A British tradition – Brett Rogers – Changing Britain

This is one of the issues with distance learning and relying on web-based links; some, over the years, vanish and I’m not sure how often the links are checked….from time to time we get emailed revisions to the coursework. but you don’t always remember what they were, or they may have been sent so long ago that you weren’t even aware that they had been sent out. I think this is the third link I have had a problem with, but am not the only one when asking other students about it about.

The first step on this exercise was to read Brett Rogers’ introduction to the online gallery of Documentary Dilemmas at: http://collection.britishcouncil.org/whats_on/exhibition/11/14136 …love to but it ain’t there no more! ( yeah, yeah I know poor grammar…) So…ignoring that blip I’ll burble on as I usually do from independent research…

I came across an online interview where Rogers, who was chosen to develop the photography policy and programme at the British Council, and photography was still ‘perceived as art’s poorer cousin’, was discussing how difficult it was to change people’s pre-conceived notions about what certain documentary photographs should look like – this also ties in nicely with the last exercise and how places can be two things at once.

If you talk to Martin Parr, Fay Godwin, Paul Graham, their shows were well-respected and well-received and yet they weren’t getting any recognition in this country. That was a bizarre situation. For 17 years I was raising their profiles abroad, and it was easier somehow.

[no stranger to controversy]

The British ambassador in Poland would say to me ‘We can’t have Martin Parr, that’s not the image of Britain we want, with all the rubbish on the ground, and people looking unhappy.’ I would always argue back, saying, ‘We’re not here to promote a tourist’s image of Britain, we’re here to promote photography.’ In that respect we had a lot of battles, but we won them all.

Martin Parr (very frequently referenced, but obviously for good reason) showed reflexivity and authorship within his images, deliberately choosing to reveal a different face of Britain and letting his personal experiences/background colour his intentions. He also underscored the two sides of the beach front, for example, as both an idyllic get away and a bustling, litter strewn, working class jolly.

From the British Council’s web page:

The exhibition traced the development of documentary practice in British photography over the decade 193-1993. The 80 works by 13 artists were selected by Brett Rogers. In her essay in the accompanying catalogue she outlined the historical background to the ‘renaissance’ of documentary photography which took place in Britain during the 1980’s, starting with the work of established figures such as Martin Parr and Paul Graham and exploring the work of those they have influenced such as John Kippin, Anna Fox and Antony Haughey. The catalogue was published in 1993 by the British Council (ISBN 0 86355 232 3), the tour began in 1993 and ended in 1996.

I have heard  of a few of the photographers in the collection, others are new names –  a brief overview can be found for some of them on the British Council’s site:

John Davies

John Davies was born in Sedgefield, Co Durham and studied at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. In 1992 he was made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. After graduating in 1974, he spent six years photographing the rural and isolated landscapes of the British Isles. In 1981, after winning a one year Photographic Fellowship at Sheffield Polytechnic, he became increasingly interested in trying to understand how the urban, rather than the rural, landscape evolved. Photographing the Northern English town of Sheffield, he began to document not only the topography of the city, but also its archaeology. In the following years, he focused on the role of the great 19th Century industries (cotton, steel, coal) played in shaping the physical environment of the north of England. In a manner not unlike the painter J M W Turner, who chose a steam train to represented 19th Century progress, the industrial structures Davies selected became functional symbols of social and capital growth. The exploration of the mutual relationship between social and industrial history was amongst Davies’ concerns, but it was never casually undertaken, rather always preceded by detailed research of the site and in his choice of high vantage points, which concentrate attention on the relationship between the sky and the earth, void and mass. Black and white, Davies’ sweeping panoramas echo the formal symmetry of Dutch 17th century landscape painting.

Julian Germain

Julian Germain was born in London in 1962. He studied at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham and the Royal College of Art, London.
As a photographer, Germain is interested in the documentation of diverse social groups and in the notion of the amateur. He often utilises vernacular photographs, collected from archives, catalogues and family albums, lending his work an anthropological quality and indeed it can be seen to reflect on photography’s place in society as well as record the passage of time. Steel Works (1990) considers the impact of post-industrialisation in a northeast English town; Babybabybaby (2005) is a collection of images of new-borns from 1906 to the present day; War Memorial (2008) presents photographs made by British soldiers and sailors over the last century and Classroom Portraits (2012) features large format portraits of classes of schoolchildren from more than twenty countries.
Subbuteo Superheroes (1997) is a series of photographs of a miniature toy football team, each player painstakingly repainted and remodelled to resemble a character from Marvel Comics by a 14-year-old boy. The images recall the look of football cards and stickers that are collected and swapped in school playgrounds the world over, while the large scale of the prints monumentalises the figures in accord with the boy’s imagination, gently celebrating the realm of the teenage imagination.

