Reading: How We Are–Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present

This book of the 2007 exhibition of the same name which was curated by Val Williams and Susan Bright was a very useful summary of the recent section I studied on “A British Tradition”. As well as a useful variety of work from the period, there were some useful essays. The introduction sets out what the book is not, and what it aspires to be – a celebration of the diversity of British photography and how over many years photography has challenged the concepts of art and documentary. It has held up a mirror to a constantly changing and evolving society, so much so that very little, be it earth shattering or trivial, goes unrecorded in modern society.

At the start of the book the authors reflected on the tendency for the British to be seen constantly looking back to a better time when the nation was at its greatest, the landscapes before the industrial revolution, simpler times but also times of great innovation and change. They also talked about our obsession with ourselves, the strange characters and costumes we find amongst our traditions, celebrities, worthies, working men and women, heroes, antagonists and drunkards are amongst our cast of thousands. Throughout the book, what is photographed doesn’t change much, people at work, people at play, nature, the sea, mountains, cars, animals, war, streets and buildings. What does change is how they are photographed and equally as important, who photographs them.

At the end of the book are two essays. The first by Kevin Jackson looks at us as if he was George Orwell and whether or not he would approve of the British today. Although I know little about what Orwell thought during his lifetime, Jackson seems to think that despite our shortcomings, we as a nation are still a family. The second essay by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr outlines the development of the practical techniques of the photographic process from the 1840s until today, highlighting that even early on, despite being invented and given a start in the upper class drawing rooms of Europe, it soon found its way to good solid commercial practice where at first everyone could afford their likeness to be taken and later for them to take and process their own films. Today of course without film, a whole new generation are growing with no idea of what life is like without constant recording of their lives and surroundings streamed to social media, often seen only as coloured  light on a screen. 

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