Britain's Bigger Picture

by Linda Benedict-Jones

British Photography: Toward a Bigger Picture is not a coffee-table book. While it includes many high quality reproductions of photographs, it also includes seven essays. And while the essays are not long, neither are they shallow. With much grist for the mill, it is a welcome addition to the current world of photography books.

For anglophiles, this book creates a yearning to have seen the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, “British Photography: Into the 1990s,” which it was produced to accompany. This is certainly the case for me. It has been a decade since I visited Great Britain, after living and teaching photography there for several years at the end of the seventies. My last photographic involvement – in 1981 – was researching material for both my master’s thesis and an exhibition, “Ten Contemporary British Photographers,” first shown at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With that as my reference point, I came to the present book with much curiosity and was encouraged by the vitality of the work revealed between its covers.

The volume opens with “Where We’ve Come From: Aspects of Postwar British Photography” by Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a prolific author. Early in the essay, Haworth-Booth lauds the contributions of England’s own Bill Brandt – “Is there a British photographer who has not learned from him?” – and other postwar photographers such as John Deakin, Nigel Henderson, and Roger Mayne. He also talks about photographers Tony Ray-Jones, Raymond Moore, and the celebrated war photographer Don McCullin, all of whom are quite familiar to a photo-educated American audience.

Haworth-Booth notes that in 1983, McCullin was barred by the Ministry of Defense from photographing the Falkland War, which Britain waged in the South Atlantic after Argentina invaded the tiny islands. “I still work for the Sunday Times, but they don’t use me,” McCullin said in a 1984 interview. “I stand around in the offices and don’t know why I’m there. The paper has completely changed. It’s not a newspaper, it’s a consumer magazine, really no different from a mail-order catalog.” In these comments, Americans hear echoes of the treatment accorded to journalists six years later when a half-million U.S. troops headed off to the Persian Gulf. Haworth-Booth also cites the works of Hannah Collins, who, like McCullin, tackled the Falkland Islands conflict but from a distance, using local materials and the cyanotype process.

This opening essay is an engaging piece of writing, although it included a few too many names, which occasionally interfered with the flow of thought. In some respects, this is an inevitable problem. Wishing no doubt to make his essay an exhaustive survey, Haworth-Booth acknowledges that for him, it is incomplete. He concludes with the hope that it “will serve as a fruitful source of ideas and imagery for the new work of the 1990s – work that will both draw on and challenge the traditions that have preceded it.”

In “Landscape and the Fall,” Chris Titterington, assistant curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, sketches out a historical survey of landscape photography, claiming that until Americans added formalism as an element in the 1950s, it was basically a picturesque genre. This is an important and well-written essay that suffers for one unfortunate reason: after making compelling points about many new people, Titterington leaves us with only a brief glimpse, or no glimpse at all, of their visual work. He cannot be blamed for this, of course. It sums up, however, one of the main frustrations of this book: there simply are not enough photographs. The other problem, which is not evident until one begins to read the book, is that many of the photographs are in the wrong places.

For years I have lamented the lack of attention those on this side of the Atlantic have paid to British photographers. I have applauded all attempts to correct this imbalance, and this book is no exception. It amounts to no more than an hor d’oeuvre, though; somehow the chef snuck out before the entrée was served. The book whets our appetite with a sumptuous list of photographers’ names in each of the essays, but leaves us feeling hungry for the menu items that never reach our plate.

Thankfully, in the purely photographic essay “Thatcher’s Britain,” editors Charles Hagen and nan Richardson do afford us one parade of images from a familiar cast of the 1980s: Paul Trevor, Brian Griffin, Victor Burgin, Paul Graham, Martin Parr, and Chris Steele-Perkins, plus a few others. Together they offer us visual information to help establish a context for the theme of the book. The content of the photographs is far from reassuring, but in the company of such hearty essays, it is a necessary treat for the right side of the brain.

Susan Butler, former editor of Creative Camera, contributes a compelling essay titled “Between Frames,” in which she explores connections between individual photographic works and entire continents of thought. First she clearly describes, then analyzes a photographer’s work. Her treatment of Yve Lomax’s Divergent Series, for example, is succinct, clear, and illuminating. Lomax, it seems, uses montage techniques to toy with narrative expectations in way not unlike what Jean-Luc Godard did cinematically. The viewer’s participation in interpreting the piece is vital, though different viewers, of course, will have different interpretations. I was game to try and then was disappointed to find but two examples of the work many pages later in the book. Ironically, Butler’s essay concludes with a mere four sentences on the photographers who have the most visual presence in the ten-page piece – Helene Chadwick, Verdi Yahooda, Mari Mahr, and Karen Knorr – an unfortunate apportionment in that their work deserves more commentary and theirs is the work we have been experiencing visually while ingesting the thought-provoking text.

