Something vital and exciting has been born out of the social and economic ferment of contemporary Britain. The rich fabric of British photography today is woven from a hundred points of view eloquently expressed by photographers young and old, struggling to articulate an image of British life adequate to its variety and energy.
Where We’ve Come From: Aspects of Postwar British Photography
This is the opening stanza of “Annus Mirabilis,” by Philip Larkin, who constitutes almost a one-man tradition in postwar English poetry. His lines make fun of arbitrary retrospective chronologies and questions like “When did contemporary British photography begin?” However, it is worth asking the question in order to raise another one: is there an identifiable tradition behind photography in Britain now? A striking difference between expressive photography in the United States and Britain, or for that matter any other country, is that in the U.S. a canon of photographic art has been articulated in a comprehensible form.
John Taylor's photograph of a suburban garden was taken in connection with a series he did about the interiors of ordinary homes. He was concerned to record the decorative trappings of ordinary lives, and the garden seemed a natural extension of that cultural area—the desmesne of the suburban semidetached.
As it enters the 1990S Britain is emerging from a decade of turmoil, a period in which many of the social institutions and assumptions that had characterized British life in the postwar years have been attacked by a newly ascendant conservatism, which calls for a return to market capitalism and old-fashioned values.
Between frames and across contexts, in gaps, overlaps, areas of suspension and transitivity—in such spaces, circulating between individual works and traversing national positions, some intriguing relations emerge. One unexpected collision: in 1987 the appearance, in Britain, of Keith Arnatt's series Miss Grace's Lane and, in America, of images by Cindy Sherman, two sets of color photographs showing terrains of scattered fragments, landscapes of dissolution.
The new vision that characterizes the work of the young Black photographers (using the term to cover not only people of AfroCaribbean descent but also Asians and people of Middle Eastern origins) in this volume derives from a critical reassessment of the construction of racial difference and identity in contemporary Britain.
The era of mass consumerism in Britain was born after the Second World War, in a heady atmosphere in which optimism was combined with a desire to start anew and a yearning for order after the chaos of the war years. At that time England took her lead from her prodigal son, America, acknowledging, for perhaps the first time in her history, that her preeminence as an economic and political force had come to an end.
Some sublime catastrophe, which has undone the Pastoral as a mode of representation, is to be found across much of contemporary British photography. To examine contemporary British culture in all its phosphorescent horror entails some understanding of this particular trope, this organizing category and force—the trope of catastrophe.
The recent media hype about "the New British Cinema" has been enormous. Since Colin Welland's cry of "The British are coming!" while collecting the Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1982, we seem to have been witnessing a renaissance in British cinema after the doldrums of the 1960s and '70s.
I had to return to Belfast again to put together my thoughts on Paul Graham's work; to visit some of the places which I, also an outsider to the North (though one who has spent a great deal of time there over the years), also knew. The pictures have a lifeless quality to them, a feeling of doom.
In Flagrante, photographs by Chris Killip, with an essay by John Berger and Sylvia Grant. Published by Secker & Warburg, London, 1988 (£20 paper-back). The objective history of England doesn't amount to much if you don't believe in it, and I don't...
Describing the history of recent British photography involves marking zones of influence and contours of change. This attempt to present a cross section of current interests and expression in British photography has necessarily excluded the work of many significant artists: Jo Spence, Val Wilmer, Thomas Cooper, Fay Godwin, Richard Long, Mary Kelly, Bill Kirk, the Hackney Flashers, and more.
ROSETTA BROOKS, a writer, editor, and curator born in London and now living in New York, is the editor of ZG magazine and publisher of a forthcoming book on artist Annette Lemieux. She organized the exhibition Altered States for Kent Fine Arts, New York in 1988.
Many people have generously contributed their time and talents to the production of British Photography: Towards a Bigger Picture. For their advice and assistance we are especially grateful to Mark Haworth-Booth and Chris Titterington, of the Victoria & Albert Museum; David Mellor; Mark Boothe of the D-Max group; and John Tagg.
P. 2 copyright the Estate of Bill Brandt, courtesy of Noya Brandt and of Edwynn Houk Gallery, Chicago; p. 3 photograph by John Deakin, courtesy of and permission from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; p. 3 photograph by Nigel Henderson, courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London;