As the House of Lords challenges the government over EU nationals’ right to remain in the UK after Brexit, a new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery reminds us that photographers from Europe, the United States, and further afield have been visiting Britain for over eighty years, offering a unique contribution to the nation’s cultural landscape.
Some of the earliest photographs in this exhibition, Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, were taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson at George VI’s 1936 coronation. Unusually, he chose to photograph not the king, but the ordinary people watching him: an old woman held up by two men so she can see, a man with a sign around his neck reading “Undefeated” that seems painfully ironic given the looming war. These photographs establish the tone for the exhibition; by looking at Britain with the fresh eyes of an outsider, the photographers help us see ourselves more clearly.
There are more photographs of the 1930s by Edith Tudor Hart, capturing unemployment demonstrations and medical volunteer vans bound for Civil War Spain. The exhibition continues to document different sections of British society throughout the post-war period, often with a focus on poverty and other social issues. A series of photographs of 1980s Glasgow by Raymond Depardon, initially commissioned by The Sunday Times but deemed too bleak to publish, show poverty and homelessness on decaying council estates. Occasional splashes of pink – from a child’s dress in one picture, and bubble gum in another – provide the only symbol of colour and innocence in the sombre palette. Axel Hütte also took a series of pictures of a tower block, but with the inhabitants excluded. The emphasis on the alien setting of the empty architecture is even bleaker in the knowledge that soon afterwards the block was demolished.
Similarly, several of the photographers focused on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Gilles Peress’ The Prods is a workprint installation depicting a series of moments from the country’s troubled past, including an Orange March and an effigy being burned. Akihiko Okamura, who was expelled from Vietnam after his war photography was judged too brutal, travelled to Northern Ireland to explore John F. Kennedy’s family history. While there he took some of the most dramatic pictures of the era, such as locals picking up stones to throw moments before the 1969 Battle of the Bogside, and memorial flowers laid before a burned-out house.
Another fertile period of inspiration in this exhibition is the 1960s. Frank Habricht’s pictures capture the vibrancy of an emerging youth culture, whether taken at peace demonstrations or fashion shoots. In contrast, Garry Winogrand’s photographs contrast young hippies with pictures of the groups left out of the Summer of Love, such as businessmen still wearing bowler hats and Caribbean immigrants. The exhibition also features portraits of a wide range of individuals. Rineke Dijkstra’s pictures of young women in Liverpool nightclubs, Bruce Gilden’s ruthlessly close-cropped pictures of faces, and Evelyn Hofer’s pictures from a Welsh mining village. In keeping with the exhibition as a whole, these images bring out individuality in the everyday and remind us of our connection to the world, even as contemporary politics becomes more and more divisive.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is on display at the Manchester Art Gallery until the 29th of May. Further details can be found here.