wed 21/02/2018

Strange and Familiar, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Strange and Familiar, Barbican

Strange and Familiar, Barbican

A fascinating view from without: world photographers on British identity

Demanding attention: Akihiko Okamura's 'Northern Ireland', 1970s© Akihiko Okamura/Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

The Barbican has built a steady reputation for almost unclassifiable large-scale art exhibitions, particularly in architecture, design and photography: they have been underestimated pioneers, often working in areas themselves under-scrutinised. Thus they often manage to surprise, and so it is here.

This vast anthology is subtitled “Britain as Revealed by International Photographers”, and has been assembled under the aegis of Martin Parr, the highly successful photographer of the banalities of British life. It looks through the eyes of 23 foreigners, including five women, at the last eight decades or so of general carry-on in this idiosyncratic, socially volatile, and highly individual island – with a couple of nods to Ireland north and south. The photographers come from all over: Japan, America North and South, Europe. After the US, the largest contingents are from Holland and Germany.

The camera, Parr remarks in the catalogue, turns a moment into an image that can last forever. Visitors, he also notes, often go for the clichés, but some of the clichés have vanished: where are the bowler hats of yesteryear now? The miners are now almost as extinct as the dodo, yet some things persist, from the City to the Season – and the slums.

It is an eye-opener in many more ways than one, the eyes of strangers in a strange land, whether they come on assignment as reporters or documentarians, or are self-propelled and -motivated. How others see us is unsettling, through the prism of their cultures, looking at us as though we were specimens, at times almost as if viewed from outer space. Certainly many images retain the ability to shock. Bruce Davidson’s Girl with a Kitten, 1962, is still both beautiful and appalling. The adolescent looks terribly poor – where is she exactly? What time of day is it, why is she carrying her bedroll? Is she homeless, is the kitten a stray or her pet? Will she care for it, or is something perhaps sadder or more sinister at work? Is she a stray herself? In 2007 the American photographer described its genesis, an accidental meeting in London on the street with some teenagers, and called it his best shot.

Parr himself is not only a collector but a scholar, having produced (with Gerry Badger) a three-volume study of the Photobook, pertinent to this huge compilation, as most of those whose work is on view have also published their penetrating, unexpected and at times devastating views of our foreign country, often with accompanying texts. Almost all the photographers have more than transcended clichés – indeed the paradox is that in many instances their portfolios themselves would become images of Britain. When Henri Cartier-Bresson worked the crowds thronging the Mall at the 1937 Coronation of George VI, the man who did not want to be king, he caught their eccentric, passionate and quirky enthusiasm (Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937, pictured above right). The result is irresistible without being quaint or whimsical, typically Cartier-Bresson (although we do not associate him with crowd scenes).

The Swiss-American Robert Frank, famed for his definitive study of Americans – some of the most subtly searing analyses of society, still pertinent – turned his incisive eye on Britain in the 1950s. Here, from the early years of that decade, is a misty, empty street of terraced houses, a girl skipping on the pavement, at the right hand edge just the tail-end of a hearse, its door open and awaiting its load: evocative, elegiac, we wonder what lives are led behind the impassive street façades. This was, we are told, a Britain haunted still by the war, and deprivation, though expressed in a strange beauty caught by an incisive eye. (Cas Oorthuys, London, 1953, pictured above left.)

The Austrian Edith Tudor-Hart née Suschitzky, committed communist and spy, was also a profoundly gifted photographer. Juxtaposed here is a 1937 view of a poodle parlour (the poodle in question, being conscientiously blow-dried by two human attendants, is actually a bulldog), next to it a smiling family in the slums crowded into a tiny outdoor space – six children, two mothers, and a line of washing in a dour brick-walled outdoor cubicle (Gee Street, Finsbury, London, c.1936, pictured below right). There is a wonderful selection from Paul Strand’s poignant, thoughtful, dignified 1954 study of the Hebridean islands, their people, their landscape.

There is Wales, its miners and villages, in black and white from Robert Frank, and in soft and melancholy colour from Bruce Davidson, both subtly savage in depictions of communities quietly suffering for reasons beyond any individual control. Here is 1960s London: a Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park, the crowd caught by Frank Habicht, part of his exploration of the “scene” capturing the world’s attention, swinging London. The Japanese Alihiko Okamura shows us the terrible Troubles in Northern Ireland, including a blood-spattered pavement, festooned with flowers the day after the Battle of the Bogside. There is unexpected hilarity, too. A massive slideshow of hundreds of images of people of all ages and sizes is linked together in the Dutchman Hans Eijkelboom’s foray into shopping malls by the similarities of their T-shirts and hoodies, slogans and patterns of astonishing variety within a single motif, from skulls to flowers. 

There are those who visited, or who passed through on the way to somewhere else; but there is also a significant core of migrants and refugees, foreigners who settled, and who equally significantly influenced the cultural climate of Britain. Strange and Familiar may not be the first time we have seen such memorable individual visual essays by outsiders recently: in 2012, Tate Britain showed Another London from the Franck collection, through the eyes of 41 foreigners looking at London from 1930 to 1980, again presented through such a double spectrum. But even if it is a tale oft-told, it is one that cannot be told too often.

Gallery, below: click on thumb-nails to begin

(From left) Tina Barney, Frank Habicht, Raymond Depardon, Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, Jim Dow, Hans Eijkelboom © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

 
It looks through the eyes of 23 foreigners at the last eight decades or so of general carry-on in this idiosyncratic, socially volatile island

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