Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, curated and organized by Martin Parr and Barbican Centre, London; Manchester Art Gallery.

Located on the upper floor of Manchester Art Gallery, this fascinating exhibition brings together a diverse lineup of prominent international names in contemporary photography. Both the range of styles and approaches unique to these artists represent and the way in which one country can seem like many countries given the passage of time, the objects and subjects found by each lens and the attention of their particularly worldy, well-travelled eyes.

Curated and organized by Martin Parr and the Barbican, the two have brought together an eclectic, brilliant, often gorgeous, often troubling, always thought-provoking array of images for this exhibition. The work included provides an absorbing insight into photographic representations of Britain over the last 50 years or so and also consummately illuminates the separate perspectives and distinct personal visions of photographers working in the medium over those decades.

This oddness and often skewed vision of Britain is perfectly encapsulated in Garry Winogrand’s street photography where the wide-angle lens (of which he was an early adopter) encouraged him to tilt his pictures on the diagonal to produce innovative angles, giving a feeling that the world is off-kilter and unbalanced. Winogrand first came to Britain in 1967 and undoubtedly there is more than a touch of New York hustle in his photographs of Britain since he had already been scouring that city for images; the photos convey speed, energy and immediacy of action and thought. This remains the case even when the subjects seem sad, or nonplussed, which is often.

The central space of the exhibition is dedicated to photographs and of course photographers of London that span a period of time from the 1960s through to the 1980s. The images build a strong sense of the modern history of the capital mostly from peripheral, outsiderly and unlikely perspectives. This remains the case even when the focus is on such large-scale changes in the 60s Swinging London and the cultural revolution, the parallel counterculture of that era, or simply the everyday and the humdrum.

This partial London-centrism of one section of the exhibition might not be a surprise given the Barbican’s involvement and London’s obvious historical and cultural significance as both a place where things happen (and therefore as a subject for art), but surprises abound elsewhere in the room around the outside of which runs a corridor where photographs portraying various subjects from other parts of Britain are displayed.

Demonstrative of the tension between enormity and insignificance or triviality are the quite opposing, contradictory images of Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht.

Butturini trains his lens on ‘the destitute, disenfranchised and marginalised’. In this collection of images we encounter beatniks, hippies, the homeless, addicts and anti-war protestors. These are shadowy, compelling shots. Habicht’s photos are quite different. A selection from his series ‘Young London: Permissive Paradise’ and shot in 1969, they could be summed up as pretty young things strutting their stuff in skimpy outfits. The political concerns of their peers seem far removed from the minds and activities of these affluent and stylish hedonists. Habicht’s photographs seem to be in dialogue with themselves, working as both critique and celebration of their fashionable subjects.

Also on display within this enclosed, contained area are photographs by Shinro Ohtake taken in 1977. In many ways this is much more inward looking work, even though its fascination with ephemera and objects obviously led Ohtake on many happy traipses around the city’s edges encountering its people and places. It is calm too, peaceful and meditative in movement. On the wall are large format photographs of things like scrapyards, abandoned workshops, second hand shops and shop displays. Ohtake describes these things as ‘exotic’. There is also a glass display case filled with many smaller format photographs of similar subjects which contributed to the scrapbooks he began to produce at this time along with ephemera and found objects.

In a further contrast are Axel Hütte’s architectural images of London’s social housing estates. By merit of their empty, desolate, echoing spaces these photographs feel decidedly impersonal, cold and at a remove. Hütte has an enthusiastic and thirsty eye for bare courtyards, corridors, stairways. His is a stark monochrome that perfectly suits this kind of unsympathetic architecture. His composition, in contrast to the abandoned and decaying spaces framed within it, is tidy, exact, composed with meticulous edges.

The usual continues to become unusual in the surrounding space where the scope also extends outwards to the present day and other regions of Britain in the visual documentation, recording and aestheticising of mostly urban landscapes, society and culture. This is something that seems unique to photography and its slanted relation to the world, something that other visual arts seem a further layer of separation or intellectual processing to. Here, the eye is immediately drawn to the blown-up, close-up colour portraits by another New Yorker, Bruce Gilden, and the four examples of the ‘invisible people’ he encountered in Dudley, West Browich and Wolverhampton. On the surface, and Gilden is very interested in surface in various ways, these are frankly disgusting, nasty, outrageous and lurid, but that is part of their magnificence of course. Gilden’s candor and rawness as a photographer actually turns into a form of empathy and grace towards his often rather grotesque subjects by putting them in front of the viewer and forcing them to confront the image.