Paul Graham

Paul Graham studied for a BSc at Bristol University and in 1980 held his first exhibition, House Portraits: photographs of modern detached suburban houses. These pictures provided evidence of Graham’s attraction to social themes and to the traces of history in the everyday, a recurrent theme of his work. Three trips to Northern Ireland, beginning in 1984, resulted in three series of works relating to the political and social landscape of the province. Troubled Land, the first of the series, looked at the small but insistent signs of deep political division within the landscape of Northern Ireland. The two subsequent series concentrated on images of people and the final group, Untitled (Cease Fire), of 1994 reflected on the nature of peace and instability.
The works in the Collection from Troubled Land are very different from the stereotyped images published by the daily media or the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in the mid 1980s. They avoid both clichés of sensationalist urban mayhem, or escapist rural idyll: the images flow from inner city through the fringe towns and villages out into the countryside, concentrating in each case upon the visual footnotes of the conflict, These photographs take a circumspect, ordered and calmly distanced view that provides no drama or easy answers, but examine the tentative, provisional relationship between the landscape of Northern Ireland and the troubles of its society.
Documentary Dilemmas Aspects of British Documentary Photography 1983 – 1993, The British Council 1994

Anthony Haughey

John Kippin

John Kippin studied Fine Art at Brighton Polytechnic and at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle before emerging in the late I980s as a prominent figure within the debate around the radical reappraisal of documentary photography then dominating British photography. Integrating text into many of his images was one of the strategies Kippin introduced to challenge the realist paradigm which had traditionally underlined all documentary practice. Choosing to focus his attention on landscape afforded Kippin an opportunity to explore the encoded meanings, ideologies and ideas concealed or overlooked within this specific photographic genre. In his work from the late 1980s, Kippin referenced pictorial landscape traditions and notions of aesthetic beauty, juxtaposing them with acute reflections on cultural and political change in contemporary Britain.
Documentary Dilemmas: Aspects of British Documentary Photography 1983 – 1993, The British Council 1994

Karen Knorr

Karen Knorr was born in Frankfurt am Maim and studied at the Polytechnic of Central London. She uses photography to investigate western cultural traditions, the work here is from the series Academies which explores the relationship between the production of art and its consumption. Her work is carefully staged using students and life models set in locations from the gentlemen’s clubs of St James in London to the anatomy lecture theatre at Uppsala University, Sweden..

Martin Parr

Already looked into in-depth in several earlier postings and previous independent research, what more is there to say really?

The earliest photograph by Martin Parr in the British Council Collection, Passing Naturalists, Pagham Harbour (1973), black and white, was taken when Parr was just 21… Two men, both in windcheaters, woolly hats and wellington boots, with knapsacks strapped to their backs, stride past each other down a country path in opposite directions; neither shows any sign of acknowledgement…

He started photographing the traditions of the north, drawn to unexpected moments. The Jubiliee Street Party, Elland (1977)…

Traditions, Hobbies, pastimes, boredom management strategies: these are classic Parr territory… by the 1970s, Britain was dominated by the middle class, and Parr takes a different attitude. Introducing colour was a shift from the ‘unmitigated affection’ he expressed in his black and white work, to a more critical position:
‘I don’t have a problem with the fact that I’m middle class going to photograph the working class. I think there’s this rather precious approach that if you’re middle class you can’t go and criticise the working class, and certainly my photographs have a critical bite to them.’

Parr refocuses the tacky seaside postcard for the Thatcher era in his portfolio The Last Resort (1983–85), 40 photographs looking at a run-down seaside resort outside Liverpool. Parr’s image of a beauty pageant adopts the saturated look in a knowing way… Perhaps black and white would be more forgiving but colour shows the full vulgarity. Another image shows a family tucking into chips on a car park bench, in front of an overflowing bin. The primary colours ring loud: red paintwork, blue denims, white trainers and polystyrene cartons.

By the late 1960s, conceptual artists such as Richard Long and Keith Arnatt were using photography in their work, and in parallel, Parr posited the ordinary world in the art gallery. He has amassed his own vast collection of prints, souvenirs and ephemera in tandem with his growing collection of archetypal images of Englishness – newspapers on the beach, cups of tea, front lawns, sliced white bread and margarine, cricket whites, postcards of Big Ben, knitted whatnots, baked beans, seagulls pecking at chips, prize cakes.

