Exhibition: Strange and Familiar (study visit)

Manchester Art Gallery, 08/04/17
Tutor: Derek Trillo

I was looking forward to this exhibition for its subject matter and curatorial approach: in a nutshell, it is Britain as seen by non-British photographers. It was curated by Martin Parr and much of the content is from his own collection. I was curious to find out how much one would be able to discern the curatorial hand of someone with such a distinctive style (in the end: not much – it came across as the work of Parr the photography enthusiast more than Parr the photographer).

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Study visit group

My particular interest at this point in time is how the exhibition could inform my current (slowly progressing) Assignment 5. I could do with some inspiration on how to see familiar places in a different light, so seeing work on Britain by other nationalities could be just the ticket.

I was curious as to the intent of the photographers at the time of shooting; were they:

  • deliberately aiming to capture their vision of a country foreign to them?
  • shooting for a more specific project that happened to be placed in Britain?
  • just shooting what they liked the look of, unaware of the context in which the work would later be placed?

Spoiler: it’s a mix of all of the above.

It’s a pretty big exhibition and I won’t comment on all the participants. Instead I will pick out some themes and photographers that resonated with me.

Strangeness is subjective

The exhibition’s full name is Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographer. It’s easy to play semantics but I did find myself checking my reactions to images against the nominal scope of the exhibition, and found the title to be more ambiguous and nuanced the more I thought about it.

On the face of it the exhibition concept can be interpreted as: subject matter that is strange to the (non-British) photographer but familiar to the British viewer. However, some of the content is inherently strange, even to most Brits. Some of it is either strange or familiar depending on exactly where you live (Paul Strand’s series on the Outer Hebrides would be alien to a Londoner but familiar to a Cornwall farmer) – Britain is incredibly diverse for a relatively small landmass. Perhaps this is Parr’s overriding message.

Some of the subject matter is universal and has no inherent Britishness (Bruce Gilden’s grotesque close-ups happen to have been taken here but could have been from anywhere in the world).

At least some of the strangeness is down to the temporal distance: the past is a foreign country. In a sense the combination of where and when may be more significant than the where and who, and I occasionally found myself wondering whether a British photographer could have taken a particular picture and retained the sense of otherness to a contemporary viewer. I considered whether cultural differences between nations were more pronounced in the past, and the relative isolation of an island nation meant that shooting in the UK was much more novel to the international eye in previous decades (up to the 1960s/70s?) than in the more homogenous, globalised now.

The notion of strangeness also made me think of the Solomon-Godeau essay “Inside/Out” and its debate on the relative merits of being an insider or an outsider. The insider can be too close to the situation to be objective, while the outsider can lack the depth of local knowledge to interpret situations appropriately. It’s interesting that a few of these projects were book or magazine commissions where the outsider status was seen as an advantage (the shadow of Robert Frank, the outsider who nailed America, looms over much of the 60s work). From reading the potted biographies it came across that some of the best work came from ‘semi-outsiders’ that had settled in British communities for long enough to absorb some of the local culture whilst retaining their eye for ‘otherness’.

Photographers and themes

I mention Henri Cartier-Bresson mainly to document a rare disappointment with his work, both from a content and an aesthetic point of view. He covers royal events from the 1930s and 1970s, which came across as shallow, touristic subject matter, and the 1977 work was (whisper it) unremarkable – he looks like he had lost his keen eye for compositional geometry in his later years.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Gian Butterini, Raymond Depardon are presented as social documentarians. Perhaps it’s trying to say that it’s easier – less awkward? – for an outsider to starkly capture social deprivation. Whilst this works as a theory within the construct of this exhibition, it is diluted somewhat when one considers the number of British photographers who captured such conditions equally well (Nick Hedges, Chris Killip, Chris Steele-Perkins et al).

Cas Oorthuys, Evelyn Hofer and Bruce Davidson were displayed close to each other, and they had in common that they took photos for books or magazines with a specific brief of showing representative visions of Britain, or particular cities. Each did inject their own personal voice into their work, especially Davidson, but I found most of these interesting only as historic documents rather than great photographs.

By contrast the same room devoted a wall to much more experimental, expressive work by Sergio Larrain, a new name to me but the star of the show. His work had a Frank/Americans vibe (though broadly contemporary so possibly coincidentally) in terms of disregarding technical and compositional norms and capturing random fleeting moments of visual beauty. The fragmentary presentation matched the style, with the images framed small and hung haphazardly.

