Photographs taken by a professional tend to show you in a different light to those taken by someone you know well, whether they are your wedding snaps or a school photo. It’s not just the quality or expertise, it’s about the person behind the camera greeting a subject anew, finding something in them that the subject may not be aware of themselves.
That’s the premise of the Barbican’s new exhibition, except that the subject here is Britain and British life. ‘Strange and Familiar’ brings together the work of two dozen photojournalists and artists who chronicled this country over the last century. What unites them is not their style or even the era they worked in, but the fact that they all came from abroad and perhaps brought a more open eye. Their photos are of particularly British pursuits across the country, from horse-races to markets and miners at work in Wales, or the scenes of Portobello Road in the Swinging Sixties – all taken with the eye of a stranger.
It’s a fascinating exhibition, albeit that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the concept. Familiar, certainly. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s scenes of Blackpool in its holiday destination heyday, for example, or American photographer Bruce Davidson’s charming picture of upper-crust nannies dragging their charges through a rainy London Park, both sporting looks of Mary Poppins-esque determination. The Britain on show is a nostalgic one that audiences will recognise: a country of eccentrics, of hard grafters. A country prone to a stiff upper lip but not above a good time. But could I really differentiate these photographs from those taken by British-born photographers? I doubt it.
Not that it matters. With so much work on show this is a marathon of an exhibition – you’ll need a good few hours to make the most of it – and the array of styles means there is something for every taste. I was struck by German-born Candida Hofer’s pictures of Liverpool in the 1960s, showing a city on the brink of change: the majestic ship largely out of shot, the docks appearing too peaceful for an industrious city, the forlorn but resolute expressions of drinkers at Yates’s wine lodge. And Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys’s simple shot of milk bottles sitting on a London doorstep left a lump in my throat – a reminder of my childhood and probably many other people’s. From 1953, the image could have been taken in all but the last decade or so.
Perhaps her foreignness gave Austrian-born Edith Tudor-Hart the drive and empathy to shine a light on poverty and social immobility in 1930s Britain. Her images of dirty, weary looking children, or of ragged washing hanging out to dry, are not unfamiliar. But who closer to home took the time to look? One heartbreaking photograph of a family in Stepney in 1932 shows the private life of those struggling to make do – framed by a window, the scene, and indeed their world, appears small and stifling.
It’s not all cheerless, though. There are photos showing Britain at its best and most defiant. I loved Garry Winogrand’s series drawing out the culture clash between a generation of long-haired, floral-wearing hippies and the more traditional side of the country at the time. His shot of two ladies debating furiously in front of a red post box on a distinctly London street – who knows, perhaps about those dreadful hippies – is so entirely, wonderfully British. Likewise, German photographer Frank Habicht’s picture of miniskirted girls stopping a bowler hat wearing gentleman and asking for the time – an easy, comical scene I could scarce imagine seeing anywhere else in the world.
Most of all, this collection, curated by British photographer Martin Parr, shows how Britain fits together and mostly muddles through, as in Italian Gian Butturini’s picture of people waiting for a train at Earl’s Court. Passengers include a child in a short dress beside a baby carriage, a glamorous woman and, naturally, a pigeon. Or what more proudly British a scene than the couple sunbathing defiantly on Brighton’s stony beach, or Cartier Bresson’s shot of a man sheltering from the rain under a newspaper at Ascot? Or, indeed, Evelyn Hofer’s 1974 image of a Parkhurst prison cell, the narrow walls papered with topless shots? Light relief in a bleak situation.
Is this Britain now – this country of cheeky chappy market traders and smart-suited taxi drivers, of revellers in the pub or crowds gathered for a royal occasion? Or is this simply a rose –tinted vision, as strange to modern audiences as the country was to these photographers when they first arrived? Probably it’s the latter as few of the photographs on display were taken later than the 1970s. But it’s still familiar, and a pleasure to get to know again.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, Curated by Martin Parr, Barbican Art Gallery until 19th June 2016