Exercise: Changing face of Britain

Brief

Read Brett Rogers’ introduction to the online gallery of Documentary Dilemmas. Follow the ‘Glossary’ link. Look at the work of the photographers highlighted above [Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Paul Reas and Anna Fox] and others.

You might find it useful to read the Arts Council document Changing Britain as a brief contextual background to Documentary Dilemmas.

Response

From the archived page: “The exhibition traced the development of documentary practice in British photography over the decade 1983-1993” (Arts Council 1993)

A couple of points jump out to me here:

  • 1983–93 is an oddly arbitrary time period: it doesn’t quite coincide with Thatcherism (1979–91); it seems like it was chosen because the exhibition was in 1993 and a 10-year retrospective view seemed logical
  • By the same token, an exhibition curated in 1993 examining the decade to 1993 is potentially a slightly flawed premise; is it possible to identify the significant works in a time period that one is still living through? Doesn’t one need the benefit of even a few years distance to properly review an era in the arts?

Anyway – to my first point, even if the era doesn’t neatly match, it’s clear that this exhibition captures life in the Thatcher years, a time of seismic change in the social order and the fabric of life for many people.

All of the photographers discussed here, in their own ways, used documentary photography to both record and comment on how Britain was chasing in the 1980s.

Paul Graham

Graham did significant work in the 1980s that depicted the lives of those being disadvantaged by the increasing inequality wrought by Thatcherism. His images are mostly grim, underpinned with social concern and unleavened by the humour that other photographers employed.

from Beyond Caring, 1985 by Paul Graham

He often used a vernacular, snapshot aesthetic with skewed angles and an informal feel. Graham captured scenes of quiet desperation well, and there’s an overall sense of resigned melancholy to much of his work. I do however struggle to call any of his images remarkable. The subject matter and the treatment may have been radical at the time, but they haven’t aged well in terms of being interesting photography – they are more just documents of the time.

Martin Parr

Parr I will write about in more detail in a subsequent exercise. Suffice to say here that he has more of a detached, sardonic eye, and is an equal opportunities satirist – he turned his camera on people of all classes in the 1980s, both the upwardly mobile and the less so. He is more of a curious neutral observer of everyday absurdity than a social documentarian. But he captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s brilliantly.

Paul Reas

Reas initially comes across as a little similar to Parr in some respects, with his subject matter and visual style. He focused more on cultural aspects of life such as the rise in consumerism and the effects of global politics and media on the country. He punctures some of the aspects of Britishness that others might have been more respectful of, such as the heritage tourist industry, as well as aspects that are often unnoticed, like rampant consumerism.

I Can Help, Army Wallpaper, B&Q Store, Newport South Wales, 1988 by Paul Reas
I Can Help, Army Wallpaper, B&Q Store, Newport South Wales, 1988 by Paul Reas

Like Parr, his style of documentary photography is one that takes observations of the subtleties of everyday life and magnifies them to bring out their absurdity. His photographs, more obviously than Parr’s I think, offer a critique of society by picking out representative scenes and reflecting society back to itself.

Anna Fox

Fox’s best 80s work is aimed at the upwardly-mobile, hyper-ambitious children of Thatcher, both at work and at leisure. In Work Stations (1987) she captured the increasingly competitive and ambition-drenched working life of the ‘Loadsamoney’ generation. She had an eye for the absurd – she even knew in 1987 how ridiculous this car-battery-sized mobile phone was…

"If we don't foul up, no-one can touch us.", 1987 by Anna Fox
“If we don’t foul up, no-one can touch us.”, 1987 by Anna Fox

Like the others, she used colour and a vernacular aesthetic to capture what seem to be ‘real scenes’ of 1980s life, but are really selected moments chosen to exaggerate the message. I particularly liked the Friendly Fire paintballing set: it captured the aggression of ambitious, alpha-male city types brilliantly, by taking them away from their desks to an environment where they could act out their daily aggression in a super-competitive way.

Whilst there are differences in subject matter, the four photographers discussed here do have a key factor in common: an almost anarchic disregard for the prevailing norms of documentary photography:

  • Colour, not B&W
  • Small cultural observations, not big social reform
  • Subjective and authorial, not neutrally observational

Beyond the subject matter – social upheaval – being particularly fruitful in the 1980s, there are other factors behind this trend towards more expressive documentary photography: the book How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) offers a good reason for the growth – changing distribution channels:

“Debates on the ethics of representation, which had dominated the decade, gave way to an energised photography that was directed by new interest from the art market and from advertising. As demand for traditional story-telling photojournalism began to decline, documentary photographers looked towards art commissions and small-scale book publishing as outlets for their work.” (Williams & Bright 2007: 161)

So, freed from the constraints of the previously dominant print photojournalism, photographers were able to work on subjects of more personal interest, as long as they could find an outlet – such as the Arts Council as in the case of the Changing Britain exhibition (1993-96).

There’s another quote from How We Are that I found to be particularly interesting, as it speaks of both the widely varied (and fast-changing!) nature of ‘Britain’ and the admission of the subjective eye of the author-documentarian:

“Photographing Britain is a complex endeavour – one that tells stories about the self, about other people, about the contradictory nature of life on this small island. These photographers, and the narratives they construct, provide a very partial view of Britain, its people, its landscape, its obsessions and its crises. The vision of photographers is by its nature artful, skewed and selective; they show us a Britain that they want us to see. They are picaresque narrators on a grand scale.” (ibid: 163)

What came across in looking at these 1980s British photographers is that these ‘partial views’, though highly personal and subjective, are also very perceptive and thought-provoking. Sometimes humorous, sometimes surreal, sometimes melancholy, sometimes scathing – there’s a point of view inherent in these photographs, and personally I find that more interesting to look at than more dry, deadpan, supposedly ‘objective’ documentary photography.

Sources

Documentary Dilemmas http://collection.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/documentary-dilemmas-1993/ (accessed 28/07/2016)

Paul Graham http://paulgrahamarchive.com/ (accessed 28/07/2016)

Paul Reas http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=62 (accessed 28/07/2016)

Anna Fox http://www.annafox.co.uk (accessed 28/07/2016)

Williams, V. and Bright, S. (2007) How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

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