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Sergio Larrain

Similar but different was Shinro Ohtake, whose snapshot aesthetic really appealed to me. Ohtake took the idea of stream-of-consciousness photography to the streets of Britain and managed to simultaneously remind me of Martin Parr and Daido Moriyama. Another student on the study visit commented that Ohtake’s work was the first set where the aesthetics of the output was identifiable to the nationality of the photographer, in terms of the use of light and shade in particular images being reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Again the presentation complemented the visual style – some pinned unframed to the wall, some as tiny snapshots in vitrines.

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Shinro Ohtake

In the same way that Ohtake often managed to make suburban England resemble Japan, Garry Winogrand replicates his US street style so well that he makes London look like New York. These two are probably the most successful examples of photographers bringing their home country aesthetic to the UK – in a spin on the exhibition concept, they appeared to be (subconsciously?) making the strange more familiar to themselves, rather than emphasise the strangeness. If that makes sense…

Whilst most of the content is from mainland Britain, some of the most interesting images are from Northern Ireland, documenting the Troubles. Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura captured strikingly strange scenes that show, especially with the passage of time, just how other-worldly Northern Ireland could seem to British eyes. Peress used black and white which gives many of his images a timeless quality, while Okamura displays a keen eye for rapidly-captured surreal detail. Both created memorable images that accentuated what an unusual time and place they documented.

A handful of photographers’ work seemed a poor fit with the concept and the content of the rest of the exhibition: Bruce Gilden’s aforementioned grotesque close-up portraits are not distinctively British (having seen them online previously I had projected US nationality onto them, oddly), Tina Barney’s aristocracy shots look overly glossy and glamorous, and the Rineke Dijstra work is surprisingly small-scale (three portraits) that are nominally about Liverpool nightclub customers but are devoid of contextual cues. These may have been shot in Britain but say little or nothing about the nation. Interestingly there was one Gilden image I did appreciate as it did exude Britishness in a meaningful way: the dirty tattooed worker’s arm. I just didn’t see his portraits as successful in this context.

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Bruce Gilden

For me the photographers whose work best fit the construct of the exhibition were those who found a view on idiosyncratic British scenes that made them look simultaneously strange and familiar – those who identified the quirk and held it up for examination in quite a deliberate way. Two in particular were Jim Dow, who found mesmeric patterns in the repetition of sweet shop jars and tower block stairwell tiles, and Hans van der Meer, whose wide shots of local football games in unlikely environments made me smile, and said more to me (as a non-fan) about the peculiarly British appeal of football than the usual shot of a premier league stadium.

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Study visit group discussing Hans van der Meer

Summary

I found this to be a fascinating and insightful exhibition, with thoughtful curation and sequencing that subtly accentuated themes and connections, with only a couple of exceptions (forgivable of course, as it’s all so subjective and a show as diverse as this can’t please all the people all the time). A few exclusions struck me as odd – no Bill Brandt, for example – but I’m sure there’s good reason for that.

I came away with the sense that the diversity of the photographers and the imagery is analogous to the diversity of the United Kingdom itself. The message seemed to be that Britain is – or has been – all of these places, as seen by these ‘outsiders’. Can anyone really ‘reveal’ Britain? Only in parts, and even the amalgamation of the ‘Britains’ revealed in this exhibition is just one version of the bigger picture.

But to revert to an earlier point: is it really the non-British status of the photographers that enabled a particular eye for the strangeness? Val Williams and Susan Bright edited How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) which is full of idiosyncratic images of Britain, and the vast majority of photographers were British. My take is that it doesn’t specifically take an outsider to nail the distinctly British, although they may have a natural advantage; the British insider can also capture such imagery as long as they possess an enquiring mind and an observant eye.

Finally, as ever I really appreciated the study visit format as it gives me an opportunity to discuss what I’m seeing with like-minded people, and to bounce ideas and interpretations off each other. It’s a really enriching part of the study experience, and I should do more of it.

Takeaways

For my own assignment research this was a useful reference and inspiration source. There are some specific pointers I took away:

Firstly it reinforced the increasingly strong sense I have (and wish to communicate with the assignment) that documentary photography is just so inherently subjective. That a couple of dozen photographers can take the same subject matter (albeit as broad as a country) and find such a diversity of imagery is testament to the individual reflexivity brought to the task. The overriding lesson I’ve learned on the entire Documentary course is that there is no such thing as a single truth. This exhibition was a good reminder.

The main new point of inspiration is to look to isolate small details more than I have been doing. Often a close-up of a small part of a scene can intensify the significance. I need to look more closely for the details that can communicate my message. the Ohtake and Larrain work was particularly inspirational in this regard.

Sources

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Manchester Art Gallery. Friday 25 November 2016–Monday 29 May 2017

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

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

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