 

Jem Southam

Jem Southam was born in Bristol in 1950. He studied at the London College of Printing for a Higher Diploma in Creative Photography from 1969 to 1972. He is now Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth.
Southam’s subject is the rural landscape of the South West of England, where he lives and works. His photographs are characterised by the observation of cycles of decay and renewal within nature, returning to photograph a single location over the course of many months and years. He layers and juxtaposes these images to reveal subtle changes and developments in the landscape, recording nature’s entropic instability. His large and detailed colour photographs, captured with a large-format camera, also often focus on mankind’s place in the environment, showing the impact of human settlement on the natural world. Conversely, these images also capture the psychological effect of environment on man, interrogating our cultural mythologies of natural formations and landscape.
Jem Southam has had solo exhibitions at venues including The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 1987; Cenre d’Art Contemporain, Bruxelles, 1992; Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Australia, 1995; Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, England, 2004; Robert Mann Gallery, New York, 2004; Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, 2005; Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2005; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, 2005; and PhotoEspana, Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid, Spain, 2010.

Chris Killip I have also completed earlier research on, similarly Paul Reas.  Paul Seawright, Tommy Harris (his work no longer seems to show up) and Anna Fox were also in the collection. I would love to dive into each and everyone in more detail but tempus fugit and I just get far too distracted…

There is also a suggestion that we read the Changing Britain pdf.

This document gives a very brief and potted history of British documentary photography and the role that the British Arts Council had to play. It reminds us that photography is ever-present, ever-changing and often a victim to new technologies – until it catches up. In her interview Brett Rogers also comments on the impact of the digital age.

In 2014 Lucy Davis asked:

…where photography might be headed next? “That’s a very difficult question to answer,” she [Rogers] says. “It’s such a mercurial medium, moving in so many different directions. Personally I’m interested in artists that are combing digital and analogue. Next year, we’re planning an exhibition which won’t have anything framed on the wall at all. It will look only at digital, and how facial recognition software is changing the nature of portraiture. It’s an incredibly exciting area, but I would never wish to lose sight of people using analogue processes in new and adventurous ways.”

Again we see reference to  Bill Brandt, Mass Observation, George Rodger (who documented WW2, financed by the War Office and Ministry of Information) Tony Ray-Jones, Roger Mayne and Bert Hardy.

TV came along and impacted upon the sale of magazines; newspaper supplements only wanted ‘news’ photos. Photography wasn’t a sought after ‘collection worthy’ art form at this stage, considered only a ‘news medium’.

This attitude gradually changed with the Council appointing their first full-time Photography Officer, Barry Lane. Grants became available and we get reminded of the talents of Martin Parr, Vanley Burke (who made a conscious decision to document black social history in his local area, Handsworth Birmingham), Paul Graham and Daniel Meadows.

Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, 1984-1986, is historically relevant, as this body of work embraced colour and recorded the turbulent era of the economic recession, huge numbers of unemployed and the dreadful experiences faced in Job Centres, and at the hands of the welfare benefits system.

The photography collection was then incorporated into the main body of the Arts Council Collection in the early 1980’s, as there was more interest as photography as ‘Art’. Henry Bond and Liam Gillick are cited as examples of new documentary photography and how ‘the photographic medium has evolved.’

New milestones of documentary

Paul Graham Beyond Caring, Paul Reas, Flogging a Dead Horse and Anna Fox Workstations are singled out as milestones within this new documentary practice.

Beyond Caring

In 2011 I went to see the Paul Graham Retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery writing:

With images taken in 1984-1985 this was another series I could heavily identify with. Although never having been unemployed or having faced a “dole queue” I started work in 1980 and remember only too well the economic state at that time. The charts were full of protest songs, riots had occurred across the nation a few years back, and by 1984 unemployment was still rising… These photographs bring it all back, not sure if people from other “eras” or cultures would get the point as much, but that is one of the joys of photography, it can mean different things to different people. The images are printed on a larger scale… the angles are off due to the surreptitious nature of the capture, but I think this only adds to the uncomfortable surroundings, and the way that people must have felt out of kilter with the world.

Small details creep in, again spotting people smoking in an office, the discarded litter on the floor, maybe intentionally echoing the way the unemployed felt discarded (or am I doing my own version of let’s make it up :oP) toddlers and babies buggies add to the throng showing women were affected as much as men, the adults and children alike holding their chins in their hands with bland emotionless expressions. Two images stand out in my mind especially, the one with the toddler in pink, a subtle contrast against the drab blues of the waiting men, the repeat pattern of walking sticks and me making up my own stories once more, is the toddler wondering “is this MY future?” That could have crossed Graham’s mind or it could be he just pushed the button… and the other which made me smile was the image of a man reading a newspaper while the Victorian gentleman of the wall decoration seemed to peer over his shoulder doing the same. All in all quite depressing, you can’t fail to read the message, feel the despondency, the images have a definite political overtone and tell the story of overcrowded unemployment offices of the period.

