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Ice from a Dying Creed: ‘This is Britain’ at the National Gallery of Art

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What is Britain? Is it a collection of territories? A nation? A tattered imperial vision? Is it nothing more, at this point, than a clichéd dreamwork of fox hounds, stiff upper lips, and bangers and mash? Or it is maybe something dynamic and exciting: a cosmopolitan realm in which ancient histories and postcolonial realities strain against each other, and aristocrats, blokes, immigrants, and yobs craft varied lives?

This is Britain, a concise but impactful exhibition of photographs from the 1970s and 1980s at the National Gallery of Art (through June 11), approaches its topic in several ways. Many of the works on display evoke alienation, frustration, and weary irony: sentiments common in an era when England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were rocked by deindustrialization, labor strife, and racial and sectarian tensions.

But the show’s curator, Kara Felt, also points to the increasing diversity of photographers active in the period, to the institutional networks that supported their work, and to the emergence of conceptually motivated photography. Moreover, the exhibition’s signage and its title—this is Britain—propose that these images, even though they were made in a different century, reveal something about the present moment.

That’s an ambitious slate of claims. Indeed, it’s probably overly ambitious, for a show that spans only three rooms. The objects on display—46 photos by 19 photographers, a film by John Akomfrah, and four related books and magazines, all drawn from the National Gallery’s permanent collection—are thus asked to do considerable work, in various directions. For the most part, though, they can handle it.

As individual images, many of them are riveting and deeply compelling. As a group, too, they clearly point to a boisterous and iconoclastic photographic culture, and a moment when debates involving the politics of representation were especially intense. Moreover, many of them do feel pressingly relevant: a fact that is at once redeeming and disheartening.

 

Installation view of "This is Britain" featuring work by Anna Fox. Photo by Kerr Houston.
Anna Fox, Independent Video Production Company, Equipment Department. Docklands Enterprise Zone. Hire Manager (left), Account Manager (right), 1988, chromogenic print

The first room, whose walls are painted a rich burgundy, offers an especially strong roster of bold and potent images. Most of the works here are in black and white and from the 1980s; many of them employ an essentially documentary approach. The icy mood of the Winter of Discontent, with its widespread strikes, bitter weather, and pervasive sense of crisis, subtly snakes through many of the images. And over it all hovers Margaret Thatcher, the controversial conservative politician who converted that discontent into an influential 12-year run as prime minister, beginning in 1979.

Meaningfully, an image of Thatcher confronts as we try to enter the show. In a massive enlargement of a photograph by Anna Fox, a desk worker at an advertising agency meets our gaze with an enigmatic expression: proud and composed, she also appears startled, or even cowed. Just beyond her, above a kitschy bouquet of plastic lights, hangs a hand-colored picture of Thatcher.

The effect of her portrait is eerily ambiguous: is this an icon, to be revered, or is it a piece of darker, Orwellian propaganda? Can we trust Thatcher’s benign smile—or is it a mere construction, composed by professional advertisers? The show thus opens on a note of distinct unease.

 

John Davies, "Agecroft Power Station, Salford," gelatin silver print, 1983

But what, then, did Thatcher’s Britain look like? A remarkable 1983 gelatin silver print by John Davies offers the beginnings of an answer. Four massive cooling towers dominate a destitute environment, imposing a stately industrial rhythm upon the countryside. In the foreground, beneath barren tree branches, a white horse stands near a scattering of litter and parked cars.

The scene reads like a tragic parody of British pastoral romanticism: one of Constable’s landscapes, defiled by a power station and random detritus. But there’s more: in the middle ground, we can faintly make out squads of men competing on soccer fields, between rickety goals. Dwarfed by the abstract concrete forms, these men are barely present: wisps of figures in a world in which energy is always being produced for somewhere else. And yet, suggests Davies, there is something noble about this gathering, in such a formidable and inhuman environment.   

Men also gather in an affecting 1988 work by Gilles Peress, a French-born photographer who documented life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the long-simmering conflict between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant loyalists. At an Irish Republican Army funeral in West Belfast, Peress opted for a disarmingly low camera angle, so that we seem to be in the grave, looking up at the mourners and members of the press, as a coffin is lowered towards us. Some of the power of the image derives from equally somber art historical precedents: the straining men recall Raphael’s “The Deposition,” and the shocking viewpoint and stark palette evoke Caravaggio’s “Entombment.” But local details matter, too. The attentive care of the men is unmissable, and at the far left a hand reaches out to steady the wrist of one of the pallbearers, in a display of solidarity at an especially vulnerable moment.

