93. ‘An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain’

BOY-DESTROYING-PIANO-WALES-1961-by-PHILIP-JONES-GRIFFITHS-BHC1031

BOY DESTROYING PIANO,WALES, 1961 by PHILIP-JONES

The week since then has been your first without teaching work since perhaps last Xmas. Your mind and body give themselves up to rest, not really wanting to do anything very much. You lie around, reading and sleeping, idling and feeling that your body is as battered as your mind and spirit.

Gradually you get your energy back and its time for your own serious writing, book designing and book making, music and art projects, funding applications and a little park walking or just going about town with no rush or particular aim.

As Blog posting time approaches it’s ‘An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain‘ (at Beetles & Huxley gallery) that seems the most appropriate experience to write about. There are two subjects here by which you have been diverted and distracted all of your life. One is Photography and the other is Class in Britain.

You have written and spoken about and practiced (you might say) them both, extensively and for almost as long as you can recall. Nevertheless you start writing this post with a little trepidation, not least because you have not arrived at any conclusions concerning either  – despite all the energy you have given them, despite all the ‘angles’ by which you have ‘approached’ them, despite all the highs and lows they have brought to your life’s narrative.

This also makes it difficult to know where or how to start, but you have two ideas: 1. go through the images generously supplied by the gallery on its website, recalling those that  struck you most forcefully and describing your response; and: 2. try to write an explanation of just what this medium (Photography) can contribute to this cultural phenomenon or content (Class in Britain). Perhaps you can do all of this, even though you have only 430 words of your weekly word-count limit remaining.

COAL-MINERS-HOUSES-WITHOUT-WINDOWS-TO-THE-STREET-1930S-by-BILL-BRANDT-BHC1025

COAL MINERS HOUSES WITHOUT WINDOWS TO THE STREET, 1930s, by BILL BRANDT

The still photograph is notorious for lying, at least in the way that it tells us next to nothing about what it portrays, other than all it captured in a fraction of a second (i.e.nothing before nor after, and nothing beyond the frame), other than that which the photographer selected and shaped and enhanced, in such a way as to aim to tell us certain things about that subject. Hence we might think the photograph tends towards reductivism, stereotype and caricature (a noble art in its own right of course).

The more you write the more you feel Photography is once again laughing at your inability to comprehend or contain it in mere words. And so you are drawn back to the images themselves, which sometimes seem to have supplanted not only the long proud history of painting but that of writing, speaking and explicating too.

Photographs, as well as being so very selective and restrictive, also say sooooo much, so much that chattering before them and about them soon seems superfluous. Walter Benjamin noted the significance of the fact that they generated their own tradition of accompanying captions. Some also adopted witty titles developed from genre painting traditions.

But when you find yourself becoming the caption for a photograph, as if, despite your attempts the photograph has nevertheless left you outside and beyond it, making connections which are merely arbitrary and never essential or intrinsic to the photograph itself, then it may be time desist, to restrain yourself, to close your mouth, switch off your intellect, close your Thesaurus and default back to the eye.

OUTSIDE-THE-PISS-HOUSE-PUB-PORTOBELLO-ROAD-1968-by-CHARLIE-PHILLIPS-BHC1055

OUTSIDE THE PISS HOUSE PUB, PORTOBELLO ROAD, 1968, by CHARLIE PHILLIPS

TUINOL-BARRY-CHELSEA-LONDON-1981-by-DEREK-RIDGERS-BHC1081

TUINOL BARRY, CHELSEA LONDON, 1981, by DEREK RIDGERS

It’s our eye, often meeting the eyes of others here, that invariably moves us most. The working class seem particularly good at staring into the camera, while the suburban middle class, and privileged ‘Toffs’ from public schools tend rather to be captured at a slight distance and from angles which do not allow them to respond with that steely ‘despite everything’ working class pride.

All the shame and all the intractable pain of class is here, in this extensive exhibition in this modest-sized West End gallery. However, that shame and that pain is often so aestheticised by the photographic medium that only those living subjects who can actually recall or sufficiently imagine living powerlessly, vulnerably, fearfully, wretchedly, in windowless back-to-back, 2-up-2-down houses, with outside toilets, and while working for a bare subsistence, with no National Health Service, and being repeatedly thrown on and off the dole queue at the whim of capitalism, industry and government, only they can see these photographs as other than art, and far more than ‘beautiful’ evocations of modern humanity’s extremes.

MAYOR-OF-TODMORDENS-INAUGURAL-BANQUET-CALDERDALE-1952-by-MARTIN-PARR-BHC1047

MAYOR OF TODMORDENS INAUGURAL BANQUET, CALDERDALE,1952, by MARTIN PARR

UNTITLED-HOTDOG-STAND-1983-85-by-MARTIN-PARR-c29120F

UNTITLED, HOTDOG STAND, 1983-85, by MARTIN PARR

Class and classism is basically hateful, it is something as painful and destructive to human lives as other kinds of monstrous wall-building, e.g. racism, sexism, colonialism, slavery, all of which, along with classism, we must hope and strive and demand will one day be consigned to ‘the dustbin of history.’

But while we live with it, and cannot escape it -however we might writhe, kick, swear, struggle, cry, try, try, try and try –  we can also perversely enjoy it, enjoy its extreme difference, see the funny side of it, and photographers of the British Class system seem to have always managed to do that very well, even if, the moment their shutter closed and they turned their eyes away, they left (as we in the UK have been shocked to discover in the past 6 years of reinvigorated Tory rule) that the whole insidious and intricate class system is pretty much untouched, unchanged and unchallenged by what we once called ‘progress’.

MAY-BALL-CAMBRIDGE-1983-by-JURGEN-SCHADEBERG-BHC1028

MAY BALL, CAMBRIDGE, 1983, by JURGEN SCHADEBERG

An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain

 

 

 

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