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Sunday, 12 April 2020

The European History of Photography British Photography 1970-2000

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photographers who contributed work). The book, which was great but expensive and very expansive, is now out of print so I am putting this up here. The brief limited me to 25 photographers , but there could have been so, so many more.

The History of European Photography

British Photography 1970-2000

The 1960s in Britain are remembered for the music, the fashion, the World Cup winning England team of 1966 and all of the other clichés the swinging Sixties can muster. It was a decade of political change and increased social mobility; university education was opened up to working class students, and working class voices were being seen, heard, and read in film, literature and journalism. Socially, there was liberalisation of laws on homosexuality, abortion and there was a sense of possibility and egalitarianism in the air. Class no longer mattered quite as much as it had and we were in the midst of what Harold Wilson called ‘The White Heat of a Technological Revolution’.

Photographically the breaking down of class barriers was made evident through the fashion work of Bailey, Duffy and Donovan while overseas Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and Larry Burrows were producing some of the most powerful photojournalistic images of the Vietnam War.
New music, new fashion, new wars. The mythology of the sixties would have us believe it was quite a party. And then the party ended. The Beatles broke up in 1970, British sporting glory became a thing of the past, and armed conflict came to Britain’s street with the rise of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and beyond, while in photography, and Tony Ray-Jones, British documentary’s brightest star, died of leukaemia at the age of 31. The Seventies had arrived, the party had ended, and Britain was suffering from a massive hangover.

That’s the myth anyway and much of British photography of the 1970s examines how this hangover manifested itself in Britain’s rundown urban centres. It should be remembered, however, that the high notes of the 1960s were isolated to urban areas. In some parts of Britain, life went on like it was still the 1950s. This was especially true of the British countryside. As well as making portraits of writers and artists, Fay Godwin also became known for her lyrical black and white landscape photography with images that layered the past and present and added a dark edge that undermined the pastoral clichés of the British landscape.

Access to the land and walking were key concerns of Godwin, and these elements were also to the fore in the work of Hamish Fulton. Fulton (who studied with Richard Long, another walking-centred artist) used photography and text to symbolise the emotional, physical and geographic aspects of the journeys and landscapes he had encountered on walks across mountain ranges, rivers and roads.
In urban Britain, many things hadn’t changed either. The industrial cities of northern England were still marked by bombsites, the aftermath of German bombing that still hadn’t been entirely cleared in the decades following the end of the Second World War. And where it had been cleared and new housing built, this new construction was often not much better than the dereliction which had preceded it. One of the huge social experiments of the 1960s was the clearance of inner city slum housing. In its place, shiny new tower blocks were erected. When these new flats were well-designed, the improvement in housing standards was welcomed. However, often build quality was low, and few thoughts were given to infrastructure or the social networks that were destroyed in the move from low-rise to high-rise.


The transition from these old forms of housing to the new forms of housing became a happy hunting ground for photographers, with Finish-born photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen leading the way. Her long-term documentation of Byker Grove in Newcastle, showed the wealth of working class life and culture in the decaying terraced housing of the area before these neighbourhoods were redeveloped and much of that culture was lost. Byker Grove is shot in grimy black and white and captures a neighbourhood that is filled with emotion and energy.

Another photographer finding fertile photographic ground in British inner cities was Daniel Meadows. Meadows, who studied at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s with Martin Parr and Brian Griffin, was part of the New British Photography at the beginning of that decade. Inspired by the work of Benjamin Stone (a British photographer who photographed English life at the turn of the century 20th century), the photographers of the New Documents and New Topographics exhibitions, and the editorship of Bill Jay at Creative Camera, this group of photographers began to search for what Britishness meant and in particular how ‘the ordinary’ could be portrayed.
For Meadows, this search was focussed on northern England and had a collaborative approach. Based in Moss Side, Manchester, his Free Studio in Greame Street was a community project in which the privately educated Meadows put himself on an equal footing to the working class people he photographed.

This integration with the community was reprised in Meadows Free Photographic Omnibus project, in which he photographed England while travelling on a double-decker bus which acted as bedroom, darkroom and means of transport.

Meadows was working in the areas that were suffering most at a time of economic decline in the mid-1970s. The nation was plagued with industrial turmoil, annual inflation was nearing 30% and the initial euphoria of 1960s equal rights legislation was transformed into the harsh struggle of enacting change at an institutional and daily level.

One of many groups taking part in this struggle using photography was Hackney Flashers. This London-based collective worked on themes of equality in work, pay and the provision of free childcare. Heavily influenced by the collages of John Heartfield amongst others, their Who’s Holding the Baby exhibition in 1974 featured collages that questioned the provision of childcare and also featured photographs from a local nursery.

One of the members of the collective, Jo Spence also developed her own work in response to how women, family and the self were represented in society. Spence is one of the most influential and political of photographers working during this time. Her project and book, Beyond the Family Album, is an examination of what is and is not represented in traditional family albums. For this project, Spence reclaimed herself by taking control of her self-image and reinventing how she was represented in her remade family album.

In 1982, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer which eventually claimed her life in 1992. Her subsequent experiences of medical treatment informed her later work, particularly in Phototherapy, a project which was a continuation of her investigations into how photography and therapy could be combined to visually reconfigure the self.

Jo Spence began working with the Hackney Flashers in 1975. The same year, just a few miles away from the Flashers’ Hackney base, Brian Griffin began working for the staid sounding magazine, Management Today. But though Management Today sounded staid, the photography Griffin produced for it was anything but. Instead of the usual office and desk shots, Griffin put his subjects through their posing paces in shoots that mixed the surreal, the odd and the downright embarrassing. Griffin’s was a visual language that was quite unique, infused with a sense of visual experimentation that extended into his advertising, music and portrait work.

Other photographers extending creative boundaries in the 1970s were Garry Fabian Miller and Peter Mitchell. Fabian Miller began his experimentations with colour in his adverts for the Milk Marketing Board, a path that would lead him to his influential cameraless photography and experiments with light in the 1980s and beyond, while Peter Mitchell’s colour images of the decaying industrial and residential architecture in the city of Leeds were signs of a radically different voice that found full expression in his ‘A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission’ show at Impressions Gallery in York in 1979. Though Mitchell’s work did not have a huge national profile, it had a major impact on key photographers who would bring colour to the foreground in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chris Killip’s work in and around the Northumberland coastline was also made in the late 1970s and the 1980s. At the same time Killip helped in the foundation of the Side Gallery (as did Sirka Liisa Konttinen, whose community-centred documentary exemplified both the work of the gallery and the Amber Collective – which the gallery was attached to).

Killip’s dynamic large-format photographs of the Northeast were shown in an exhibition and published in a book called In Flagrante, work that remains some of the greatest British documentary photography work ever made. In Flagrante shows people and communities that, despite being on the economic margins of society, retain an energy and humanity that has depth and emotion in equal measure. His later series Seacoal focussed on a community that collected coal from the sea, and was subsequently made into both a film and a book.

Changing Ethnicity

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ethnic make-up of Britain was continuing to transform the face of the nation’s inner cities. In the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of migrants from the West Indies, Bangladesh and India arrived in the UK, settling in neighbourhoods and towns across the country.
Many settled in former mill towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, with Bradford being a favoured destination for many Pakistani (and Bangladeshi) immigrants. For these newly arrived migrants, photography was a way of validating their presence in their new homeland, a way of proving to the folks back home that all was well and good.

The Belle Vue Studio in Bradford was one of many studios that catered to this need. The Belle Vue Archive (rescued from a rubbish skip by local photographer Tim Smyth) shows images of recently arrived Bangladeshis and Pakistanis posing with the symbols of their new lives in this mill town in Yorkshire.

In Birmingham, Vanley Burke was creating a more expansive archive of black British experience that included photography, music and art dating back to the1940s and first major post-war West Indian migration that was marked by the arrival from Jamaica of HMS Windrush in London in 1948.
His pictures also show the intensely political nature of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when industrial decline, the election of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of racism, and discriminatory police laws resulted in a series of riots across urban centres in the UK, including around Burke’s home in Handsworth in Birmingham.