 

Chris Killip, “Crabs and People, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, UK,” gelatin silver print, 1981
Rising above the xenophobic rhetoric and racially motivated violence that sometimes characterized Thatcher’s Britain, this is a young man who belongs exactly where he is.
Kerr Houston

Some of the works also take delight in surreal juxtaposition and formal complexity. A breathtaking 1981 photograph by Chris Killip, for instance, employs a series of zagging diagonals in conveying an improbable seaside scene. Two dogs look expectantly in divergent directions, while two humans have their backs to us; a pram and a wagon full of crabs heighten the air of mysterious imminence.

But even here, in this magical cousin of one of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moments, there’s at least a hint of resignation, and a frustration with neoliberalism’s intolerance for the marginalized. Indeed, as John Berger once observed, “Chris Killip is adamantly aware that a better future for the photographed is unlikely.”

 

Vanley Burke, “Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park,” gelatin silver print, 1970, printed 2022

 

Meanwhile, other images testify to the resolute pride of the Windrush Generation: that is, the thousands who moved from British Caribbean countries to Great Britain in the mid-1900s. In a stirring picture by Vanley Burke (who moved to England from Jamaica in 1965), a young Black man stands next to his bicycle, as a British flag seems to whip in a stiff wind. Despite his greasy, spotted trousers, he embodies a dapper confidence: one hand on his hip and the other clamped to his bicycle seat, he easily meets our eye while casually assuming the insouciant possessiveness of a Tudor king. Rising above the xenophobic rhetoric and racially motivated violence that sometimes characterized Thatcher’s Britain, this is a young man who belongs exactly where he is.

The second room is also given primarily to photographs from the 1980s—but here, most of them are in color. The shift to color was a momentous one, as it marked a rejection of a venerable tradition, and it seems to have been partly motivated by the fiery irreverence of punk. (That, at least, is the stance of Paul Graham, who has cited punk as representing “in a small but important way an impetus to break with the dominant motif of black and white photography.”) But the works on display point to other major developments, as well. A number of them combine text and image, and several revel in postmodern complexities, frustrating easy readings and challenging conventional distinctions between fact and fiction.

 

Paul Graham, Little Chef in Rain, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire, May 1982, chromogenic print
Installation view of “This is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s,” with works by Sunil Gupta and Anna Fox. Photo by Kerr Houston.
Martin Parr, “New Brighton, Merseyside” from the series The Last Resort, chromogenic print, 1984

Martin Parr’s work is typical, in several ways, of these developments. Parr, one of Britain’s best-known photographers, initially worked with black and white film, but turned in the mid-1980s to high-saturation color stock and began to employ a ring flash to create odd, hyperreal effects. In “New Brighton, Merseyside,” Parr gives us a brightly colored rendering of a seaside bench overrun with trash. Mass tourism seems to have overrun this site, leaving the aging couple in the middle ground exhausted and at a loss for words. None of this, though, bothers the infant in the stroller, who eats an ice cream cone with rapt attention: a moment of absolute focus in a scene of general disarray.

It’s clear that the coolly patriarchal males who populate Karen Knorr’s incisive photographs would never be spotted in such a scene. In the series Gentlemen (1981-83), Knorr focused on the members of London’s exclusive, but slowly waning, upper-class men’s clubs.

Karen Knorr, Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards Fallen., 1981–1983, printed 2015, gelatin silver print

 

Impeccably dressed, the men seem to see themselves as fighting a valiant battle against the encroaching forces of liberalism and cultural decline. But Knorr, who read widely in cultural studies and semiotic theory, gently suggests that they are also merely playing roles—rather like Andrew, the boy who improbably claimed in Michael Apted’s Seven Up! that he read the Financial Times. Like father, like son, even as the ship goes down.

And there really was a sense, in so many directions, that it was going down. Think of Johnny Rotten sneering, in 1977, that “there’s no future, and England’s dreaming.” Or Pink Floyd asking, in 1983, “What have we done, Maggie, what have we done? What have we done to England?” Or the Clash singing, in 1985, about “ice from a dying creed.” High unemployment, the evisceration of social nets, the closure of the St James’s club, the Falklands War: even the staged pageantry of the 1981 royal wedding couldn’t allay concern over Britain’s evolving identity. 

 

Sunil Gupta, Untitled #1, 1988, printed 2020, inkjet print

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.

 

Martin Parr, Peter Frazier, New Brighton, Merseyside, 1984, chromogenic print
Colin Jones, The Black House, London, 1973–1976, gelatin silver print
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Young Couple in a Backyard on a Summer’s Day, 1975, printed 2012, gelatin silver print

Header Image: Vanley Burke, “Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park,” gelatin silver print, 1970, printed 2022

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