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Original author: 
David Brittain

Photographic technology was born in Europe, but the art of photography as we know it, was invented in the USA during the 1950s and 60s, sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. John Szarkowski, MoMA’s powerful Director of Photography, declared that great British photographers belonged to a “documentary tradition” that included Bill Brandt (whose press pictures of Britain in the 1930s were exhibited at MoMA in 1969). David Moore’s work from 1987-88, which was first published in Creative Camera in 1988, and now published as a book, Pictures from the Real World, conforms to the expectation that British photographers should, like Brandt, be primarily social observers.

The notion of a “documentary tradition” does not stand up to scrutiny, however, because of the many disparities between Brandt’s generation and Moore’s. Unlike his forebears, Moore benefited from a cultural climate that recognized and rewarded his artistry (the state-funded Arts Council supported dedicated galleries and magazines). This made it possible for him to cultivate a personal style that did not yet conform to the demands of the mass media. Commentators of the 80s interpreted the rather shocking use of color photography, by Moore and others, as a rebellion against the old black-and-white school, but in fact color became simply an extension of a “documentary aesthetic” popularized by the American formalist, William Eggleston.

While Moore was at college (he studied with Martin Parr from 1985 to 1988 at the West Surrey College of Art) the first serious challenge arrived to those who championed documentary photography as both an art form and a tool for reform. In the US and Britain, the theories of French thinkers such as Roland Barthes, challenged claims that photographs were objects of artistic expression or transparent reproductions of “reality.” As these ideas took hold two things happened: the supposed truth of documentary photography became discredited, and it was “saved for art.”

There have been many claims for British documentary photography of the 1980s, including the claim that it was a social critique of the Thatcher years in Britain. This has yet to be demonstrated. Arguably, the most radical aspect of these pictures, is Moore’s refusal of the role of “neutral observer” — something he shares with others of his generation. To eyes accustomed to digitally enhanced photography, many of these pictures will seem familiar. This is because they were cleverly manipulated, both formally (using flash mixed with ambient light to invoke a heightened reality), and conceived, not as “records of life” but opinions. Did Moore just happen to pass by and “snap” the conjunction of the baby and the television image, or did he find the image on a video? Looking back, we can see that this “documentary-style” photography (a term coined by the great American photographer Walker Evans) marked an important stage in the unravelling of the sacred bond between photographer/witness and “reality” that forms the basis of the authority of photography in the press and in society. The relatively recent invention of Photoshop has taken the process much farther.

This is a welcome and important book that is part of a current reappraisal of the British photography of the 1970s and 80s.

Pictures From The Real World (2013) by David Moore is published by Here Press and Dewi Lewis Publishing.

David Moore is a London based photographer who has exhibited and published internationally. He has been working as a photographer and educator since graduating from West Surrey College of Art and Design, Farnham, in 1988.

David Brittain is a curator, critic, documentary maker, lecturer and was editor of the respected international magazine, Creative Camera, (1991-2001). In 2000, his anthology of writings, Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing, was published by Manchester University Press.

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Bright red telephone boxes, afternoon tea, bobbies with batons. Today even the most naive tourist knows this Mary Poppins vision of Britain is about as true to life as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent. But what, then, does it mean to be British in 2012? That’s a question the London Festival of Photography has tried to answer with its headline show, “The Great British Public.” The exhibition brings together 13 photographers who have captured modern British life, from posh wingdings to a wind-lashed laundry day on Scotland’s Orkney Islands. “We wanted to celebrate Britain more than be depressed about it,” says curator Grace Pattison, noting her countrymen’s talent for grousing. “It’s about the quirkiness, irony, the humor of the British. It’s quite an uplifting show, really.”

Nothing jars more with the British sensibility than the idea of forced positivity. Yet Pattison is savvy enough to have built a ‘warts-and-all’ show that winks at its subject while patting it on the back. Some of the photographers have taken on traditions that still thrive in parts of the country. Chris Steele-Perkins captures the lives of the increasing number of Brits who live to be 100 and receive a congratulatory birthday card from the Queen. Arnhel de Serra (the only non-Brit in the show) has captured the action at countryside agricultural shows, where elderly ladies in tweed vie for top prizes in jam-making and flower arranging. Giulietta Verdon-Roe presents a different glimpse into rural life with her elegiac images of the northernmost Orkney Island, population 51 (plus a few thousand seaweed-eating sheep and one very tall lighthouse).

Other photographers focus on the new traditions being created. Photographer Ewen Spencer followed the rise of the Grime music scene (epitomized by black artist Dizzee Rascal), and the young people who hope to rap their way out of London’s poorest neighborhoods.

