Do you ever wonder how foreign visitors to Britain view the country and its inhabitants? How do we appear and what do they make of our ways and customs. Do we appear familiar to the outsider’s eye or are we strange and peculiar?
Bringing together a stellar cast of 23 international renewed photographers, including greats Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, and featuring previously unseen work, a new photography exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre, seeks to address these very questions by focusing on both the mundane, and eccentric aspects of life in Britain. So not too surprisingly rain sodden sooty pavements, derelict housing estates, and the bright lights of London as well as decaying northern towns are all on display here. But what makes this exhibition unique and the photographs on display utterly compelling is the story they tell about Britain and its changing cultural, social and political identity.
The earliest images in the exhibition date from the early nineteen-thirties, and the most recent are from 2014. So as you wander around the exhibition you see desolate post-war Britain merge into the spirited 1960s with its mini skirts, nudity, student protests and optimism. The rigidity of the British social class is also in full view; men in bowler hats, prim and proper nannies pushing vintage prams in a well-manicured London park are featured alongside boozing drunks and barefoot ragged and filthy children in crumbling city streets.
The most compelling photos in the exhibition are from the little known Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake. Ohtake travelled to the UK, aged 22, in the late 1970s, unable to speak the language, but equipped with a Nikon F he wondered around Britain taking photos of sights and scenes that took his fancy. His collection includes rather humdrum photos of garages, shop fronts and signs, seaside huts, amongst others. But there is something deeply humbling about Ohtake’s images. They speak volumes while on the surface revealing very little. Britain through all of its incarnations is a strange and yet very familiar place.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers
Barbican Centre, London
Until Sunday June 19, 2016