The flaws in the book layout reached their zenith for me in Butler’s piece. I found it aggravating that there were not page references to the work about which I was reading. Keith Arnatt’s work is a good example: I note that the front page of the book indicates that his work is included; I’m reading along, immersed in two compelling paragraphs about him, but can’t find his most recent work. In perusing the book, yet again, in search of the photograph in question, my train of thought is disturbed, and in the final analysis, I am disturbed. Did the editors think this would be regarded as a coffee table book to be looked at and not read? I wish they would have known that some people would actually want to fully digest the product they were making. As a reader of the words, the pictures, and the relationship between them, I consider these book-layout aggravations to be significant. At first glace the book appears well synchronized, a healthy blend of images and text. Scratch the surface (i.e., read the essays) and the choreography falls apart.

Despite this frustration over layout, the quality of the writing and the information the book contained kept me going. Gilane Tawadros, education officer at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, opens her essay, “Other Britains, Other Britons,” with a quotation about the unique perspective black people have on society given that they are made to feel like outsiders: “The black man or woman who is born here and grew up here has something special to contribute to Western civilization. He or she will participate in it, see it from birth, but will never be quite completely in it” (C.L.R. James, Ten.8, 1984). In what was perhaps the most cogent essay of the book, Tawadros introduces us to photographers whose images (at last!) are conveniently reproduced with the text that accompanies them. A number of the photographers she cites belong to a group called D-Max, the technical term that refers to the maximum density of which a given photographic emulsion is capable. For the group of black photographers in Britain, it “alludes to the photographers’ awareness of the aesthetic and political plurality of blackness in British society,” writes Tawadros.

One photographer to exhibit with D-Max, Ingrid Pollard, created a series called Pastoral Interludes, set in the celebrated Lake District, an area that more or less epitomizes the “authentic” British countryside of eighteenth century landscape as depicted in both paintings and poems. This romantic region continues to be a metaphor of individual freedom for the British middle classes. I need only close my eyes and I can imagine it easily on posters, postcards, and, yes, tea and biscuit tins throughout Britain. Pollard uses this interpretation to explore issues of alienation when she presents a picture of a black woman against this idyllic, lush green background. The effect is startling because it is so unfamiliar. She maximizes the effect with the addition of a few words: “… it’s as if the black experience is only lived within an urban environment. I thought I liked the LAKE DISTRICT, where I wandered lonely as a BLACK face in a sea of white. A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease, dread…”

In “Through the Looking Glass Darkly,” Rosetta Brooks, editor of ZG magazine, gives another perspective of Britain with her fascinating treatise on the era of mass consumerism after World War II and the twists and turns of this phenomenon to the present day. She comments on the decades as they rolled by after the war, providing an analysis of various forms of popular culture, from film to fashion. When Brooks addresses the 1980s, she provides a glimpse, reinforced frequently in contemporary British cinema, of a significantly splintered society. She believes that this societal breakup may provoke many British photographers, such as John Hilliard and Susan Trangmar, among others, to deal with issues of identity and community in their work.

The final essays in the book by David Mellor and Michael O’Pray offer yet other perspectives on the rich field of image-makers in Britain today. O’Pray, film and video critic for Art Monthly, focuses his attention specifically on the moving image and provides us with a veritable laundry list of films to rent on the weekend or to watch for at the local art cinema. His essay does not shy away from an occasional discussion of money, since producing film, as is news to no one, is an expensive undertaking.

The strength of the British tradition was always the documentary approach. In the early 1980s, I forecasted that this tradition would be self-sustaining. While I think this can still be argued, it is equally important to now recognize that photographers in Great Britain have an enormously large repertoire of styles and approaches to their credit. New voices have emerged; prior forms of expression have been challenged. The “Bigger Picture” of this book’s title is not just about the growing numbers of photographers in Great Britain today, though that is not significant. It is more about the conceptual expansion of expression as it is now informed more than ever by critical theory, politics, fashion, cinema, popular culture, and even technical innovation in the medium. Documentary alone is clearly no longer a sufficient definition.

In his opening essay, Haworth-Booth states that in the recent past British photographers have adopted a large part of the American tradition as their own. American photographers should not be content to accept this as a one-way street. They, in turn, can profit from lessons learned from abroad. This book is a good step in that direction.

Linda Benedict-Jones is curator of the Polaroid Collection in Cambridge, Massachusetts.