German photographer Candida Höfer travelled to Liverpool in 1968 and spent considerable time photographing the city. The selection from this work here moves between intimacy to distance: a mixture of street photography and urban landscape photography that takes in the city’s bars, cafes, docks and landmarks. Her composition and framing are very imaginative. One photograph taken through a window shows two men staring back out against reflected city buses, another is essentially split down the middle and has the studded metal hull of a boat on the left side, distant dock cranes and warehouses on the other.

Liverpool, or rather its clubbing teenagers, is also the subject of Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs. Three medium sized portraits of identical looking adolescent girls attending the Buzz Club are on display here. From 1994, these are tender and emotionally resonant shots, but their interest is also sociological; Dijkstra’s close-up scrutiny exposes a level of fragility in both the feel of the photos and the girls’ poses and expressions.

Throughout this show the viewer is constantly drawn back to the idea of contradiction, differentiation and variation. We move from the working class life found in Dijkstra’s Liverpool to Tina Barney’s ‘The Europeans’ series. For this project, Barney has been diligently photographing members of Europe’s different aristocracies. Four large colour portraits of members of the British elite in domestic settings are included here, none of which contain any small amount of irony; the images function around the subjects’ self-awareness, or the lack of. The photographs call to mind earlier paintings in the Grand Manner style and to some extent Mannerism.

Returning to something altogether less genteel on the other side of the room are Raymond Depardon’s amazing photographs of Glasgow, commissioned by but (probably unsurprisingly) never published by The Sunday Times in 1980 due to their utterly shocking nature. An interesting mixture of street photography and photojournalism, these are studies of a city in utter chaos. In one picture three people are sat, slumped, in a wasted back alley swigging wine from the bottle while a small but intense fire rages behind them. Men hang around on the street corners that are presumably their only place to go. Children play amidst streets in the grip of war-like conditions.

It’s hard not to laugh at the preposterous nature of what much of the city of Glasgow was allowed to become at this time and how this deprivation continued apparently unchecked. Depardon’s photos absolutely require the lighter relief and touch of those images such as Barney’s. Depardon has a playful approach which has been influenced by Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau, but he couples their loveliness with an unrelenting grimness.

Somewhat comparable to these images are Akihiko Okamura’s remarkable photographs of Belfast and (London)Derry in the late 1960s and 70s during the Troubles. These were cities in a state of civil-war, and Okamura shows incredible subtlety and restraint in his documentation of both places, often despite the ensuing carnage around him and his camera. Okamura’s photographs emphatically convey the cultural tensions of the time and their physical and human collateral. We see a spontaneous shrine thrown up where a body lay, blood spatter at a corner curb, a black flag stuck in the grass verge, six bottles of milk on a sunny doorstep, bunting caught in a breeze. In other images the focus is directly on soldiers or riot police crammed in a street from above. Again, there is some wry humour in the work: a soldier carries a lady’s entire front door up the street for her as she walks next to him.

Another lighter moment can be found in the work of Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer. Van der Meer has been photographing lower league football since 1995 and these frames exemplify his balancing of silliness and seriousness, action and surroundings. This is golden age Dutch landscape art, Breugel the Elder or Jacob van Ruisdael, transplanted into the photographic medium and into West Yorkshire where the likes of Ziggy’s A-Star Cars face off against Siddal Athletic. Van der Meer displays the same aptitude for capturing light, landscapes, and people involved in physical activity. His technique of standing on a stepladder produces a distinctive viewpoint: withdrawn from the action, while completely subversive when compared to the frenzy, floodlight, and glamour of sports photography.

In one sense, our sense of the alien and the estranged grows from the subject matter itself, in another from the international scope of the artists’ lenses trained on Britain over several decades. Despite the cosmopolitan nature of this exhibition there is a distinct commonality in the choice of subjects seen in the images, even if the locales and people captured in the photographs are as diverse as the nationalities of the artists themselves.

Parr’s selections reflect the changing landscape of Britain and reveal a country in constant transformation, many parts of which captured here are now vague memories, many parts totally unrecognizable and vanished. Public, historical events and intimate, private moments co-exist and are given equal standing in much of the photography here. Strange and Familiar conveys the way in which photography is unique in being adept at transforming the insignificant, the everyday, and the incidental into their exact opposites. Here the photographers’ eye acts as our own, and yet it is not.

Simon Haworth

Comments are closed.