Mith the Royal Photographic Society, founded in London in 1853, one of the oldest societies in the world dedicated to the advancement of the science and art of photography is based in Great Britain. Nonetheless, it was well into the 20th century in the United Kingdom before photography, and above all documentary photography, was recognized and appreciated as an art form in its own right. In addition to a photojournalism that was committed to the moment and social photography that focused on their respective concerns, a new documentary photography gained in importance from the 1960s onwards, which was determined by the individual gaze of the photographer, who made himself independent of the object in front of the lens.
The British photographers of that time were influenced by American street photography and French, humanistically inspired reportage photography such as Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bressons and thus also by the other photographers of the Magnum agency, as well as older German models such as August Sander or Otto Steinert. Against this background, photographers such as John Bulmer, David Hurn or Tony Ray-Jones quickly found their very own powerful imagery, which paved the way for a whole generation of outstanding documentary photographers. Among them are world stars like Martin Parr, but also a number of names who are more likely to be known in specialist circles, but whose work does not even want to hide a certain “Britishness”.
A powerful imagery
No fewer than 47 of these photographers are now represented with individual works or series in the “Facing Britain” show curated by Ralph Goertz in the Kunsthalle Darmstadt, which adds up to an impressive retrospective of British documentary photography from the early 1960s to 2020. The time span was not chosen by chance, as it depicts the phase in which Great Britain belongs to Europe. In 1963 the United Kingdom made its first application to join the European Economic Community (EEC), and on January 31, 2020, Great Britain left the European Union (“Brexit”). Since then, the island state has once again played a special role, which means that the viewer of the around 250 works hanging in the Kunsthalle can also see a closed chapter of history that, depending on age or socialization with student exchange and language courses, may even have been very close.
And even if not, the exhibition shows facets of everyday British life as well as events of contemporary history in sometimes captivating, sometimes depressing, sometimes humorous, sometimes deadly serious images. However, Goertz did not include a chronology of the events in the conception of the show; nor do the works of contemporaries hang together, but rather similar subjects are the connection between the black-and-white and color photographs in small, medium and large formats and analogue and digital, which Goertz often borrowed from the artists themselves.
In fascinating series you can immerse yourself in the days of “Rock against Racism” with Syd Shelton, suffer from everyday consumer terror with Paul Reas’ “I Can Help” or get to know the world of Caribbean immigrants in North West London with Roy Mehta; Peter Mitchell and John Bulmer show the decline of mining and industrial sites and Fran May with their series “London Brick Lane” or Tish Murtha with “Youth Unemployment” document the effects of the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s on British society.
Famous series such as Tom Wood’s “Looking For Love” from 1982, which is about celebrating young people, and of course Martin Parr’s almost iconic photographs “The Last Resort” on British beach bathing culture show that the British did not freeze in agony. This also fascinated Kevin O’Farrell, who found his motifs in Northern Ireland, the place of senseless armed conflict like the Falkland Islands, which Jon Tonks paid a visit in 2013 and there created one of the most powerful images of the show. It shows some sheep that have gathered around a flagpole with a Union Jack on a desert island. It looks like a symbol for today’s Great Britain.
The exhibition “Facing Britain” can be seen from September 4, 2021 to January 9, 2022 in Darmstadt in the Kunsthalle, Steubenplatz 1. Opening times: Wed to Sun 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.