An Ideal for Living | Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain

Fellow student Holly Woodward and I managed to fit in a second gallery visit on my very brief layover in London en route back to Canada. After meeting up at the Photographers Gallery and checking out one exhibition there, we had lunch at a really nice little place off Carnaby Street and then headed off to the Beetles and Huxley to take in An Ideal for Living exhibition.

We both agreed that we preferred this exhibition to Made You Look for the general reason that it wasn’t as over the top as the other.

An Ideal for Living focuses more on class, culture and identity in modern Britain which I found easier to relate to than dandyism and black masculinity. The photographs in the exhibition span the period from the 1920’s to the present, so provide a good spread of the social history of Britain. The earlier photographs in the exhibition are by Emil Otto Hoppé, Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Coronation of King George VI, London, 12 May 1937 by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
Coronation of King George VI, London, 12 May 1937 by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

I particularly liked Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of the Coronation of King George VI (above). Crowds of people, all decked out in their best clothes fill every imaginable space to catch a glimpse of the new King passing by. One spectator, obviously having celebrated the King’s good health in abundance, lies passed out on piles of discarded newspapers, missing the auspicious spectacle. All the spectators are craning their necks to see what is going on with the exception of one little boy who has noticed the photographer and is looking straight at him. This is a humerous image. The caption and image are at total odds with each other and of course this helps to create the element of humour. Furthermore, the image has contrast: dark grey tones at the top and light tones from the newspapers at the bottom. The crowd at the top of the image form a solid horizontal interest, while the newspapers at the bottom form another. The only dynamic element in the image is the prostrate man who is lying stretched out diagonally, leading our eye up to the crowds above him.

The post war period focuses on the daily life, fashions and community life during the fifties and sixties. The photographs from the eighties seem to concentrate on social differences and the effects of the Thatcher government industrial reforms, whereas that of the nineties focused on socio-political issues.

One of my favourite photographs in this exhibition has to be Soldier Seen Through Shield by Philip Jones Griffiths.  It is a photograph of a soldier behind his riot shield. The scratch marks on the perspex shield create an unworldly effect as if the soldier is trying to break out of a mould formed by the darkness that encapsulates his head on either side. While most of the marks on the shield bear testimony to the battle scars of many a riot, the two most prominent scratches on the shield remind me of the cross. A straight vertical line divides the soldier’s face in two and a slightly diagonal one divides his face horizontally. Depending on who would be reading this photograph the soldier might be seen as saviour or enemy. I find myself wanting to smooth out these scratch marks so that I can see the soldier’s young face clearly and learn his story.

Soldier Seen Through Shield, Northern Ireland, 1973 by Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008)
Soldier Seen Through Shield, Northern Ireland, 1973 by Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008)

I tend to be drawn to the gritty, subculture images maybe because I never really experienced much of this when I was growing up in South Africa. The most extreme I remember seeing were boys wearing their hair in ducktail styles (60’s) and the occasional hippy in the ’70’s. However, since moving to Canada I do see all sorts of subcultures on the streets and find some of them rather fascinating. In Derek Ridgers portrait of Tuinol Barry, one sees a rather attractive looking young man. His head is closely shaved and he has a phrase tattooed across his forehead “… are the flowers in your dustbin”.  He has a rose tattooed on his left cheek and sports piercings in his nose. The lighting from camera left accentuates the sad expression in this youth’s eyes. I keep coming back to the phrase on his forehead and the flower on his cheek. Does the phrase refer to him? What kind of self-image or identity is he seeking to imprint such a phrase on his face? I find this very disturbing that a youth would go to such extremes to seek out his identity. Does he regard himself as a flower in the dustbin of life? The more I look, the more questions I seem to have.

Tuinol Barry, Chelsea, London, 1981 by Derek Ridgers (Born 1952)
Tuinol Barry, Chelsea, London, 1981 by Derek Ridgers (Born 1952)

On the whole I found the photographs more engaging. I found myself relating to them as familiar things would crop up that I had learned about from books that I had read and TV programs I had watched. This exhibition really underscores the importance of photography in documenting a social history. I would have liked to browse a little longer, but sadly had to leave after a very fleeting visit to catch my connecting flight.

Reference List

Beetles & Huxley (2016) An Ideal for Living [user-generated content online] Creat. Beetles & Huxley 4 July, 2016. 0 mins 42 secs. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQkJTF5USd4 (Accessed 11 September, 2016)

Biography

An Ideal for Living | Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain [online]. Beetles & Huxley. Available at:  http://www.beetlesandhuxley.com/exhibitions/ideal-living.html [Accessed 11 September, 2016]

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3 thoughts on “An Ideal for Living | Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain”

  1. “We’re the flowers in your dustbin” is a line from God Save the Queen, the (debated) number one by the Sex Pistols. It fades out on the refrain “No future, no future for you…”

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