REVIEW: Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ the Barbican Centre

Written by EdsAdminLDNphoto on . Posted in London Photo Diary

Curated by Magnum photographer Martin Parr and the Barbican’s Alona Pardo, Strange and Familiar is an impressive exhibition comprising 23 acclaimed international photographers, each documenting our nation’s changing social and psychic landscape. The iconography of our isles is omnipresent and familiar: bowler hats and London slums, aristocrats and bleary eyed hippies, rolling green hills and grim northern vistas. However, the majority of photographers manage to impose their own subjectivity onto these sometimes clichéd images, articulating something that goes beyond the stereotype.

The first floor is dedicated to humanistic works and photojournalism by greats such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Evelyn Hofer, focusing on the ordinary lives of working class people. One of the earliest photographers included, Edith Tudor-Hart saw the camera as “a political weapon” that would draw attention to the marginalised with an aim to instigate change. Her black and white photos of London focus on families in slum housing, socialist demonstrations and the unemployed, with one particularly evocative picture of deprivation showing a dirt besmirched young girl peering desirously through a bakery window. Similarly, Paul Strand documented the hard lives of the working classes, focusing on the communities of the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s. His photos show them worn and rugged like the stone houses they inhabit, hands gnarled by labour but exuding an unshakeable stoicism nonetheless. These early photographers, working between the 1930s and 1960s, all channel the touching dignity, empathy and solidarity of their subjects.

The austerity and hardship of these images give way to ‘flower power’ in Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht’s captivating images of London in the Swinging Sixties, the latter’s work conveying the optimism and relaxing moral attitudes of the time. The sense of liberation is palpable. We see it in a youth’s rapture at a Rolling Stones concert and the casual smiles of friends perched on a roof. The contradictions of the era are nicely exposed too. A shot of flamboyantly dressed youths in Chelsea is juxtaposed with that of a drably attired woman with a cart of old goods. Men and women pose coolly on Carnaby Street beside shots of anti-war protesters as the Vietnam War looms in the background.

As singular as many of the images are, their black and white profusion begets a sort of photographic ennui and their impact becomes muted. A much needed visceral kick comes however in the cold intensity of Akihiko Okamura’s work during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Focusing on the Battle of the Bogside, the “deathly static, quiet expression” characteristic of the Japanese Kompora group invests these blue hued images with latent violence; solemn faced women distribute cups of tea amid the conflict and milk bottles sit innocently on doorsteps, later to be used as petrol bombs.

Moving downstairs there is a perceptible shift from humanistic, documentary photography to more abstract, fragmented and self-reflexive work: photography as fine art. A gradual atomisation of society can be read into these later images as communal spheres start to disappear. Axel Hütte’s shots of London’s housing estates avoid “signs of civilization or narrative indication, so in [the] best case you are lost in time and space.” Built to house working class communities, he reduces these estates to a combination of shapes, textures and surfaces, abstracting them from their social purpose to intriguing aesthetic ends. Shinro Ohtake’s photographs are a surprise joy, finding tranquillity in the ordinary. Narrowly defined spaces take precedence over people; mood reigns over events. Documenting the textures and sights of everyday life (a row of garages, a parked car in a driveway, the light of the sun through the leaves), they arguably transcend nationhood to unveil the universal beauty of daily life.

We end with Hans Eijkleboom’s slideshow of shoppers at the Birmingham Bull Ring, where surreptitiously snapped individuals have been categorised in grids according to formal similarities in behaviour and dress. People of all races and creeds are shown similarly clothed, suggesting not only the homogenising effect of globalisation but prompting the question of how personal identity reconciles itself with a wider communal identity.

The exhibition is ambitious and the photographers’ work impressive, though a narrower scope and a less pre-defined idea of Britishness might have allowed greater space for contemplation. Like Martin Parr’s own output, social class is a central and structuring principle throughout Strange and Familiar. Even when the works become increasingly contemporary, they still obey the binary of either very rich or desperately poor. Despite this, it is possible to perceive in the temporal sweep of the exhibition the ever-evolving nature of British identity, and at its best our shared humanity.

– Daniel Pateman

Strange and Familiar @ Barbican Art Gallery. Showing until 19 June 2016

Image captions:

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers Curated by Martin Parr

Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers Curated by Martin Parr

Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers Curated by Martin Parr

Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)Daniel Pateman
studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

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