 

As mentioned above this body of work is of historical importance for several reasons: it embraced colour, Graham shot whilst undercover, was funded by the Greater London Council in the last days of “Red” Ken Livingstone and, the work oddly acquired a ‘strange double life: as both a political work of social reportage handed out at lefty political conferences, and as a fine art photography book.’ It also bucked the trend to current ways of documentary thinking.

I gave a talk to photography students at Newport College of Art in 1985 and one of the tutors described Beyond Caring as ‘poisonous’. By that, I think he meant that it was poisonous to the established order of working, which was to use a Leica, shoot in black and white, and always have an establishing shot.

The quiet desperation and overwhelming melancholy is captured brilliantly within these shots.

Flogging a Dead Horse

Paul Reas is part of the pioneering generation of photographers who revealed and critiqued British class and culture in the 1980s and 90s. Strongly influenced by his working class upbringing in Bradford, Reas used humour and sharp observation to comment on a new corporate and commercial world epitomised by heritage industry sites, retail parks, and supermarkets.
I Can Help (1988), Reas’ seminal body of work, explores the consumer boom of the eighties with its American-style out-of-town shopping malls. Depicting employees and shoppers of the new middle class, Reas offers an acerbic revisioning of Britishness to create a powerful portrayal of Thatcherite Britain. Flogging a Dead Horse (1993) presents a nationwide survey of the emergence of the ‘heritage industry’: museums and theme parks such as Beamish Open Air Museum that offered a nostalgic and often commercialised version of the past in the wake of the collapse of heavy manufacturing and industry.

 

I briefly looked at Paul Reas earlier on in this blog as Peter Dench cited him as one of his influences. You can see that by the vivid use of colour,unbalanced compositions, cropped elements and more off kilter camera angles. Surrealism starts to creep into the documentary work which, as the coursework sums up, ‘posed as many questions about tourism as it did about British identity.’

Work Stations

Colour photographs with text captions. A study of London office life in the late 80’s, a critical observation of the highly competitive character of working life in Thatcher’s Britain this work extends Fox’s earlier interest in working with text and image.
Commissioned by Camerawork and The Museum of London in 1987.
Published by Camerawork in 1988 with an essay by Sunil Gupta.

This body of work sits comfortably next to Reas and Parrdescribed as ‘typically ‘British’ in both the approach to subject matter and the highly saturated colour documentation of culture, social structure, peculiarities and customs.’ Not surprising, as her tutors were Paul Graham, Martin Parr and Karen Knorr. It was Knorr who inspired Fox to combine image and text. Fox states: ‘the way she combined image and text had an academic feel to it, was highly intelligent and  helped me to realise new ways of making political comment in a body of work.’ Apparently, Reas also had Parr as a tutor…

As opposed to Graham, who captured the despondency of the unemployed, Fox caught the feverish nature of the rat race, capitalism and competition of the 1980’s work ethic. As well as taking inspiration from her tutors Fox absorbed various literary tomes which in turned helped her realise how a social landscape could be described. Sean O’Hagan commented: ‘ Her subject matter is the ordinary and the everyday , but she approaches it with an artist’s eye for the absurd and the revealing.’ There are definite hints of surrealism within her images.

For more insights as to how this body of work was captured read the full interview on the American Suburb X web site.

In linking this exercise to the previous exploration of reflexivity and authorship, I think that the influences and experiences of these photographers, Fox and Reas in particular, affected the way in which they approached their work. And the following quote from How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) is particularly apt:

Photographing Britain is a complex endeavour – one that tells stories about the self, about other people, about the contradictory nature of life on this small island. These photographers, and the narratives they construct, provide a very partial view of Britain, its people, its landscape, its obsessions and its crises. The vision of photographers is by its nature artful, skewed and selective; they show us a Britain that they want us to see. They are picaresque narrators on a grand scale. (Williams & Bright, 2007, p.163)

 

Research

Anna Fox http://www.annafox.co.uk/work/workstations/ %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

Documentary Dilemmas http://collection.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/documentary-dilemmas-1993/ [Accessed 05/04/2017]

Impressions Gallery http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=62 %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

Lucy Davis http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11119249/An-interview-with-Brett-Rogers-OBE-Director-of-Londons-Photographers-Gallery.html %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

Niccolò Fano http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/06/interview-anna-fox-asx-interviews-anna-fox-2013.html

Paul Graham http://paulgrahamarchive.com/ %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

Paul Reas http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=62 %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

Sean O’Hagan https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/11/paul-graham-interview-whitechapel-ohagan %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documents_Series %5BAccessed 05/04/2017]

I don’t like Wikipedia, for obvious reasons, but this seemed to sum everything up better than other sites I looked at….I have got a bit web paged out!

Williams, V. and Bright, S. (2007) How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

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