How We Are: Photographing Britain, currently on show at Tate Britain, celebrates nearly 170 years of British photography, from 1840 until the present day. The exhibition explores our relationship with the medium and the ways in which the camera has been used as a tool for recording, assessing and evaluating both information and our own culture.
The exhibition displays over 500 images by some 100 photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Nancy Hellebrand (image shown, 1), Benjamin Stone (2), Madame Yevonde, John Thomas (3), Roger Mayne (4), David Bailey and Grace Lau (5). The time-frame charts the evolution of the medium: from the use of the photographic image for scientific means, to its contemporary position as an artform that has the power to reflect social change.
The work is displayed in chronological order, dissected into six parts determined by social context: First Moves (1840-1900), Into the Twentieth Century (1900-1918), New Freedoms in Photography (1918-1945), The New Britain (1945-1969), The Urge to Document (1970-1990) and Reflections on a Strange Country (1990-2007). Each section highlights a clear shift in how we have used photography and how our social understanding of the image has changed over the years.
Early images taken between 1840-1900 include photographs of working environments, landscapes, and plant forms: Sir Henry James, director general of the Ordnance Survey, for example, used photography as a means of surveying and updating maps. At the same time, political usage of photography began to develop, with governments adopting it as a tool for propaganda. Thomas John Barnes’ images for Bernardos remain a striking example of this – his powerful pictures show children before and after attending an orphanage in the hope of promoting social expectation.
Between 1900-1918, dependency on photography for political means intensified and the British government now employed photographic images not only as a form of propaganda but also as a means to assist police in battling criminal activity at home. Forming part of this section is some early surveillance photography, issued by the Criminal Record Office in 1912, that revealed the identities of known militant suffragettes in an attempt to alert police. Conversely, Christina Broom’s portraits of Christabel Pankhurst at the International Suffragette Fair aimed to influence the public into sympathy for the burgeoning suffragette movement.
During the World Wars, photography brought the effects of warfare on the individual home, through horrific pictures of the injuries the soldiers sustained. Interestingly (and no doubt suggestive of an increased sense of social optimism) towards the end of World War II, imagery began to adopt a more glamorous context with photographers such as Madame Yevonde using vivid and striking colours within portraits and Angus McBean contrasting glamour with the destruction of war in Surrealist style images.
Contemporary photography now provides individuals with a political voice to combat negative activity such as economic decline, poverty and social injustice. Douglas Abuelo’s powerful images of Elephant and Castle, for example, provide a striking depiction of the problem of homelessness in London. At the same time, other artists aim to reflect the state of a society using different concerns – such as our obsession with celebrity culture and self-promotion. David Bailey’s iconic photographs of celebrities in the 1960s both documented and glamorised society at that time. The images are now a huge part of how we reimagine that period of time.
Recent changes in technology, such as the rise in popularity of digital cameras and camera-phones and the launch of photosharing websites like Flickr in 2004, have given individuals even more power to represent their culture and society. Indeed, more and more newsworthy events have been reported first-hand using images taken from individuals at the scene.
Partly with this in mind, Tate have collaborated with Flickr in asking people to submit images reflecting their own “vision of Britain”. The photography has to have been taken in the UK and must explore one of the following themes: portrait, landscape, still life or documentary. Selected images will then be shown on screens at Tate Britain, on Tate Online, Flickr, and the Observer’s website. So, if you think you know How We Are Now, take a look and get snapping.