We want our country back! they cried
An Ideal for Living is a new exhibition at Beetles and Huxley, London that explores how photographers have perceived class, culture and identity in modern Britain. Drawing on the work of 29 photographers, it considers how photographing Britain has contributed to the creation of a collective national identity. The exhibition shows the variety and creativity with which photographers have sought to document what they consider to be a particularly British way of life from the 1920s to now.
Would that be the country seen in Bill Brandt’s Coal Miner Houses Without Windows, dark, stark and black and white from the 1930s? No light in the mines, little light in their cold, dank row houses housing young miners with black lung disease. Is that the country they want back?
Perhaps the country they want back was more like Martin Parr’s 1970’s black and white photograph of smiling people politely queueing but squeezing in for food at the Mayor of Todmordens inaugural banquet? They were out of the mines now, Britons queuing politely with universal health care and education in rooms with windows.
The coal mines were closing down and the grey soot slowly cleared as if to allow colour photography to replace stark black and white images in order to usher in a new era.
Still, even using colour, the girl’s pink dress and a bit of momentary blue Glaswegian sky is about the only touches of brightness Raymond Depardon’s 1980 photograph with rows and rows of drab, drab grey flats in the background. The doll in Bruce Davidson’s Child with a Pram is also dressed in pink, with Welsh chimneys’ smoke spewing skyward in the background. But at least they had windows now.
In the 80’s, before the Maastricht Treaty and cumbersome EU regulations made people unhappy and before Eastern Europeans picked our strawberries and cleaned our houses, and as Thatcher squashed the coal miners’ strike and the coal industry wheezed its last breaths, Martin Parr went full colour. Not a hint of grey can be seen in his iconic, garish images just a decade after the Mayor’s Banquet. Smartly dressed people with smiling faces in orderly queues in black and white have now been replaced by saturatedly-coloured, dour Britons in bathing suits crowding around to pay for their hotdogs and ice creams No greys, but no smiles, either.
Words: Zev Robinson is a Canadian-British artist and filmmaker working on The Art and Politics of Eating http://theartandpoliticsofeating.com Photos: Top – PICNIC IN THE CAR PARK ON DERBY DAY AT EPSOM DOWNS RACECOURSE, JUNE 2001 PETER DENCH (Born 1972 Middle/Bottom Mayor of Todmordens Inaugural Banquet, Calderdale. Hotdog Stand. © Martin Parr and Magnum. Courtesy of Beetles + Huxley.
“An Ideal for Living” Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain – Beetles and Huxley, 3-5 Swallow Street, London 27 July – 17 September 2016, Private View: 26 July 2016