Tag Archives: London

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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Made You Look – Dandyism and Black Masculinity

During a rather long layover at Heathrow last week I met up with fellow students Holly Woodward and Simon Chirgwin at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. It was absolutely brilliant to actually meet a few of my fellow students – definitely helps to cut back on the long distance gap.  After much chatting and exchanging views Holly and I went on to view the Made You Look exhibit, while Simon had to dash back to the office. Thanks for arranging this Holly!

Young Man in Plaid, NYC 1991 by Jeffrey Henson Scales
Young Man in Plaid, NYC 1991 by Jeffrey Henson Scales

The definition of a dandy is a man who cares too much about his clothes and appearance, but it is also concerned with “using dress to deliberately flout conventional notions of class, taste, gender and sexuality” (Eshun 2016), while masculinity means “having the qualities or appearance thought to be typical of men”. What then is black masculinity? The stereotypical, historical argument for black masculinity, according to Ferber (2007) “defines Black males as hypersexual, animalistic and savage”. But does that definition still apply today? The classic stereotype is a Western one and not necessarily similarly translated by Africans, or African-Americans. It is interesting then to see the juxtaposition of these two terms in the exhibition title.

Mr. K. Jones, 2011 by Hassan Hajjaj, Morocco
Mr. K. Jones, 2011 by Hassan Hajjaj, Morocco

The exhibition features black and white photos of dandies in Senegal dating back to 1904 smartly clad in their colonial suits, complete with hats and walking sticks, alongside three of Hassan Hajjaj’s large flamboyant prints with their interesting frames, two of which incorporate tins of pilchards and the other boxes of Le Papillon, which I am guessing is a brand of soap. These cans of fish keep bringing the phrase “he’s an odd fish” to my mind. Hajjaj’s prints feature portraits of men clad in very bright clothing with repetitive patterning (rather like cheap curtaining material of the 1960’s era) against gaudy printed backdrops and dropcloths, all wearing sunglasses.

Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015 by Kristen Lee-Moolman
Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015 by Kristen Lee-Moolman

I would be rather remiss if I didn’t include South African photographer Kristen Lee-Moolman’s work in my write up. When I first looked at the photographed there was a familiarity that I immediately recognized as from South Africa and was pleased to confirm this from the wall text. Lee-Moolman’s dandy stands posed rather akwardly next to a white car, sporting an afro hairstyle. He is wearing overly long white bell bottom trousers that are dragging in the dirt. His top looks more like a woman’s blouse with its cut-away shoulders and long sleeves. A white trench coat belt is tied around his waist. Perhaps the punctum in this photograph for me is the double string of pearls he wears around his neck and the drop earrings in his ears.

Throughout the exhibition, though, one is acutely aware of the performance acted out by the subjects in the photographs. The exaggerated stances and poses and even the clothing are all indicative of men trying on various identities to see which will fit better.

The Black man, like many other races and sexes, is striving to adjust his identity to what pleases him …The identity struggle in black men is different from the identity struggle of men in general because race does play a role in the performance of Black masculinity.

Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program (2012)

Below is a video featuring curator, Ekow Eshun explaining the concept behind the exhibition.

Reference List

Eshun Ekow (2016) Look, A Negro! [online] taken from Loose Associations Vol 2, iii. The Photographer’s Gallery: London Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/images/Look__A_Negro_low_res_579a05484dfaa.pdf [Accessed 5 September, 2016]

The Photographer’s Gallery (2016) Ekow Eshun on Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity [user-generated content online] Creat. The Photographer’s Gallery. 5 mins 39 secs. Available at: https://vimeo.com/175688734 (Accessed 5 September, 2016)

Ferber, Abby (2007). ‘The Construction of Black Masculinity | White Supremacy Now and Then’ In: Journal of Sport and Social Issues Vol 31 No 1 p 11 – 24

Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program (2012) Performing Black Masculinity [online] University of Pittsburgh. Available at: http://www.wstudies.pitt.edu/blogs/ola8/performing-black-masculinity [Accessed 5 September, 2016]

Bibliography

Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary of Current English (1989),  4th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press

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