Ahead of his first international solo show, the photographer behind popular YouTube channel Negative Feedback shares his story and the process behind his latest body of work
When the Portrait Gallery was established in London in the mid-19th century, its role was envisioned “to consist of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history”. Opening in an era when photography was still a new and untried technology, the National Portrait Gallery (as it later became known) was intended to be the national repository of the images, chiefly paintings and drawings, of those men and, much later, women who represented what was best among the British hierarchy of achievements, skills and aptitudes. Its function was to hold up a mirror to Britain that reflected its qualities back to those who came to observe them, as object lessons about how to aspire to, or more simply respect, the qualities and moral standing of the great and the good.
This conception of the NPG may still be widespread in the public mind, as even Martin Parr thought his work would be an ill-fit for a contemporary exhibition along these lines. “I never thought of myself as a portrait photographer,” he says, “and when I first met Phillip Prodger [NPG’s former head of photographs], I told him I had only a few celebrity portraits. I just put a lightbox together and sent them to him, though I was quite surprised at what I had.” Prodger, however, had other ideas, seeing in Parr the work of a social observer who could also offer a portrait of a nation at a key point in its history. So it is that the NPG put together Only Human, on show from 07 March to 27 May, bringing together some of Parr’s most famous photographs alongside a number of works never exhibited before.
When Derek Bishton, John Reardon, and Brian Homer set up a photography and design agency in the late 1970s in Handsworth, a multicultural, inner-city district of Birmingham, they were viewed with suspicion. “I lived in Handsworth and walked to work with my camera, and I felt people were looking at me as if to say ’Who is this white guy, is he working for the police?’” says Bishton. “As I started to take photographs I was aware of this problem.”
Their agency, Sidelines, had been set up to work with community groups on issues such as social justice housing, unemployment and immigration though, so the photographers were keen to win the locals’ trust. Discussing it in their office, a converted terraced house on a busy shopping street in Handsworth, Bishton happened to find a photograph in Camerawork Magazine, showing a Ukranian woman who had photographed herself in a portrait studio set up by American photographer David Attie. It was, he realised, the perfect solution – and one which their office was seemingly built for.
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“I see the bastard countryside everywhere I go,” says Robin Friend, pointing out of the window of his studio in East London, where an ivy plant has climbed up a nearby wall and is wrapping its vines around a rusting CCTV camera. “I ran with this idea of city and countryside splattering into each other, creating this hybrid nature,” explains Friend, who has been producing photographs for his book, unknowingly at first, for 15 years since he started started his BA in Brighton, where he studied under Jem Southam.
“Bastard countryside” is a phrase coined by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Miserables, in which he describes the city of Paris as an “amphibian”, stretching out into the countryside and devouring everything in its path. It is a zone in which the urban and rural mix, the manmade and the natural, clashing and colliding to create a strange form of beauty and ugliness.
Founded in 1997 the Pingyao International Photography Festival is China’s most prestigious photo festival, featuring images from more than 50 countries each year in indoor and outdoor venues across the UNESCO-listed ancient city. This year it includes a huge exhibition called Distinctly, which is curated by Open Eye Gallery’s Tracy Marshall and which will travel to Merseyside in 2019 as one of the main exhibitions of LOOK International Photo Biennial.
Featuring work by 12 documentary photographers – Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Daniel Meadows, John Myers, Markéta Luskačová, Tish Murtha, Ken Grant, Paul Seawright, Niall McDiarmid, Robert Darch, Elaine Constantine, and Kirsty MacKay – the exhibition “takes a unique approach to the depiction of Britain and its distinct landscapes, industries, social and economic changes, cultural traditions, traits and events” over the last six decades says Marshall. “The exhibition looks at the gentle, the humorous, the starkness, the beauty, and the realities experienced and captured by the photographers around their lives living and working in Britain,” she adds.
Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island is a concise compendium of Britain over the past few years and is an excellent visual survey of the run-up to Brexit. The photographs examine rich and complex variations of Britain that are now even more poignant after last year’s vote. Images of election campaigning in clean and tidy suburbia, protests, the aftermath of riots in London, diamond jubilee celebrations, rock concerts, a family enjoying Brighton beach, computer screens of the trading floor of Lloyds – the list goes on. Roberts has managed to capture all the major events in juxtaposition with minor situations that are large with meaning, from the dead of the Iraq war being saluted by Army veterans through Wootton Bassett to an depiction of impoverished mothers and children at a youth club in Blackburn. Contained within each photograph are mini dramas, cheap-looking high streets with pound shops set against Victorian architecture. Roberts shows a Britain at odds with itself. Rather than a harmonious society, we sense fragmentation and awkwardness and a yearning for a glorious past that never existed.
“I believe that the great strength photography has, and in particular documentary photography, is content. So much of what is published today, seems to me to be content less. I hope my photography illuminates and resonates with viewers and tells how British society was. And, of my more recent work, of how society is,” says Homer Sykes. he has been photographing British society for five decades, including major social and political events, such as The Battle of Lewisham. Now, some of his work is set to be featured in a Burberry show this month.
The Portrait Issue returns this September just as The British Journal of Photography launches the return of Portrait of Britain, which will once again appear on digital JCDecaux screens across the country, in partnership with photography giant Nikon. Portraits have a rare capacity to capture a person, family and community in a way that reshapes a narrative or empowers an entire group of people. Each photoseries in this issue manages to shed new light on an individual or group and move beyond stereotypes to find a more honest truth – whether with a Roma group in the south of France, or a working class neighbourhood in The Netherlands.
Portrait of Britain returns for a second year with 100 more images that encapsulate life the length and breadth of the UK. From almost 8,000 entries this year, the final hundred will now be displayed in a digital exhibition across JCDecaux screens in shopping centres and commuter hubs around the country throughout September. In partnership with Nikon, the photography giant, Portrait of Britain aims to show the social and cultural diversity of people in the UK and showcase everyday citizens and unsung heroes in a gallery of the people, by the people, for the people. Simon Bainbridge, Editorial Director at the British Journal of Photography, was excited about the latest portraits for 2017, saying, “Collectively, the portraits celebrate the unique heritage and diversity of modern Britain, as much as its thriving photography culture and the myriad styles and approaches they employ in their work.”