Three shows at the Photographers’ Gallery
Three different yet linked exhibitions are showing at The Photographers’ Gallery, their mutual concerns offering insight about how photographic images can represent social change. ‘Mass Observation’ on Levels 1 and 2 focuses on a project begun in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, journalist and poet Charles Madge, and Surrealist painter and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Meshing social science, art and documentary, anonymous Mass Observation (MO) observers worked alongside professional photographers to form, in their words, an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, in the hope that ‘a more unified society’ would be created.
The section ‘This is Your Photo: Part One’ explores the period 1937-48. Directives to participants quirkily ranged from overhearing pub conversation to noting mantlepiece ornaments. Beautifully curated, written accounts of British circus life sit alongside John Hinde portraits of village babies being bathed by the hearth and a vintage suitcase from 1938 filled with magazines. Combined, the exhibits offer graphic, touching portholes into the past.
As the war unfolded and gathered speed, MO’s focus shifted from framing the voices of those less heard to collecting responses on subjects ranging from sex, happiness, spying, shopping and attitudes to political personalities – at the British government’s behest. By 1970, the MO archive was housed at the University of Sussex.
A decade later, this fluid social enterprise was once more open to change. In the section ‘This is Your Photo: Part Two’ that covers the period 1981-2012, gone are visions of a bygone era, replaced by something much closer. This time, MO’s brief was distilled into strictly first person testimony. Participants were required to send in photographs and offer detailed written accounts, the emphasis being on “self-expression, candour and a willingness to provide a vivid social commentary.” It’s a fascination justified: the thrill of the voyeur, of leafing through a diary, is offered in the exhibition, with echoes of Granada Television’s Up Series or Big Brother. Snapshots, pristine behind glass frames, are presented as if from family albums. These are nostalgic, lovingly archived snapshots into our past, or at least, a more general past – depending on how we frame ourselves in connection to these images.
It is the English made exotic. Bulging with paraphernalia, it’s an archive interesting despite, or because of, its seeming banality. There is comfort in the lives of ourselves, or those like ourselves, being considered worthy of attention. Maps, cars, homes, journals, cookers, villages – all are available in this medley of preservation. And there are echoes of post-modernism. A tourist taking a photograph is watched by us, in turn watched (and later deleted) by CCTV. Yet with ever-evolving technologies such as digital photography comes the possibility of loss. As part of the project, a 52 year-old male science teacher from Belfast wrote in 2012, “I am convinced that there is something tangible and meaningful in print, in the physical existence of an object…”
On the third floor, ‘Mark Neville – Deed’s not Words’ bluntly shows the impact of art when meshed with social activism. Neville’s 2011 not-for-sale photo-book, made in conjunction with The Wellcome Trust, details the rise and decline of the Scottish steel industry and the legal battles of those Corby families whose children (named the Corby 16) had been affected by toxic waste. Delivered to 433 local authorities and international environmental agencies, citing links between chemical pollutants and birth defects, the book aimed to provide information ‘about land reclamation, toxins and the dangers and issues involved’.
Neville’s journey negotiates youth, age, body image, communal values, beauty and class. Ben Bursting a Balloon (2011) opens the exhibition. Three frames show a young boy popping a red balloon, the balloon’s visual allure alternating with that of Ben Vissian’s childish, pristine beauty. The triptych’s final frame depicts the sharp pin held in the boy’s hand, puncturing negative space. In a sleight of hand, the viewer’s gaze is distracted by the balloon’s cranberry potency against a blacked-out background. Yet on closer inspection, the absence of the boy’s two missing fingers is clear. The triptych is repeated in black and white with a pimpled, older teenager. George Taylor screws his eyes against the camera’s gaze, his three-fingered hand visible, the skin’s surface rippled and smeared as if from acid. In the final frame, the comparison hits like a punch – there is the hand, less-than, and there is the balloon, no longer the expected, smooth, air-borne circle. Both hand and balloon are irreversibly altered.