Burke’s picture of demonstators standing outside Digbeth City Hall illustrate the rise of punk in the 1970s and the political alliances formed between anti-fascist groups and the musical subcultures that emerged from the chaos of punk.

In the late 1970s the rise of punk led to a huge interest in both the music press (with NME and Sounds leading the way) and the rises of small, roughly designed fanzines that had high energy and low production values. Photography played a huge part in defining the era and had influence that reached a huge audience outside the relatively small circles of documentary and art photography. Anton Corbijn’s moody pictures of Joy Division walking over Manchester’s Princess Parkway and posing in subways exemplified the angst-ridden dynamic of the end of the 1970s, an energy that was reprised when Corbijn moved into film-making and made Closer, a film that documented the rise of the band and the eventual suicide of Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis.

Another photographer who made the move from music into more lucrative areas was Chalkie Davies. His iconic album cover for the Two-Tone label showing the Specials isolated against a white background became a signature that was used when he moved to Apple in the late 1980s. Here he became a pioneer in high-end digital imaging and his still-lifes (which were made in incredibly complex studio settings) have helped define the visual branding of Apple products to the present day.


In fashion the most influential photographer to make the move from music and subcultures was Nick Knight. In 1982, while in his second year at university, he made Skinheads, a book that looked at skinhead subculture. In addition to images, he also included notes on fashion and music with a discography adding to a book that extended beyond photography.
Knight became Britain’s most innovative fashion photographer, and was part of a burgeoning fashion scene that, influenced by post-punk music world and the London-centric affluence of the 1980s, was taking the body-centred fashion photography of the 1970s into new directions that would eventually extend into online publishing and film.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, coupled with a deregulation in finance and in the mid-1980s led to a new wave of affluence in the south of England. It also provided fertile ground for the emergence of more mainstream youth-centred magazines with higher production values than the homemade fanzines of the punk era. The most influential of these magazines were I-d and the Face, both of which launched in 1980. Knight started his career at I-d, a publication for which German-born photographers, Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tilmanns also photographed.

Both these photographers formed their careers in the UK using a relaxed, vernacular style that extends across both their professional and personal work. Teller’s book of wannabe models, Come See, remains a classic photobook with its rather sad portraits of aspiring models capturing the downside of an industry that packages an idea of glamour that is more imagined than real, while Tilmann’s reflections on the everyday, and his openness to use more relaxed photographic aesthetics in exhibiting his work, helped extend his influence into the art world when he won Britain’s premier art prize, The Turner Prize, in 2000.

The lightness of Tilmann’s work is also apparent in that of Elaine Constantine, a photographer whose snapshot approach moved fashion into a lighter, more upbeat world. Constantine centred her aesthetic around young women having fun, with laughter and energy prevalent in a blend that broke across generic lines, with elements of documentary combining with fashion and lifestyle imagery.
Corinne Day also used the idea of freshness when she photographed a 14-year old Kate Moss on Camber Sands in 1990. This shoot took place in 1990, a time when youth culture (fuelled by ecstasy and a flood of dance music) was becoming a place of democratic hedonism. Day helped launch Moss’s modelling career, but Day also became known for her darker fashion work, where waif-like models and what were regarded as hard drug references helped give rise to the heroin chic label, a label that entered the mainstream when it was namechecked by Bill Clinton in 1997.

Day also had a diaristic, daily-life centred approach to photography, an approach that was increasingly shared in other areas of the photographic world in the 1990s. Perhaps most notable of these works, and the most diaristic is Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diaries. This tells the story of living in a shared London flat through the unique narrative device of the cockroaches that Fox encountered in the living room, bedroom and Kitchen of the apartment. Other projects of Fox in include Work Stations, a text-image series that captured the absurdities of British office life.

