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"This is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s" at the National Gallery of Art in DC

It’s been a busy year for many of us, as the “go to” British historians called upon by American media outlets to provide context for one Royal event after another, from Queen Elizabeth II’ s Jubilee to her funeral a few months later, and most recently, the Coronation of Charles III. Experience has taught me that most interviewers want a cozy sound bite for their audience and any mention of the Royals’ ties to slavery, the legacy of colonialism, or Brexit, are often edited out. Meanwhile the recent death of Mary Quant revived images in the press of Mod miniskirts and 1960s Swinging London—the nostalgia for which still lures tourists to a now very different looking Carnaby Street. And so, the National Gallery of Art’s photo exhibit, This is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s makes for an interesting contrast to the Britain of many Americans’ imagination, taking museum goers back to the 1970s and ‘80s of economic recession, The Troubles, race riots, forgotten towns not on the tourist’s map, and of course, Thatcherism.


A black and white image showing a young black boy, eight years old, stands proudly next to his bicycle. A Union Jack flag flies from the right handlebar.
Vanley Burkey, Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park, 1970, printed 2022. Currently on display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Curated by Kara Felt, Ph.D., an assistant curator of art at the Denver Botanic Gardens and former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in the National Gallery of Art's Department of Photographs, the exhibit contains 46 prints (mostly black and white) and a few issues of British photo magazines of the period. The photos certainly show the decades of decline in Britain, but more importantly, they are evidence of what one of the photographers, Vanley Burke, said in a virtual conversation with his fellow exhibitor, Mark Sealy, that even the most “precarious lives” displayed on the gallery walls were “not just passing through.” The exhibit gives us multiple versions of what it means to “be British” as a generation of socially conscious photographers expose issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality that threaten inclusivity during these two tumultuous decades.


A Jamaican born chronicler of Black British life in Birmingham since the 1960s, Burke urges his fellow Black Britons in that same conversation to “manage [their] own image,” to collect all their “bits and bobs… hats… and hymns and recipes” to tell their stories. Hats are on display on some of his subjects featured in Young Men on a See Saw, Handsworth Park, Birmingham (1984). They appear to range in age from 10-19, and they all look in different directions, balanced precariously on that see saw, in what Burke says represents a kind of “no man’s land” against the backdrop of racist aggression against their community in the 1980s.


The exhibit also includes the hour-long film, Handsworth Songs, made in 1986 by the Black Audio Film Collective and directed by John Akomfrah for Channel Four’s series, Britain: The Lie of the Land. The newsreels and still photographs of the 1985 riots featured in Handsworth Songs provide context for the racism directed against the Black community in Birmingham in the 1980s. Burke’s most well-known photograph, Boy with a Bike (1970) also appears in the film, and the subject of that photograph, Winford Fagan, was previously featured in The Guardian, where he was asked to describe what he was thinking when Burke took his photo, aged 8, posed with the Union Jack gracing his bike: “I think it has become so memorable because of the flag: we were black British, and to see a black person with the flag in that way is surprising.” But at the time of the photograph, his 8 year old self felt mostly pride, that he’d built that bike over months from “bits and bobs.” He wasn’t thinking at the time about whether he was Jamaican or British: “I picked the flag because I liked how it look.”


A black and white image shows a large field, with the edge of trees along the bottom left side. In the center distance, four massive cooling towers stand out against the landscape.
John Davies, Agecroft Power Station, Salford, 1983. Currently on display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Other photos on display tell the story of deindustrialization and class precarity. John Davies’ image of Agecroft Power Station, Salford (1983) is a clever take on the pastoral: there’s a light mist in the air that surrounds the four towering chimneys but then you spot in the far left bottom corner behind some large tree branches a white horse surrounded by trash and parked cars, while what looks like runoff from the cooling station must surely threaten the health of the men playing football in the nearby fields, dwarfed in size by the massive chimneys behind them. A private prison now stands where those towers once did, but I’m not sure if that fact should make us nostalgic for power stations or just angry over privatization that neo-liberals continue to champion. Graham Smith’s The Queen’s Pub, Southbank Middlesbrough (1981) continues the theme of decline. Turning his camera to the once thriving industries in the north east of England, he shows two men, possibly unemployed, idly passing the day, one staring at a blurry image on the pub’s TV, the other just staring into space, as the shipyard outside the grainy window seems to have come to a halt. Chris Killip meanwhile captures the unemployed in coal mining communities in the early ‘80s, some living in caravans and their wives (or girlfriends) forging their own community over cups of tea heated over a campfire.