Neville uses iconic, recognisable symbols further in the exhibition. In Frankie and Deano, Grampian Club (2011) an elderly couple dance to a working men’s club singer, in echoes of a Soprano’s episode. Equally, this could be a Grayson Perry RA tapestry tableaux. And like Perry, this is social commentary merged with art, engaged in questioning where the tensions need to lie between the two. These are not casual snapshots, but frames shot by a serious artist. An empty Wimpy bar heightens the desolate expressions of a couple, while the faded red of the restaurant’s plastic tables depress them further into bucket seats. Elsewhere, teenagers shot in black-and-white in a club are sumptuously draped in chiaroscuro, forever caught in the crucial split-second the photographer was quick enough to click on. In Adrenalin Alley, Weldon North Industrial Estate (2011) a row of boys on bikes stare blankly into the camera, their tough physical stances clashing with the softness of their youth.
Neville’s use of colour aggressively pulls the viewer’s gaze into the eye-line of the frame. A lime-green fence rears against a grey, overcast sky. A close-up of a third, blue deflated balloon encourages us to further probe the experiences of the three-fingered person gripping it. Using the refrains, repetitions, returns and rewards of an artistic eye, Neville never loses sight of the social context driving the assemblage of his images. Not for him the exorbitant prices of art. Instead, a free poster in conjunction with The Photographers’ Gallery, The Wellcome Trust and Creative Scotland, hand-wrapped by a Photographers’ Gallery staff member, text on the back outlining the Corby 16. A canny way to disseminate information. Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, comments, ‘Mark Neville confronts the dialectic which lies at the heart of representing individual suffering, challenging us to reconsider the photo’s ability to generate protest and affect political change.’ Without being sinister or sacharine, Neville’s exhibition has impact – and is more likely to spread awareness and incite activism.
Downstairs in Print Sales, John Hinde’s idealistic postcards remind us either of the holidays we’ve been on or those we may hope to take. Achill Island, Co, Ireland cradles us into a picture-perfect, or postcard-perfect, view, glittering sea swooning out from the frame. Months of careful restoration work have brought these images back to life – and ready for commercial sale. Hinde’s images speak of aspiration and holiday ease, ’60s and ’70s Britain wrought in specific palettes of acid, highly saturated colours. The presence of the original, larger images alongside depicts in more naturalistic tones the ’60s sprawl of caravans facing the sea, well-dressed summer crowds massing at Battersea Park Lido, or the dusk-sharpness of Piccadilly, the fizz and night-time whirl of a fairground picked out in electric lights. Yet the perspective is vertiginous – viewers are often pushed full-throttle into wide-open space. While Hinde’s photographs were, in the words of The Photographers’ Gallery press pack literature, ‘meticulously staged, sometimes taking weeks to achieve while waiting for the right weather conditions, and processed in Italy where colour processing was more advanced’ these images are so iconic it feels almost as though we’ve seen them before – and we probably have.
Hinde’s postcards never received critical acclaim, yet his style led to a raft of photographers, including Martin Parr, working within his authorial inheritance. However, questions of authenticity arise. Only one of the images on sale is taken by John Hinde. The rest are by a team of photographers trained in Hinde’s instantly recognisable style. In Battersea Park Lido, by photographer Elmer Ludwig, a little girl marches nakedly toward a fountain. In the postcard, a pair of modesty-giving shorts have been painted on. Which has more authenticity, the postcard, or the original print? The image taken by John Hinde, or his carefully trained team?
Reflected realities, who has the right to be framed or given a voice, authenticity and versions of ‘real’ – these are some of the issues posed by all three exhibitions. Prepare yourselves for a long visit to The Photographers’ Gallery, or drop by in the knowledge you’ll be soon be returning.
Mass Observation and Mark Neville: Deeds not Words will be at The Photographers’ Gallery until 29 September 2013 and John Hinde: Postcards, until 6 October 2013.
This review was first published in August 2013 on the online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine.