British working-class photography features in new show

After the End of History brings together photographs by working-class artists taken over the last 35 years, featuring work by Richard Billingham, Elaine Constantine, and Ewen Spencer

What is working-class photography? A new travelling exhibition from Hayward Gallery Touring, which opens in Coventry before heading to Southend and Nottingham, inadvertently tackles this question. It can’t help but be a complicated one given notions of what working class even denotes are complicated and malleable – before photography even comes into the equation.

Does a photograph of a working-class person or place fall into this category? And does a working-class person have to photograph something that directly relates to their world for it to be considered working-class photography? The show notes acknowledge the tensions at play, promising to address the “complex and counterintuitive expressions of working-class life through the lens”, according to curator Johny Pitts, who is also a photographer and writer.

Top: Rudi’s Room by Rene Matić, 2022. Courtesy the artist; Above: Steve in his kitchen by Elaine Constantine, 1993-96. Courtesy the artist
Peak Community BBQ by Igoris Taran, 2022. Courtesy the artist

The exhibition takes 1989 as its starting point, the year the Berlin Wall fell, through to 2024. It might not seem like the most obvious reference for a show on British photography, but the curators note how it opened up a new age of Western liberal democracy and marked the “end of history” in the words of economist Francis Fukuyama.

It also largely sidesteps the Thatcher years – an era that unwittingly mobilised a generation of working-class photographers. While Thatcherism understandably resurfaces in many conversations about British social documentary photography towards the end of the 20th century, the exhibition seeks to ask what working-class experiences look like in the shadow of that period.

Untitled by Richard Billingham,1993. Courtesy the artist
New Era Days by Nathaniel Télémaque, 2021. Courtesy the artist

The show brings together work from artists at varying stages of their career, including Tom Wood, Rene Matić, Kavi Pujara, Ewen Spencer and Elaine Constantine. It also features Richard Billingham, whose family-oriented series Ray’s A Laugh – recently revived in a new edition – has remained one of the most stirring evocations of a working-class experience even 30 or so years later. It’s an important inclusion that speaks to how photography can immortalise ideas of class.

Also included is work by Khadija Saye, an accomplished mutlidisciplinary artist who died during the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 – a fatal disaster that disproportionately affected working-class people.

Bollo Bridge by Serena Brown, 2018. Courtesy the artist
Untitled by Hannah Starkey, 2022 © Hannah Starkey, courtesy Maureen Paley

The label ‘working-class photography’ might have once applied to photographs of working-class life, yet we are in an age where the biography of the artist is often as important as whatever is occuring in front of the lens. This seems to be the basis for the curatorial choices, which are more about the photographer’s experiences rather than simply presenting obvious scenes of working-class life.

Yet there is a third layer of interaction that Pitts seeks to bring into the fold – the audience. “I hope the extraordinary work included offers not only a celebration of the craft and creativity of working-class practitioners, but also engages, surprises and inspires a working-class audience, and anyone interested in art against-the-odds,” he says.

Glenys Scott looks after grandson Matthew by Richard Grassick, 1994. Courtesy the artist

If the show had been staged in 1989, it likely would have had an altogether different tone – in part because the proportion of working-class people in the arts and creative industries has halved in the UK since the 1970s, but also because ideas of what working-class means have changed in Britain in sometimes strange ways.

With research showing a middle-class tendency to identify as working-class, and the (probably not unrelated) fetishisation of working-class ‘aesthetics’, the exhibition comes at an interesting juncture – one that’s been shaped in tandem with photography and art.

After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024 runs at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry until June 16. See the full touring schedule here