Strange and Familiar

Britain as revealed by international photographers


Exhibition Review – Manchester City Art Gallery

When this exhibition moved from the Barbican in London to Manchester it was noted that there were no images of Manchester life in the original. Alex Beldea, a Hungarian photographer, was commissioned to bring his own interpretation of the essence of Manchester and he asked a number of people who accessed the gallery’s learning programme to take him to a place where they feel a strong connection and there he produced his photograph for the exhibition.

An article from the Huffington post sums up the exhibition well.

“The recognisable symbols of British life; glass milk bottles on doorsteps, Jubilee street parties, football matches, miners, post-war concrete architecture and the class system, are all there to connect us with our cultural emblems. The photographs talk to our instinctual need to connect with the past, in order to make sense of the present; it is an unflinching account of all things that we look to for cultural comfort and pride, and at times shame.

The exhibition is curated by decade, starting from the voyeuristic black and whites from the 1930’s, up to the large and glaringly intimate portraits favoured by some of today’s photographers.

Starting in the mid-1930s with Edith Tudor-Hart’s images of London’s East End to the slum housing areas of Tyneside that capture the child welfare, unemployment and homelessness that characterised the interwar years. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images give us the celebratory spirit at the Coronation of King George VI, the work of Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht show the Swinging Sixties and the anti-War movement.

Paul Strand’s images feature the lives and landscape of the Scottish Isles of the Outer Hebrides during the 50’s, whilst Robert Frank’s portrayal of life in London alongside the coal mining towns of South Wales, depict the rise of a British corporate culture and the relationship between wealth and poverty.

The Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys captured the mid-century street landscape in Cambridge, London and Oxford with all its quirks.

A highlight is Bruce Davidson’s work in England and Scotland from 1960, which uncovers the contrasts between city and country life, of the landed gentry and the working class people as he focused his camera on bankers, cleaners, bombed-out buildings, public transport and youths in Soho.

Naturally Garry Winogrand is included, this time with little known portraits of travellers through the UK in 1968. In the same year, the Japanese photojournalist Akihiko Okamura moved to Dublin to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland. His work depicts the everyday experience of barricades, demonstrations, and bombed out streets.

The 70’s start with Gilles Peress who travelled to Northern Ireland nearly every year for two decades to document the conflict.

In 1977, Shinro Ohtake looks to London’s inhabitants, whilst Hans Eijkelboom’s collection shows images of street shoppers snapped at The Bullring in Birmingham, which are arranged into a complex grid according to similarities: clothing or gestures that question the construction of Identity.

As a child born the 70’s, I was drawn to the luminous portraits depicting youth in the early part of this century. Rineke Dijkstra’s intimate portraits of Liverpool clubbers is a highlight of the exhibition. Reassuringly familiar, to any teenager who has spent a night in the local nightclub, where bravado and sexual naivety collide. Women will recognise their own innocent and still gazes in those of the clubbers; all photographed delicately with her maternal eye. The accepted idea that local nightclubs are an escape from conformity, is turned on its head with uniform portraits of tribes in Lycra and cheap make-up.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin Parr

Rineke Dijkstra


Opposing these images of lost youth, literally, were portraits of the seemingly secure, upper classes by Tina Barney. Their melancholic gazes highlight the distance between the ‘them’ and ‘us’, a reflection of the class divide. There is a ceremonial lack of intimacy in these portraits, a gap which increases the more one attempts to connect with the subjects.

Bruce Gilden’s images were enormous and most disturbing. They are unpolished close-ups of the working classes in contrast to Barney’s upper classes.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin Parr

Raymond Depardon’s images of the residents of the Goven and Manhill estates in Glasgow, captured what at first seems a bleak depiction of childhood. Dark landscapes, illuminated only by the clothes drying on a washing line, a bright pink balloon, or a child’s pram full with dolls.Within that small existence, it is the props of childhood, the toys and games with friends around those very washing lines; that memories make. Who cares, as a child, if your backdrop is filled with bleak factories and wet pavements; the streets are your playground, and Depardon presented back to us the freedom that came with outdoor play in the mid-century, an experience seldom enjoyed by kids today.

Whenever and wherever in Britain you grew up, seeing this exhibition will gift you a family album you’ve long forgotten.”

Photos of Manchester

As a local person the local photographs were of greatest interest although it was good to see a Cartier Bresson and a Paul Strand in real life.

The Manchester pictures were as follows:


This piece of work was completed relatively rapidly and in my opinion does not do Manchester justice but the most interesting part of the Manchester project has yet to come. Local residents have been asked to send in their perception of “The Essence of Manchester”. Some have already been submitted but the exhibition runs until mid May 2017 so there are many more to come. This has motivated me to organise a visit to Manchester with a group of friends to search for that all important picture. The visit will take place in January 2017 and I am currently researching my ideas.


I visited this exhibition at the Barbican when last in London. The exhibition space in Manchester does the pictures much better justice and, as always, the second visit brought out a lot more detail and was much more satisfying. How this material relates to “Digital Image and Culture”, I have yet to discover, but have rarely found a random piece of research which has not drawn rich rewards.




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