And then, of course, there is Britain’s ethnic diversity, often packed into small areas like the borough of Hackney in London, documented by Zed Nelson, or a street in the northern city of Birmingham, photographed by Liz Hingley, which hosts over 30 different places of worship including a mosque and a Hindu temple.

It’s impossible to talk about British photography without mentioning Martin Parr, whose seminal The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton (1982-86) presented working class holiday-makers—they of the bulging, pink flesh and oily fish and chip wrappers—in all their vulgar glory. For the exhibition, Pattison preferred not to dwell on Parr’s 80s oeuvre (“It’s not the most exciting way to talk about Britain anymore.”). Rather, she chose an homage to Parr in the work of Peter Dench, who returned to the parts of New Brighton featured in The Last Resort and photographed them as they are today. Even now, the northern town near Liverpool provokes wry bemusement among the British: “It’s all quite gray and the scenery isn’t that exciting,” says Pattison. “It’s seaside life, but with a quite humorous look.”

One image of Parr’s does appear in the exhibition: a picture of an English bobby, standing in a red-brick town, hands on hips, while children hula hoop in the street. “At first glance, you think, ah, it’s a really traditional English scene,” says Pattison. “But it’s actually a historic museum in the Black Country [the industrial Midlands]. It’s actually just a mock street and he’s an actor dressed up as a policeman.”

Finally, the exhibition touches on the British at play, whether it be country and seaside escapes (Simon Roberts), a barbershop in London where locals hash out the day’s politics (Nick Cunard) or the beer-swilling excesses of English football fans (Homer Sykes).

Even with such a multifarious show, Pattison is worried the British public in question will find something to quibble about. “By calling it ‘The Great British Public’ we are potentially asking for criticism if people don’t feel like their view of Britain is in there,” she says. But in the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Pattison is allowing herself to be Britishly optimistic. “Hopefully not too many people will say that,” she says with a laugh.

The London Festival of Photography’s exhibition The Great British Public will be on view from June 1 through June 24. More information is available here.

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The Periodic Table of Swearing isn't just a saucy JPG: it's a real-life interactive box that gets down and dirty with everyday English. It was built by Modern Toss—the duo of artists Jon Link and Mick Bunnage—with the design studio Clay. Made with buttons from eightliner-style U.K. fruit machines, the phrases included offer the fullness of British culture, you cock garage.

Interactive Periodic Table of Swearing Extends Your Rude Vocabulary [Wired UK]

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There are any number of ways to make a picture, a notion that Dan Leers, curator of this year’s New Photography show at the Museum of Modern Art wanted to address in the exhibition, which opens Sept. 28.

“This year, my hope was to give an idea of the different ways photography is practiced today. I think all of the artists bring a unique background—where they are from, their training and their style,” Leers says. “That, in turn, makes each artist’s work unique and different than everything else.”

The annual New Photography show in New York City has launched the careers of many photographers while documenting major shifts in the practice, process and direction in which the medium is headed. Since its inception in 1985—minus a hiatus between 1998 to 2004 during renovations to the museum—each year’s exhibition is representative of the institution’s voice on prominent emerging work within the contemporary art photography world.

This year contains an international roster of six artists, with a diverse scope of practices. Zhang Dali sources original propaganda and print materials from Maoist-era China to analyze the meticulousness of the Chinese government’s censorship and practice of doctoring photographs. Moyra Davey integrates the postal service into her work, highlighting the rarity of analog practices in the digital age. Over the course of a decade, George Georgiou photographed Turkey’s paradigm shifts in politics and social structure—a result of increased Westernization in the country. Deana Lawson‘s large-scale environmental portraits explore the notions of intimacy, sexuality and community among African-Americans. Doug Rickard uses screenshots from Google street view to not only highlight the proliferation of photography on the web, but to raise discussion about poverty, race-equity and personal privacy. Rounding out the group is Viviane Sassen, who was born in Amsterdam but spent her childhood years in Kenya. Sassen explores her feelings of displacement and a lack of national identity in a series of surreal photographs of anonymous subjects.

Unlike shows in the past few years, this selected group of artists all address issues that reach beyond the art world and speak to a larger audience. “The engagement [outside of the art world] was something I was going for,” says Leers. “Having there be a connection between the artist and viewer was important. My hope is that the viewer, regardless of whether they can specifically relate to the ideas or moments, can understand the photographer’s connection with the work and therefore become interested.”

New Photography 2011 opens Wednesday, Sept. 28 and is on view until Jan. 16, 2012
at MoMA in New York City. 

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