O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
No-one nowadays could possibly claim that Rabbie Burns’ famous plea has been anything other than utterly and comprehensively satisfied. And whether it was Steve Jobs, or some other clever Silicon Valley technician, who first thought of the idea of sticking a camera onto a mobile phone, not even the cleverest algorithmic programmer could have foreseen just quite how unquenchable would be the public thirst to indulge in the new form of exquisite, hi-tech Narcissism that then became so readily available. Currently there seems to be an almost manic urge, at least among the younger members of society, for everyone to photograph themselves in all and any situation, whether flattering, menacing, risky or risque, and then broadcast the results as widely as possible for all the world to see. It’s a curious phenomenon and maybe just a passing fad but now that it’s so easy to make a record of oneself, and so cheap and simple to distribute it, herein surely lies a trend destined to continue its exponential expansion until one day, in the not too distant future, every action by every person will be automatically logged by themselves, only to be instantly reiterated to everyone else.
Whether the combined total of all the images of all the people all the time would then produce an accurate portrait of society as a whole, however, seems unlikely since all self-portraiture is inevitably distorted – focused, as it is, through the lens of personal subjectivity. Then again, pictures taken by friends or colleagues, commissioned or otherwise, are destined to be similarly coloured by the personal relationship between snapper and snapped – a fact reflected in the degree to which the results either flatter or denigrate. So, if the desire is to obtain a greater degree of objectivity, then perhaps the answer is to engage a stranger to take the pictures, in the hope that he or she, untainted by any pre-existing associations, might be able bring a fresh eye to the matter and so produce an image that’s decent, honest and truthful. That, at least in part, is, I think, the rationale behind Strange and Familiar, the current exhibition of photographs at the Barbican Centre.
Subtitled Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, the show contains work from a couple of dozen photographers – some well-known but the majority less so, at least to me – but all of whom have travelled to this country from overseas and recorded impressions of their time spent here. The somewhat eclectic mix of photographers has been selected by the show’s curator, Martin Parr, who is described in the gallery literature as one of Britain’s best-known photographers, famous for producing work that is, ‘…satirical, opinionated, comic and affectionate’. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, these adjectives might also apply as general descriptions for the works that he’s gathered together to include in the exhibition.
The show begins with photographs from the 1930s taken by Edith Tudor-Hart, an Austrian émigré whose very British surname was acquired by marrying a native born doctor. It does seem, however, that she didn’t integrate entirely wholeheartedly within her adopted country since, as the exhibition wall panels advise, she remained throughout her life a fully committed communist and, more intriguingly, a likely Soviet agent. Some of her works on display here, commissions for magazines like Picture Post and Weekly Illustrated, suggest she may have been subtly trying to instigate the proletariat to rise up and shake off their chains – a poverty-stricken child, with ragged pullover and tousled hair, looks longingly into a baker’s shop, reconciled to the fact that the cruelties of the capitalist system have put the bath buns and jam tarts forever beyond her reach (or at least until the revolution comes along one day). But most of her pictures are less obviously propagandist – the line of washing blowing in the wind against a backdrop of chimney pots on top of a regimented row of terraced houses is an attractive, formalist study. And the shot of the bulldog receiving a pedicure and a tweak of the jowls by the pair of neatly permed assistants working in a poodle parlour, suggests an attraction to a gentle, comic form of Surrealism rather than any more dangerous type of foreign, political subversion.
This ability to capture moments of faintly humourous absurdism similarly characterise many of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work fills the next room. Visiting the country to see the coronation of George VI, the famous French photographer naturally chose to ignore the formal pomp and ceremony of king and court to concentrate instead on recording the scene second-hand, through the reactions of all the anonymous sightseers and day-trippers to the capital. In one picture, ranks of faces are masked by the slightly ridiculous cardboard periscopes everyone is holding up, as they strain to get a better look at the royal procession that proceeds before them; while, elsewhere, a man sleeps on a spread of discarded newspapers, completely oblivious both to the crowd behind him and the great historical events taken place somewhere out in front of him.
Other pictures like these, with scenes embodying a sense of good-humoured eccentricity, recur throughout the exhibition, whether it’s the American Bruce Davidson finding a solitary pair of pensioners sat in their deckchairs on the beach at Hastings enjoying a flask of tea or the German Frank Habicht contrasting the formal uniform of the banker, with his bowler hat and brolly, against the more relaxed pair of mini-skirted girls walking alongside him. But are all these really indicative of a specifically idiosyncratic national characteristic spotted by the outsiders taking the pictures? Or is it that the photographers had heard that the British were famous for a sense of convivial quirkiness, and confirmation was found only by actively seeking out suitable scenes to fit the preconceived notion? What makes me think it may well be the latter is that the rest of the exhibition is so full of stock characters from the bumper book of British stereotypes. There’s the cheery market trader with his bowtie and glasses, stood behind his stall of fruit and veg, and the well-behaved queue waiting for their bus to appear through the fog (Cas Oorthuys, Netherlands); the Welsh miners emerging from the pit, coated in coal dust, or playing darts in the working men’s club, immersed in a fug of cigarette smoke (Robert Frank, US); the Billingsgate porter balancing a box of fish on his head (Evelyn Hofer, US); the arrogant, pouting Oxbridge students in their white tie and tails (Tina Barney, US); the drunk collapsed on the pavement outside the betting shop in Glasgow (Raymond Depardon, France); the guardsman in his bearskin and the Scottish piper in his kilt (Garry Winogrand, US) and so on and on and on. Of course all these people exist but none of these photographs show them as individuals, merely as ciphers, or extras from a corny casting bureau, momentarily placed centre stage. I’m not sure they tell us anything about this country or its inhabitants above that which we already knew.
So very much more interesting are the few photographers here that do show us something new, especially when they are photographing things we’ve seen many time before – the familiarity of which has bred not so much contempt as general disinterest. Jim Dow from America shows the interiors of a variety of small, independent high street retailers: the haberdashers, an eel and pie café, a decorators’, a sweet shop. With proprietors and customers absent, there’s a curiously intense feeling of stillness about these places and Dow’s large colour prints somehow turn the mundane fittings and stock into almost picturesque collages. Similarly, by careful framing and lighting, Axel Hutte from Germany manages, to transform the drab concrete architecture of a typical Brutalist council estate into a rather beautiful study of texture and form, presumably recreating the happy Modernist dreams of the architect who originally designed the place. And finally, laurels also go to the conceptualist photographer Hans Eijkelboom from the Netherlands whose looped film includes hundreds of pictures documenting the everyday fashion trends of the inhabitants of an Everytown shopping mall. Cataloguing his subjects by their design choices, whether it’s grouping together everyone who favours polka dot dresses and slacks, or T-shirts with a Union Jack logo, he acts the role of the modern day urban anthropologist. And again, there’s something both compelling and comic in seeing a bunch of Brits sorted, sifted and tagged like so many categories of butterfly, pinned down in ranks on a lepidopterist’s display case. Better than just Strange and Familiar, I think it borders on the weird and wonderful.