Strange & Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

england
Photograph by Bruce Gilden, Factory in the Midlands 2014

Yesterday I decided to pay a visit to one of my favourite places in Manchester. Sitting on Mosley Street, Manchester Art Gallery holds a collection of some of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. But it wasn’t the Rossetti’s or the Holman Hunt’s I was there to see but the galleries newest exhibition, Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Curated by Martin Parr, the exhibition celebrates the work of leading photographers, including Henri Cartier Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Rineke Dijkstra, Bruce Gilden and Evelyn Hofer. From the 1930’s onwards the photographers capture the social, cultural and political identity of the UK, according to the Manchester Art Gallery website.

I was intrigued by how ‘outsiders’ view the country I love and so I made a special trip to see the photographs. The first thing that struck me was how utterly and completely these photographers had captured a sense of ‘Britishness’, whatever you take that to me. For me it means exploring the lives not just of those we see most often in films and literature but groups that tend largely to be ignored, the working-classes for example. The reason I was so taken with many of the photographs was because they seemed to capture the conditions of my childhood or speak to my experiences growing up in a working-class family in the Midlands.

The photographs vary from portraits to street photography and social documentary and are a fascinating insight into how others view the UK. In turn they seem to reflect back to us, our own experiences and that was certainly true for me. I’d like to show you just some of my favourites and explain why.

4 set in Wales.jpg

boy-with-pram
Photograph by Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965

I was drawn to this photograph because of the way it challenges notions of masculinity and femininity. Here we have a boy pushing a pram with a doll and teddy inside and in the background the smoke is billowing from the factories.This boy from a small Welsh village is not ashamed to be playing with ‘girl’s toys’, the shame comes later when boys are socialised to behave ‘like men’ and reject the feminine. What’s also interesting is the way the boy stands in stark contrast to his surrounding, with his softness and childlike gaze. For now he can play with toys but with the factory looming in the background, it implies that this will be his destiny, to work in the factories, I suspect like much of his family members .

ladbrokes

This was another photograph that I found gut-wrenching and yet eerily familiar. Many working-class communities find themselves plighted by gambling. When work is short many try their hand in the bookmakers or slot machines. These places seem to shoot up like viscous weeds whenever there’s a downturn in the economy it seems to me and they strip people of what little money they have. Here two men stand in the doorway of Ladbrokes as another man is passed out in front of them. It’s not that these men don’t care but that it can become an all too familiar sight, especially when work is scarce and men (usually) have little else to do but wile away the hours drinking and/or gambling.

3-men

What consistently annoys me about representations of the working-class are the recurring stereotypes, either that of the salt-of-the earth worker or the down-trodden proletariat. Neither one fully captures what it means to be working-class and for me, this picture about highlights the joy and sense of community so many feel. There’s something slightly cheeky about this photo that I love, as if the men are in on some private joke that the viewer can only guess at.

4 faces.jpg
Photographs by Bruce Gilden

There was something utterly shocking and yet mesmerizing about these four portraits. I noticed a lot of people spending quite some time staring at them, shocked yet unable to look away. It was as if their entire lives were written all over their faces, for all to see.

 

marching-to-factory

There’s something slightly disconcerting about this one. The rows of near identical men falling in step with one another heading to work, a factory I presume. Their almost-robot like with a military feel to it. They could almost be soldiers heading off to battle. The photograph captures

woman-cleaning-pavement
Photograph by Bruce Davidson

I hate to perpetuate the stereotype of the put-upon working-class woman but the reality was and still is that many working-class women bear the brunt of domestic household tasks. The monotonous, endless work is typified here by a woman on her knees cleaning the path from her doorstep.

revolution

What’s so provoking about this photograph is that the revolution has literally and metaphorically been shut down. This is a familiar sight in many working-class areas with whole rows of shops closed down and boarded up. At times the city centres can take on the feel of ghost towns.

multi
Photograph by Candida Hofer, Liverpool XV

Whether you like the term of not, this photograph highlights the multicultural nature of British society and how diverse our communities are. However, I would have liked to have seen more like this and if I had any complaints it would be that many diverse communities including LGBT ones appeared to be absent from the exhibition. But on the whole this was an excellent exhibition and I would highly recommend you pay a visit.

The exhibition is on display until the 29th May 2017.

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