the state of British society. He chose to address two key issues, Northern Ireland and unemployment, and the two books that emerged from the commission, Troubled Land and Beyond Caring, mark the high point of political critique in the photography of that era.
But, again, it was very much a personal response, and as Graham pointed out, “I was unemployed, so giros, UB40s, waiting rooms and endless interviews were part of my life”.
The work of John Davies charts the destruction of de-industrialisation more slowly and subtly, charting the changes through the landscape in painterly compositions shot from a high viewpoint. Jem Sotham’s series, Red River, might also seem a world away from the work of Graham, and yet the two spent long periods printing in the darkroom together, and in many respects it is similar to Graham’s A1 – The Great North Road, both touching on the interaction between man and environment, and the layers of social histories that are revealed in the landscape along a journey.
Alongside the work of Anna Fox, the only woman in the exhibition, who was also given a solo showing of her retrospective staged by Impressions Gallery last year, they demonstrate the multiple approaches to documentary that ran through British photography, meeting and diverging along the way. This was no school, like the Dusseldorf academy, and yet there are connecting points between the generations, such as Fox, who was taught by both Parr and Graham at Farnham, where she is now herself a professor.
In Facts of Life, Fox shows two of her earlier series, Workstations (1987-88) and Friendly Fire (1990), parodying the culture of competition of late Thatcherism, both in the workplace and on executive away-days on paintballing exercises. Fox became increasingly autobiographical in her work afterwards (as is demonstrated in her other show in Krakow, Cockroach Diary and Other Stories), which marks a trend in the later work in Barron’s exhibition. Richard Billingham photographed his own family in Ray’s a Laugh, capturing his father’s alcoholic disfunction in a way that is funny and shocking in equal measure, perfectly encapsulating “the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people” that Tony Ray-Jones spoke of.
Likewise, Tom Hunter photographed his own community – his friends living in a street of squatted houses in east London. But in crucial difference to the others in the show, he constructed his compositions in reference to Dutch painting from the 17th century, a carefully-staged “piece of propaganda to save my neighbourhood” that also served as a useful counterpoint to the negative image of squatters culture served up by the Red Top press.
From Irthing Valley, 1990 (c) Brett Dee.
Ninities and beyond
By way of a connecting point between the colour documentarists of the 1980s and the increasingly process-driven, cross-media approach of emerging contemporaries, Jason Evans was asked to stage an exhibition on British photography in the 1990s – a history that has yet to be properly written. He took a typically oblique approach, rejecting the popular history of 1990s “Cool Britannia” exemplified by Brit Pop and the YBAs, and based it around “a visual re-enactment of a messy time, when I found myself adrift and often at odds with the changes around me”.
As loose as that sounds for the basis of a survey of the photography of the decade, Nothing is in the Place somehow perfectly reflected the mood of the 1990s and the continued collapse of cultural barriers and ideologies, along with the happy collision of art, music and fashion. The freedom he describes at warehouse parties, where all kinds of strangers happily danced to the tune of the same beat drum, was reflected in his choice of imagery and its presentation – everyone from Wolfgang Tillmans to Paul Seawright printed out and mixed together in such a way that it looked like the work of one, very prolific photographer.
As a staffer on i-D magazine, and fully immersed in the free party scene, he was well placed to observe the emergence of a new kind of fashion photography in the 1990s concerned with realism, and how that intersected with art and documentary photography, and the politicised ravers who’d dropped out of the grip of consumerism that had taken over the rest of Britain. Stronger than ever, identity and self-reflection were top of the agenda.
From A State of Silence (c) Indre Serpytyte.
How such sentiments connect to the photographers emerging in the last decade is hard to gauge without the prism of hindsight. But judging from what was shown in Update.UK (for which 10 experts, including Charlotte Cotton, creative director of the National Media Museum in London, Simon Baker, curator of the photography collection at the Tate, and Olivier Richion, professor of photography at the RCA, chose recent work they felt would have lasting influence), there has been a definite swing against overtly documentary concerns.
The photographers chosen (and projected for a multimedia presentation that probably didn’t show off their work too well) are too diverse to come to any collective conclusions – and what use is talk of national identity anyway these days? But as Martin Parr pointed out in one of the festival discussions, there seems to be a new tendency towards process-driven work, which is perhaps more concerned with deconstructing the language of photography than that of society as a whole.
This was evident in work by artists such as David Birkin, Tess Hurrell and Sarah Pickering, but it would be unfair to reduce their work to mechanical process. As Trish Morrissey said during the same discussion, photography has become such an integral part of everyday reality, her generation is having fun tearing that apart, and in the context of digital culture, they’re talking about the meaning of photography itself.
That theme is also explored in the work of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, who are as interested in the politics of truth as any of their predecessors, and other artists shown in Update.UK, such as Indre Serpytyte (one of whose images is shown above) or Seba Kurtis, are clearly engaged in developing the language of documentary. Others, such as Simon Roberts or Andy Sewell, could be seen as part of a tradition that stretches back through to the early days of photography.
But Parr’s point that art schools are now having a more tangible influence on the wider culture of photography, and what gets seen, is undoubtably true. Now that virtually all British photographers are coming up through college, the medium is becoming increasingly institutionalised.
There were, however, two exhibitions of recent work that were shown outside of context of this debate about how photography is evolving in the UK.
Mark Power introduced a major new work of powerful lyricism, The Sound of Two Songs, shot around Poland over the past five years, a country he admits affects a powerful magnetism upon him that he can’t explain. “Poland is a beautiful country. Poland is an ugly country,” he writes in an accompanying book, published by Photoworks in Brighton. “And, just as its ugliness can be profoundly beautiful, so its beauty, or that which we might be encouraged to appreciate as such, can be downright unsightly.” It features in next month’s issue.
And lastly, one of the standout shows of Photomonth in my opinion – Lisa Byrne’s Taxi Trilogy, a video work that captures the climate of fear in Northern Ireland during The Troubles like nothing else I’ve seen, first shown at Four Corners as part of the East London Film Festival.
Byrne worked as a taxi driver to fund her practice, and ended up producing three short films based on video-taped conversations with her passengers. In the most compelling story, we see her in conversation with a passenger, a fellow Catholic who had earlier given her a chilling warning about her other passenger in the front seat – who, it transpires, was a drugs runner for the Ulster Freedom Force. The sense of panic and relief is almost tangible.
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