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June 07, 2007

Lilian Pizzichini enjoys viewing a family album of the British and decides there is life in the old country yet: How We Are: Photographing Britain at Tate Britain

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

How We Are: Photographing Britain
Tate Britain, London
22nd May - 2nd September 2007
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

William Henry Fox Talbot provides the first example of a photograph in this intelligent exhibition. It is entitled Nelson's Column under Construction, and was taken, as a salt print, at some point around 1845. It conveys very neatly the idea of a nation constructing itself. This is not so much an exhibition of photography but on national identity as it has been caught by the camera's lens. There have been quite a few exhibitions in the past year or so examining, even tangentially, the notion of Britishness. What has come across, even if the thrust of these shows has been, say, the history of British newspapers, or the opening of our national film archive, is an abiding sense of a nation examining itself pictorially.

A sense of identity is, in the first instance, attached to an image of oneself, so it is no coincidence that we resort to pictures when defining our notion of who we are collectively. There have, of course, been the books: Julian Barnes's England, England (1998), A.A. Gill's The Angry Island: Hunting the English (2005) and Jeremy Paxman's The English: A Portrait of a People (1998). But what Tate Britain provides is, as Kevin Jackson points out in the accompanying catalogue, a "family album" that chronicles the shifting shapes of Britishness.

Interestingly, there is not much, after Talbot, to do with the Empire or any sense of aspirational politicking. There are lots of rural shots which conjure the lost pastoral idyll and dying habits, industries and landscapes. We are a hopelessly nostalgic lot, it would seem, and this Proustian search for lost time seeps into our every art form (maybe that's why our novelists fare so much better when examining the past).

The Portuguese have a musical tradition, Fado, that gets to the heart of the Portuguese soul. It is the oldest urban folk music in the world. Some say it came as a dance from Africa in the 19th century and was adopted by the poor on the streets of Lisbon. Or perhaps it started at sea as sad, melodic songs coaxed from the rolling waves by homesick sailors and fishermen. The sense of loss gives rise to a poetic outpouring that can never compensate for that loss, merely reiterate it over and over again - trying to grasp at the thing that is lost and bring it back to oneself. It is a similar sense of loss of identity, of custom, of what is known and familiar that inspires many of the photographers here at Tate Britain.

What binds us together as British people is the recollection of what is lost, their mental images, it soon becomes clear. As cinema, television, design and photography began to replace Morris dancing, cheese rolling, cottage industries and social clubs, our national identity was reinforced through pictorial representations.

Arthur J. Munby took it upon himself to make images of 19th-century labouring women. Pit girls, milkmaids and fisherwomen, studiously dirtied for the camera, were assembled before his lens to have their portraits taken. Munby's fascination - whether fetishistic or politically motivated - has that air of romanticism all these photographs possess. The dignity of labour, the distress of poverty are dressed up for our delectation. Particularly poignant are the photographs of children for an early Barnardo's publicity drive. The boys are presented as "before" and "after" case studies. The "before" images see them ragged, filthy and destitute, the "after" images see them brushed up, bushy-tailed and industrious. Their eyes, however, give them away: wary, anxious, bewildered.

There is a lot of posing involved in being British. The photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, and the invention of the teenager, sees Mods, immigrants and assorted celebs giving it large for the camera. But the celebrities look dim and tarnished next to the real thing: the British people. It is as if, in taking their photographs - these working women, street urchins, Mods, and Jamaicans hanging out in Notting Hill - the photographers believed that what was in front of them was disappearing. And what was disappearing was somehow better, had more integrity and purity, than the present and the fast-approaching future that threatens to engulf the past. What comes across is a very British attachment to what is ordinary (we are a nation of shop-keepers, after all). Photography as the Brits do it,

gives the everyday a grandeur that only a love of tradition and the past could produce,
as Susan Bright, the co-curator explains.

This love of tradition continues in contemporary photographers, except now it is imbued with irony. There is no grandeur any more. We're too wise for that. But, more practically speaking, photography as a medium is democratic. Anyone can take a photograph any time. We have cameras embedded in our mobile phones: we are all reporters and chroniclers of the image. Martin Parr points out in the excellent catalogue that accompanies this exhibition (and which focuses on the technical advances in photography as well as its theoretical implications) that the digital revolution has returned us to the do-it-yourself roots of Fox Talbot, the father of British photography. There is a difference, though: Fox Talbot belonged to a middle-class elite. Everyone has a mobile phone and a camera these days.

The subjects we like to photograph are just the same. Tate Britain brings us bang up to date with Martin Parr's (www.martinparr.com)radical images of a so-called classless society. His images are cruelly over-exposed portraits designed to discomfort and tease. Brilliant in their honesty and colour tones - he never fails to arrest his viewer.

There are other photographers currently at work who do similar things, and who are not featured here. A duo, called the caravan gallery (www.thecaravangallery.co.uk), take photographs of contemporary Britain and print them in the guise of traditional holiday postcards. Greetings from Hackney shows familiar urban scenes in all their grittiness and griminess juxtaposed with ludicrously cheerful typeface. A portrait of the River Thames is superbly ironic. Four images of slushy grey water with a few miserable ducks bobbing about are dissected by a bold orange cross with the words "River Thames" emblazoned in white. There is nothing to look at here except deeply polluted waters - except, except - there are signs of hope. Nature resurfaces in the shape of straggling ducks. This is no pastoral idyll - something the caravan gallery are quick to send up - but there are signs of life in the old country yet.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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