I blogged recently about some of my misgivings with photographer Martin Parr which were exacerbated by a disappointing Guildhall show. So I thought twice before attending the Barbican's Strange and Familiar photography exhibition. Despite it not featuring any of Parr's work he had curated the whole thing. Painstakingly as it turned out.
A positive review from a work colleague had me hotfooting it to the Barbican as soon as I finished work on Friday afternoon and I'm very glad I did. Parr certainly managed to rescue his reputation with this extensive, lovingly created, overview of 23 foreign photographers who'd worked in the UK. Some as visitors. Some living here.
This attempt to catch the social, cultural, and political identity of our nation begins with Austria's Edith Tudor-Hart. She came to the UK in the 30s in a wave of immigration that also saw Hungarian Bauhaus professor and artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy move over. Like Moholy-Nagy she had the modernist credentials but she was also a committed Communist who, whilst living in London, worked as a Soviet agent. Despite working for the nominal enemy she pursued a radical and reforming agenda in her work which focused on public health, housing, and child welfare. She worked from her home in Brixton and her subjects were the local street markets, demonstrations, and the slum housing some of her doctor husband's patients called home.
L'Oeil du siecle, the eye of the century, Henri Cartier-Bresson said if you caught the right moment a solitary picture can become an entire story in itself. Like Tudor-Hart he also had Communist affiliations so it seems a trifle incongruous that he moved over to the UK in 1937 to take snaps at the relucant King George VI's coronation for the French magazine Regards. Turning his lens away from the pomp and ignoring ceremony he focused on the ordinary people in the crowd. He repeated this trick both for Princess Anne's 1973 wedding and the Silver Jubilee. Between these royal assignments he worked on a quite out of character Parresque series, Blackpool (1962), of overweight tourists, women in curlers, and the like.
Swiss-American Robert Frank settled his gaze on both London and Wales. Very specific parts of each. In London the world of banking and in Wales that of coal mining. Poles apart of course. It's instructive that the raw intimacy of his Welsh work is lacking in his slightly soulless snaps of the capital's financial elite. It hints very clearly where he felt most at ease.
Another Communist (starting to see a theme here?) was New York's Paul Strand. After a spell in France he set his romantic socialist vision for 3 months in the Outer Hebrides. His '62 Tir a'Mhurain (Gaelic for Land of the Bendy Grass) series was set against a Cold War backdrop. Uist had been announced as the site of a nuclear missile firing range. He saw the islanders struggle as symbolising humanity's attempt to come to terms with the modernity forced upon it by capitalism.
Dutchman Cas Oorthuys also moved in leftist circles. Of course he did. Originally trained as an architect his photography career saw him produce pocket travel guides for London and Oxford. Similarly to others already mentioned, and indicative surely of Parr's guiding hand, he moved quickly from gown to town when in the city of dreaming spires. Rather than cloistered privilege he turned to those working in the Austin-Morris factory and those visiting to attend CND demonstrations. He also had an eye for the odd and snapped bowler hats, milk bottles, and bus stop queues.
Between 1958 & 1959 the Chilean Sergio Larrain stayed in London. He experienced the city as a flaneur taking long walks and riding around on buses and tubes. He used the skills he'd honed in Santiago to frame the Great Wen through the prism of Latin American surrealism. Like Oorthuys he found magic in the mundane. Pubs, gambling, and weary commuters became regular subject matter and he was also alive to London's burgeoning multiculturalism.
A few years later hands were held across the ocean as US emigre Evelyn Hofer was commissioned to work with British writer V.S.Pritchett on the book London Perceived, an attempt to capture the capital's habits, characters, tastes, and emotions through the history of it's architecture. A bold and highly appealing venture and, pleasingly, a successful one. So much in fact that it was repeated for both New York and Dublin. Her images of lorry drivers, lollipop ladies, and milkmen certainly capture the era and the detail is so precise you can even see the crease in the pair of trousers of a Garrick waiter.
Another American looking at us Brits was Bruce Davidson. He saw in us things we didn't necessarily see in ourseleves. Our stoicism, whimsy, dress codes, and seaside rituals. Typically American he even dared to take colour photos, still something of a no-no for some now. He worked for Queen magazine on a series called 'Seeing Ourselves As An American Sees Us:A Picture Essay On Britain'. His editors were pretty relaxed about stuff so they gave him carte blanche to roam as he felt free. So he went to Brighton, Hastings, Whitby, Pitlochry, and Inverary which is a fairly arbitrary selection of destinations by anyone's standards.
