But there was also a sense, in some progressive circles, that Britain could not change quickly enough. Sunil Gupta’s large inkjet prints, two of which are included here, offer a useful reminder of that fact. In 1988, Gupta—who for more than a decade had been taking sensitive images of gay men in New York, London and Delhi—was deeply troubled by the recent criminalization of promotions of homosexuality “as a pretended family relationship.”
He paired images of public protests against the clause with lines of poetry by his partner and images of same-sex couples, some of whom were romantically involved and some of whom were merely pretending to be. Gupta thus drew attention to the absurdity of the governmental language, while making an eloquent plea for dignity (a plea that was finally answered in 2003, when the clause was repealed).
Just beyond Gupta’s photographs, the show’s final room offers a looping screening of John Akomfrah’s documentary film Handsworth Songs. Just over an hour long, it’s a complex, open-ended and largely non-linear combination of newsreel footage, photographs, and sound, stitched together in the wake of the 1985 Handsworth riots.
Rich and varied, and featuring an innovative soundtrack, it eschews a polemical tone, embracing juxtaposition and assuming an intelligent viewer. It’s a major example of the work of the Black Audio Film Collective, which was founded in 1982 and deployed avant-garde tools in forging a space for Black presence in the British media. And, as an ambitiously synthetic piece, it acts as a useful reminder of the sheer diversity of photographic approaches current in Britain at that time.
Of course a show of this scale, limited to examples owned by the National Gallery of the United States, can offer only a hint of that diversity. A fuller survey would also include examples of the theoretical photography of Victor Burgin, the queer cross-cultural imagery of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, the boldly subversive work of Jo Spence, and the conceptual experimentation of John Stezaker. Also missing here are David Bailey’s famous celebrity portraits, and John Swannell’s lush fashion photography. In short, this isn’t quite Britain, as a whole; rather, it’s a selective and partial view of socially critical British photography, with a heavy emphasis on the Thatcher years.
Still, some of the items that are included read a bit oddly, in a formal museum setting. After all, several of these photographers often sought to show their work in real-world settings, where it could speak more immediately to diverse audiences. Burke has exhibited his photographs in spaces (such as pubs and churches) that are accessible to the Black community. And Graham showed prints from Beyond Caring, a famous series of images of listless applicants in dole offices, at Citizens’ Advice Bureaus, and used them in lobbying for improved conditions in governmental offices. Happily, one of those images is represented here, in an opened 1986 issue of Creative Camera. But, confined to a vitrine, the magazine conveys little of the raw immediacy that Graham felt when he first handled it. “The shock of seeing serious photography,” he later said, “was just a revelation.” At the National Gallery, it feels more like an inert specimen.
Even so, though, many of these works still speak powerfully, across the decades. There’s been considerable interest in recent years in the era explored here: think of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, or Sonia Boyce’s award-winning installation at last year’s Venice Biennale. Some of the reasons for this continued fascination are depressingly clear: for instance, the persistence of structural racism and consumer culture, and the still-unfolding consequences of the dislocation of the working class. But the photographs in this show also speak to the worth of creative work in a culture that does not always support artists. And they offer a refreshing reminder, at a moment when it is easy to feel overrun by digital imagery, of the remarkable versatility of photography as a medium.
Is this Britain, then? Perhaps; perhaps not. At the very least, though, it’s a lively reminder of the vital place of photography in representing and even shaping a critical passage in British history.