Finnish photographer, Sirkka Liisa Konttinen blends gender and class commentary as she documents the Byker neighborhood of Newcastle in the 1970s before its Victorian terraced houses are set for demolition as part of a redevelopment project. Her photo Young Couple in a Backyard on a Summer Day raises more questions than it answers. The shirtless man and his T-shirted wife both have wet hair but it’s unclear if they are soaked from a recent rainfall or from the intense heat. He seems to have pinned her against the graffitied brick wall as his hand clasps hers, but it’s difficult to read if this is a loving embrace or a threatening one, as the child in the hooded raincoat, providing protection not from the heat but from something unspoken, stares miserably at the ground. The embrace in Gills Peress’ Summer Evening, Belfast (1989) is much less ambiguous. The young man is quite content to be pinned against the wall by his girlfriend, oblivious to the third wheel next to them, as well as the dreariness of their surroundings and a nearby street fire. Young love will thrive anywhere, despite The Troubles.


A colorful vintage photograph depicting a red bench and those around it. An older couple sits on the right side of the bench, snacking. To the left side, a young child in a stroller is visible in frame, crying.
Martin Parr, from The Last Resort series, 1983-1986. Currently on display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

There are other moments of joy captured by some of the photographs. William Meyers’ Wall Street Journal Review describes the people in Martin Parr’s photos as “graceless subjects” and compares Parr to Cruikshank, but I refuse to look at these photos to make fun of his subjects. Parr’s photos are among the few in color, as his The Last Resort series shows middle- and working-class families enjoying the seaside in New Brighton in the mid-80s. In one photo, an older couple eats their fish and chips while a toddler enjoys what may be his first ice cream cone, with a trash bin perched precariously above his head. There’s an element of defiance in these photos, that small pleasures can be had anywhere, even surrounded by litter and concrete. Belfast during The Troubles or a decaying seaside resort in the 1980s become mere backdrop for universal, inexpensive pleasures of sweets and kisses.


Those who wouldn’t be caught dead at New Brighton are the subjects of Karen Knorr’s photographs. Her Gentlemen series (1981-83) takes us inside the hallowed walls of an upper-class private gentlemen’s club. The photograph, accompanied by the caption, "Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled, So far have Standards Fallen," shows a young man in a pinstriped suit at a table reading a newspaper with a headline that reads "London Turns Left." Anna Fox’s photos of London corporate culture showcase greed and gluttony, one man stuffing his face, others smugly partying and proud to have Thatcher’s photo above their desks. Viewing these images, obviously intended as a negative commentary on Thatcher’s Britain, alongside Chris Steele-Perkins, Hypnosis Demonstration, Cambridge University Ball (1980–1989), with its tuxedoed and gowned undergraduates gliding comfortably across the stage as they will likely glide through life, it’s difficult not to think of more recent images in the media, such as Boris Johnson and his fellow Tories having wine parties while Britons in pandemic lockdown mourned for family members lost to Covid-19.


A color photograph of two men standing next to the river in London across from Parliament.
Sunil Gupta, Untitled #1 from the series "Pretended" Family Relationships, 1988, printed 2020. Currently on display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Having lived through these two decades myself, the past on display at the National Gallery doesn’t feel very remote at all. Yes, the Little Chefs of Paul Graham’s photos of the A1 have been replaced with Starbucks and Subway chains, but austerity cuts continue in 2023, child poverty is on the rise, and current attempts to roll back rights fought for in the 1960s-70s are accompanied by cries against “woke culture” from Britain’s right (much like in the US). Sunil Gupta’s Untitled #1 (1988), part of his larger project, Pretended Family Relationship, feels sadly relevant again as certain members of Britain’s LGBTQ+ community are being told they don’t have a right to exist. In the late ‘80s, Gupta combined portraiture with photojournalism to protest Clause 28 (as introduced by Thatcher, and in place until 2003, Clause 28 was a legislative designation for a series of laws across Britain that prohibited the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” by local authorities). Most of the frame in Untitled #1 is occupied by Gupta posing with his then partner, with Parliament in the background, while a side panel on the right shows demonstrators facing a mounted police officer, and in the middle of the frame, part of a poem by Gupta’s lover laments: “I call you my love/though you are not my love/and it breaks my heart to tell you." The Gallery’s website for the exhibit includes a lecture by a now much older Gupta reflecting on his youthful activism. He reminds us that “everything is not cool now…politics are complicated and it’s wise not to turn your back on it because it comes and bites you when you’re not looking.”


We may feel nostalgic for an imagined past where white horses roam through landscapes devoid of trash and runoff, but it’s also too easy to rely on the narrative of “decline” in relation to the late twentieth century. This Is Britain is a powerful visual reminder that trash and runoff, like proudly displayed Union Jacks on bikes, furtive kisses, and power suits on posh Londoners, are just some of the “bits and bobs” that make this history worth revisiting.


This is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s runs until June 11, 2023.


 

Julie Anne Taddeo is Research Professor of History at University of Maryland, College Park. Her most recent publications include Rape in Period Drama Television: Consent, Myth, and Fantasy (co-athored with Katherine Byrne, Lexington, 2022); Diagnosing History: Medicine in Television Period Drama (co-edited with Katherine Byrne and James Leggott, Manchester University Press, 2022); Writing Australian History on Screen: Television and Film Period Dramas "Down Under" (co-edited with Jo Parnell, Lexington, 2023).


 

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