More diaristic apartment living comes in Richard Billingham’s incredible Ray’s a Laugh series. This series of snapshots (originally made to be references for an art project) show Billingham’s parents at home in their cramped Birmingham flat. Ray (Billingham’s father) is an alcoholic, while his mother struggles to keep the family under control. It’s a one-off series that has affection, chaos, violence and sadness in equally measure.

The acceptance of Richard Billingham’s rough-edged colour work in the art world was due in large part to the wave of British colour photography that transformed the British photography landscape in the 1980s.

The photographer who used colour documentary in a more experimental way that linked to art and film was Paul Graham. His early projects were quite straightforward; Beyond Caring used a sparse visual language that showed the interiors of British unemployment offices, while Troubled Land showed Northern Ireland through landscapes marked with traces of the armed conflict and military presence that blighted the province from the 1970s to the end of the millennium.

Graham extended his viewpoint to photograph in Europe and then the United States where his American Trilogy series experimented with ideas of montage, narrative flow and the use of tonality to convey meaning in a way that was both ground-breaking and highly influential.  

Most renowned, and infamous, of the new colour photographers was Martin Parr. He sprang to photographic fame through his book The Last Resort. This gave an unheroic view of life (and particularly childhood) in the northern seaside resort of New Brighton. It was work that divided traditionalists (including Henri Cartier-Bresson who famously described Parr as being from a “completely different planet”) both due its colour content and due to the fact that the southern, middle-class Parr presented the working-class Wirral resort in such direct and uncompromising fashion. It was work that showed a working class that, thanks to the rule of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, was on the edge of terminal decline.

Parr perfected his ring-flash, synthetic colour technique through work that focussed on the throwaway symbols of British culture, the vagaries of mass tourism and the use of the vernacular image in global visual culture.  As well as making doing editorial, advertising and film work, Parr was also a champion of the Photobook, and was responsible for its rise to popularity through the Photobook Histories he subsequently co-authored with Gerry Badger

Just up the road from New Brighton, another photographer was also hard at work capturing the edges of working class Wirral life. This was Tom Wood. His long-term, almost obsessive documentation of the communities of Merseyside amounts to one of the greatest British photography projects undertaken, with images that are touching, soulful and raw at the same time.


The experimentation with colour in documentary helped create a more open atmosphere in other genres of photography, including landscape.  As a photographer who uses cameraless photography to make large-scale prints of ponds, river and the sea Susan Derges is a prime example of this. Derges’ work has an autobiographical nature to it that connects the artist to the land in which she lives, in particular the area around her Dartmoor studio in the southwest of England.

Another photographer who worked in the Southwest of England is Jem Southam. His classically composed large format images of the ponds, rivers, estuaries and rockfalls of the Dorset and Devon coasts combine a practice built on walking with a gentle narrative flow in which geology, climate, seasonal change and human intervention combine.

Landscape was also the focus of John Davies’ immaculate large format photographs, but his work centred on the industrialised fringes of northern Britain and Wales. Often mixing the urban, the industrial and the rural, Davies used a sober topographical approach to landscape in which the connected and crowded nature of Britain is apparent, creating images that are both grandiose, familiar and thoroughly familiar.

At the end of the 1990s, Mark Power was working on projects that added a mapping element to British landscape work, an approach that extended the autobiographical and psychogeographical and walking-centred work of Jem Southam, Susan Derges and Richard Long. The Shipping Forecast was a project where images were made according to the areas named in the Shipping Forecast radio weather reports, while 26 Different Endings was a project based on the London A-Z street map. In this project, Power mapped the edges of London as marked by the A-Z and recorded the self-referencing power of maps to make or break a place in terms of geographical identity.
The 1990s ended in a period of optimism. The election of Tony Blair and the New Labour government in 1997 led to an era of widening opportunities. Full employment, investment in education, easy credit and accessible housing created a millennial Britain that was throbbing with optimism.

Yet at the same time, unsustainable privatisation, political corruption, and a subservience to the financial sector combined with Blair’s own messiah complex were beginning to infect British society. The millennium ended on a high note, but with 911, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disastrous financial crashes of 2007 all on the horizon, the good times were not about to last. 

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