It is often believed that the perspective of a stranger can prove illuminating. For a new photography show at the Barbican, Martin Parr brings together images shot in the UK by 23 photographers from around the world, presumably in the hope that their outside perspective will reveal something new and unexpected about British life. The works here span decades and cities, and all the photographers offer a distinctive view of our small isle, which come together to paint a portrait which is both deeply recognisable if at times a little shallow.
The familiarity of the images here is in part due to the fame of some of the works. Among the most iconic are Robert Frank’s classic portraits of Welsh coalminers and Bruce Davidson’s shot of a young girl in London holding a kitten, but beyond these individual images, there are famous themes: Swinging 60s London as captured by Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht; the Northern Ireland troubles recorded by Giles Peress and Akihiko Okamura; and desolate 1980s Glasgow as seen by Raymond Depardon. These photographs have burned into the public consciousness and helped shape the UK’s self-image over the years, with the eccentric characters of 60s Carnaby Street a source of deep national pride as much as the shots of failing social housing estates are a source of shame.
Images of past decades show a Britain so unrecognisable that it is easy to feel like the stranger now looking in. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of the Coronation of King George VI in 1937 reveal fashions so far removed from today as to seem like fancy dress, as do Bruce Davidson’s photographs of nannies pulling prams the size of chariots through a London park. Even more recent images, such as Japanese photographer Shinro Ohtake’s photographs of late 1970s Britain, or American Jim Dow’s imagery of 1980s shops, demonstrate starkly how much the country has changed.
What becomes interesting is to search for the things that haven’t altered. The London tube signs in their sturdy Johnston font – 100 years old this year – pop up like reliable old friends, and the logos of brands, while often dated, are surprisingly reassuring. Other moments of timelessness come from the UK’s most famous institutions: the Oxford students captured in their final exam uniforms in 1962 by Cas Oorthuys, for example, could easily have been snapped today, so little have the outfits changed.
There are relatively few examples of series taken in recent times – perhaps a reflection of the scarcity of serious documentary photography today – and those that are here are mostly lighter in tone. Hans Eijkelboom’s snapshots of passers-by caught in identical clothing – which are shown here in the format of a film – reveal the globalisation of the UK’s fashion today. By contrast, Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer’s images of amateur football matches are made deeply English by the surrounding landscapes.
The only real grit that appears in recent works comes from Bruce Gilden, who has applied his stark style of photography – in which he snaps people unexpectedly as they walk down the street and then blows their faces up to huge proportions, with every line and crevice revealed – to a number of subjects from the Midlands and Essex. The resulting images are fascinating though feel uncomfortably exploitative. This is an accusation that has been slung at Parr himself over the years, though his work seems gently affectionate in comparison.
‘Strange and Familiar’ reaffirms a number of cultural clichés about the UK – the eccentricities, the grimness (and occasional glamour), the poor dentistry – which can feel a little hackneyed, despite how brilliant the photography. The surprises are far harder to locate than these more predictable motifs, and those looking for deeper insights might be left wanting.
A series of images by Tina Barney, which step a little outside the straight documentary theme of the other works, investigates directly how the outsider view can shape the perception of the British. Barney’s richly coloured photographs of the English upper classes use props to create heightened portraits that gently satirise the British identity, particularly as seen by Americans. It is impossible not to laugh at them, and at the stereotyping of a certain kind of Brit – even if in doing so, we are of course falling foul of yet another British cliché, that of self-deprecating humour.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is curated by Martin Parr and opens on March 16. It is on show until June 19. More info is at barbican.org.uk.