Gian Butturini, the Italian ex-graphic designer, stayed pretty much in London where he'd arrived at the end of the swinging sixties. In what is clearly the overarching theme of this exhibition he turned away from Carnaby Street and majored on the destitute, disenfranchised, and marginalised. The flipside to the psychedelic dream that's still sidelined in reportage now. Nuclear weapons were proliferating faster than sexual freedoms and the doors of perception opened by recreational drug use had slammed shut behind an unfortunate few trapping them in prisons of addiction.
Frank Habicht didn't look at things with quite such a wry eye but he worked in similar areas. The German wasn't so interested in the boutiques of the King's Road as the lives of those that passed through. These became the source material of his We Live in London and Young London:Permissive Paradise collections.
Another photographer moving to London (this time from the US) in the sixties was Garry Winogrand. He'd just had a hit show at MOMA so he was hot for sure. A fast moving street photographer delighting in the wacky and banal. Skinny ties, bagpipes, and monocles populate the lens of his Leica but, if anything, it's probably the most dated stuff in the entire show. Such is fashion.
Candida Hofer was also a fashion victim. But in a much nicer way. Tempted by The Beatles and Ginsberg's claim that it was 'the centre of consciousness of the human universe' she moved to Liverpool. It seems she soon saw through this facade and averted her gaze to the docks, the industrial wastelands, and to the young children of the city. Her works tell a story of a young woman finding her way in a new city and are all the more affecting for it.
Japanese photojournalist Akihiko Okamura had a far more dramatic reason for moving to Ireland. He'd been expelled from Vietnam for his provocative work and was given the more tranquil task of tracing JFK's family history. This obviously didn't hold his attention for long as he was soon out and about on the streets of Belfast and Derry taking pictures of the 'troubles'. His outsider's eye and assumed neutrality allowing him both access and balance that home based documentation struggled with.
His countryman Shinro Ohtake arrived in London in 1977. Just in time for the jubilee (where it's to be assumed he didn't run into Cartier-Bresson) and The Sex Pistols. Again he was less interested in the big news stories and more in the minutiae of life. He seemed to have a penchant for the blank spaces, the abandoned shops, deserted side streets, and derelict workshops. He perhaps captures better than any the strangeness of a new land. He later went on to find fame as a collage maker. His collages consisting of sweet wrappers, bus tickets, matchboxes etc; A nod to Kurt Schwitters perhaps but a singular talent indeed.
Jim Dow (USA) was Walker Evans' assistant and he was also fascinated with the peculiarities of the other. Particularly, in his case, the vernacular architecture of our nation of shopkeepers. Between 1980 and 1994 he worked on a series of Corner Shops of Britain. They've got something of the Bernd and Hilla Becher about them. In fact the Becher's hover over this exhibition with almost as much presence as Parr himself. Candida Hofer, who we met earlier, having studied with them in Dusseldorf eight years before her Scouse odyssey.
Another of their alumni ('73-'81) was Axel Hutte. The German's documents of social housing clearly bear the hallmarks of the Becher's surveys. The precision so overwhelming at times it borders on abstraction.
Rineke Dijkstra came from Holland to Liverpool and took photos of young women in skimpy outfits in that city's Buzz Club. The unflattering light lends the portraits a cruelty that reflects, I think, badly on the photographer rather than the subject. This is where I have problems with Parr himself on occasions. It's a blip in an otherwise edifying experience.
American Tina Barney's attempts to draw parallels, in her portraits, with the works of the Old Masters via heavy use of colour and props doesn't quite come off either.
Far far better is Raymond Depardon's Glasgow series. As part of a series on European cities fallen by the wayside, in the wake of Thatcherism and before regeneration, it would've been very easy for his work to have taken a sneering approach. It's to his credit that he found humanity, and beauty of a sort, where the Iron Lady could never have done.
USA's Bruce Gilden did take very very unflattering shots of the folk he found loitering around West Midlands bus stations. Their faces seemingly etched with the scars of both their own personal, and the region's industrial, decline. I'll let you be the judge as to the rights and wrongs of this.
Certainly a more positive look at working class life came from Hans Van Der Meer. The Dutchman followed his series of Holland lower league matches with surveys of the same traditions in other European countries, including, below, the north of England. His application of Dutch landscape technique to the quotidian pastime of football making it all the more affecting.
Van Der Meer, along with Depardon and Ohtake, occupy the podium places as far as I'm concerned for this show but there are many other reasons for getting along to this highly recommended exhibition and only a couple for keeping away. Parr's reputation, as a curator at least, is safe for now and it's a nice touch that he's added a little library at the end where, if 250 photos isn't enough for you, you can look at just as many again.