A British tradition – England Uncensored – Peter Dench

As mentioned at the very end of my last posting, Martin Parr has influenced many up and coming photographers, either directly as a tutor or indirectly as they view his work. Peter Dench is no exception. He uses colour photography to explore social relations and human behaviour up there with the best of them. Like Parr some of his images cause controversy and spark debates over ethics. The course notes describe his work as ‘dispassionate, grotesque…voyeuristic and manipulative.’ Strong adjectives!

Exercise

Read the article on England Uncensored by the BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes.

Dench talks about his “humorous approach with an underlying social commentary”. What do you think of this approach? Does it work? What are the ethical issues?

The article opens up with the usual list of suspects who influenced Dench’s work:  Bill Brandt, Tony Ray Jones, Tom Wood and of course Martin Parr. Dench also cites others, such as Greg Leach and Paul Reas.  As with Anna Fox who took inspiration from many avenues he also cites writers and comedians such as Tim Dowling.

Living by the sea Peter found himself drawn to the Last Resort:

The first colours I saw were saturated; striped deck chairs, arcade rides, Punch and Judy. The Last Resort echoed a familiar world from my youth, a saturated slap about the face, colours that burned a permanent impression directly onto the retina. Working on foreign assignments across the globe has clarified to me just how different, how fabulous, and at times, how ridiculous the English are.

England Uncensored reflects this view and makes a social comment upon English customs and behaviours reminiscent of Parr. Dench readily acknowledges this influence, but also comments, ‘I would like to think I would have arrived at the style of photography I have regardless of Parr… having walked in Parr’s footsteps, confirmed why I will always be a photographer and why I will always document the English; to photograph what is real, to record the present in an attempt to preserve the nation’s past.’

An early project, which precursored England Uncensored, won World Press Photo Award. Containing both humour and an anthropological angle he continued to use a ‘humorous approach with an underlying social commentary…[with] themes of ethnicity, love, the weather, clothing and food.The humour disarms viewers allowing the impact of a more serious image dropped into the sequence to be tenfold….If you could travel the world, make people laugh and make people think, that was a fine way to live.’

Dench set out to photograph not only what was familiar, but also that about which he had no idea, for example: ‘posh schools, social summer events, jollies and jamborees’ This was to enable him to create ‘a rounded look at the English.’

In England Uncensored Dench offers us, ‘a laugh out loud romp through this often badly behaved nation, it is not an idealized brochure of a green and pleasant land…it is important for us as a nation to remember who we really are, warts and all.’ To be honest that’s what I think he serves up. We are, at this juncture, only asked to review this body of work. I went to his website, looked at what I presume to be all the images contained within the book, and can’t find an issue with any of them. Certainly nothing that on the surface looked as critically at people as the Last Resort. It may be that later projects developed a more biting approach, but I found nothing in this work that was offensive, grotesque or manipulative?

As far as ethics are concerned? He doesn’t conceal what he is doing, as Parr often points out, legally anyone is entitled to photograph in public areas. If people are out and about wearing unflattering clothes or are strippers performing for the crowd, they expect to be seen that way. I think only a few from this set captured people not at their best, or represented the less attractive parts of society, but I repeat nothing grotesque?

I found laugh out loud humour, juxtapositions that made me snigger, loving relationships, typical quirky English behaviour and customs. Possible negative social commentary about alcohol, obesity, irresponsible dog owners and a few loose morals. Whilst I agree that humour can disarm and make the more serious photographs have more impact, I struggled to work out which ones were considered to be serious. I saw the influence of Parr, but Dench does seem to embrace slightly more surrealism in his realism…if that makes sense. However, unlike Parr I couldn’t find any subtle nuances or criticism of either the subjects or the establishment. There are not the multi-layered messages you get with Parr, everything is on the surface. What you see is what you get, but I think this was his intention; I really don’t see a more downbeat or grotesque Englishness. May be that says more about me than Dench?

Research

Peter Dench England Uncensored http://www.peterdench.com/england-uncensored/ [Accessed 06/04/2017]

Phil Coomes England Uncensored http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/17190001 [Accessed 06/04/2017]

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