Strange and Familiar

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Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, curated by renowned photographer Martin Parr, is a fascinating investigation into the social, political and cultural lives of working class people in Britain from the 1930s to the present.

Some 250 photographs are on display taken by 23 different photographers. What links them is that none are British. These photographers came to Britain to capture the lives of the “ordinary”. As outsiders they brought a new and fresh perspective on the everyday life of working people.

Most came from left wing backgrounds and saw the camera as a tool which allows the photographer to get beneath the surface of life to expose injustice and poverty.

The Chilean born photographer Sergio Larrain explains that, “the conventional world is a screen. You have to get out from behind it when you take photographs.”

There is always the danger when photographing working class people going about their everyday business that the photographer trivialises their lives.

Parr himself has been accused of this by Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work he features in the exhibition. In a well-documented spat, Bresson attempted to block Parr’s membership of Magnum, the photographic agency he founded in 1947 with Robert Capa. But the photos in this exhibition avoid any such problems.

The collection demonstrates a range of different photographic genres: street photography, documentary, landscape and architecture and sometimes a combination of all of these.

Bruce Davidson’s colour images of a mining community, for example, capture brilliantly the austere conditions of working class life in the Welsh valleys.

The French photo journalist Raymond Depardon shows some incredible images of Glasgow in the 1980s — gritty working class life against the backdrop of a decaying wasteland.

Akihiko Okamura, a Japanese photographer shaped by the Vietnam War and the bombing of his hometown during the Second World War, spent his life attempting to record the impact of war on working class lives. He moved to Dublin in 1968 as the war in Northern Ireland began to escalate.

The images he captures of the days before and after the “Battle of the Bogside” in Derry, 1969, are particularly potent — a decorative front door being carried by a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force as a protective shield; women carrying tea for the troops and children wearing colourful dresses placing flowers at a makeshift memorial convey a sense of normality without underplaying the horror and brutality of a city under occupation.

Paul Stand’s collection from the island of South Uist in the Hebrides suggests a romantic socialist vision. They portray a community trying to survive the ever encroaching tentacles of capitalism.

As you arrive at the end of the exhibition you come across Bruce Gilden’s giant close up portraits of the outcast and marginalised. Huge faces stare out — an elderly woman in a beauty parlour, a woman from Essex with thick eyelashes and red lipstick, and men with pitted faces and burst blood vessels. They make uncomfortable viewing, but that is the point.

The photographs in this exhibition document perceptively the changing conditions of British working class life with great beauty, imagination and skill.