This week has been mercifully quiet so I treated myself to two photographic exhibitions in London. The first was the highly-rated Strange & Familiar at the Barbican Art gallery, the work of 23 international photographers, working in the UK from the 1930s to date, who each give a fascinating insight into Britishness. This exhibition was curated by Martin Parr, a well-known documentary photographer. Some of his own work is on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery in an exhibition called Unseen City and that was the second one that I visited.
London was its usual heaving self, the underground system was fairly busy…
…but there were some classy buskers!
First, a word about the Barbican. The Barbican Estate is an unlovely desert of bleak high-rise housing blocks built during the 1960s and 1970s in the area north of St Paul’s Cathedral, an area that was devastated by Luftwaffe bombs during World War 2. The architecture is (fittingly) classified as ‘brutalist.’ It has few redeeming features but does contain, on the periphery, the Barbican Arts Centre, where the exhibition was held, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, oases of culture in a wasteland of concrete cells.
It is virtually impossible to avoid getting lost in the Barbican. While signposting has improved considerably, the authorities continue to throw up concrete battery cages for humans and close off whole sections at will.
I had to take directions from the dancing couple…
…and the jolly golden giant who pointed the way towards the Barbican Arts Centre.
The Barbican Arts Centre is at the edge of Barbican Estate and has a plaza in front of it, fountains and even a small lake. Oasis indeed.
The Strange & Familiar exhibition is on two floors and comprises several hundred prints by 23 overseas photographers, most of them in monochrome. The usual clichéd images are there; top hats and bowlers, posed postmen and grimy miners, street waifs and elderly sun worshippers, Swinging 60s etc. There’s nothing wrong with that when it’s well done, but there is much more to enjoy, to contemplate, to worry over, to be amazed at, to be bemused by or to be appalled at. The whole of life is there, much of it unfamiliar – the past is indeed another country – and quite a lot that stirs up memories and resonates, some that you will happily pass by, but all of it reflects some aspect of Britishness momentarily captured and preserved by foreigners with cameras.
Here’s a few of my favourites (photograph-taking was banned and there were alert monitors in each room to prevent any surreptitious attempts!):
Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of candid photography, was invited to photograph the coronation of George VI in the mid-1930s but mostly turned his camera on the crowd instead. I love his candid portraits of the British determined to enjoy themselves despite adverse conditions; there is a tremendous downpour at Ascot, most of the spectators have gone but one determined elderly man sits on, a sodden newspaper plastered to his head, at peace with himself.
Another French photographer, Raymond Depardon, photojournalist and filmmaker, was asked to photograph Glasgow, one of the major European cities that had fallen on hard times. This was in the 1980s before Glasgow’s slogan was ‘smiles better’ and before it was renowned as a city of culture. This is a dark, brooding city of tenement blocks, leaden skies, waif-like children and booze-sodden denizens. Some of Depardon’s images are marvellously artful in the subtle use of touches of colour as counterpoint – the subdued pink of a girl’s dress for example. This is the Glasgow that I knew well and had almost banished from memory.
A very different perspective is provided by Dutch photographer Hand van der Meer’s photographs of amateur football matches. The huge swathes of sky and lush green fields remind one of early Dutch painting, while also being current and very English.
Japanese war photographer Akihiko Okamura spent much time in Ulster in the 1980s during the ‘Troubles,’ even taking his family to live there so that he could concentrate on his work of documenting the province. It’s all there; the marches and the reaction to them, religion and violence, ugly tribalism and shallow posturing. If nothing else, it reminds us what we’ve hopefully left behind.
Finally, at the exit, there are some huge-size portraits by Bruce Gilden, the American street photographer, made in 2011 and 2014. The style can be summarised as ‘up close and personal.’ Here are sitters’ faces with stubble, warts, broken capillaries, poor teeth, blotches, mascara and foundation applied by trowel, rheumy-eyed…as Robbie once put it ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!’
Then it was on to the Guildhall, London’s Town Hall, built in the 15th century.
Attached to it is the Guildhall Art Gallery, built in 1999 to replace a building destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. When they were digging the foundations for it they came across medieval pottery - and the remains of a Roman amphitheatre almost 2,000 years old.
The Gallery houses Martin Parr’s Unseen City. Martin is a member of the Magnum collective and, since 2013, has been the City of London’s photographer-in-residence and is uniquely placed to capture the pomp and ceremony, the centuries-old traditions, banquets, processions and so on.
At the entrance to the exhibition is a sign ‘Photography Allowed.’ Well done!
Let some of the photos speak for themselves…
On the way back I popped in to St Mary-le-Bow Church, famous for the Bow Bells. (According to tradition, a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the Bow Bells).
The church on this site has been destroyed and re-built several times, most famously after the London Tornado of 1091, the Great Fire of 1666 and the Luftwaffe in 1941.
It is quite sumptuous inside and one of the unusual features was the presence of two pulpits. Do they have vicars in each of them? One proposing a view, the other opposing it - or is it a form of clerical stereo?
The church and Guildhall are only a few minutes from St Paul’s Cathedral, the late 17th century creation of Sir Christopher Wren. I did contemplate going in but the £16 entry fee was excessive for the 40 minutes I had available. Another time.