Looking at the contrasting styles that have documented Britain in the last century. I am aware that by stating ‘the last century’ it has a denotative power, it suggests dated, a time that once was, but is no more – that times have moved on….
In “Survival Programmes” the work of photographers Chris Steele-Perkins, Nicholas Battye and Paul Trevor in the 1970’s. There are stories of deprivation and racism, the dis-possessed and the simply possessed in gritty black and white, but on first looking there isn’t a great deal of subtlety, they practically scream about the conditions that the photographs are clearly highlighting. The pictures highlight the race riots in inner cities. This taken from the article highlights the casual nature of the racism
THE FINEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
Mrs Sephton (Mr and Mrs Sephton and her husband have been married for thirty eight years and are now pensioners living in a new tower block in Lozells. Mrs Sephton works as a volunteer in the local Community Transport charity shop):
I get on with them all right, you know, all of them. It’s just the odd ones, lately … since all this mugging and all this snatching of bags. But it’s mainly Jamaicans that are doing that. It’s very rare you find the Indian people into trouble. Once or twice I think they’ve caught a couple of white people but it’s very rare.
Mr Sephton: I think that’s arisen because they’ve become unemployed and they must think it’s an easy way of getting some money. Immigrants come in this country …
Mrs Sephton: They get everything, don’t they really? Everything they can have.
Mr Sephton: Go to the Social Security and get their supplementary benefit, can’t they?
Mrs Sephton: Well, this is it, you see. They haven’t even to be here twelve months, they haven’t to be here twelve hours, and they’ll give ’em some money to carry on with. I mean we couldn’t get it in another country, could we? This is a really silly country. It is really a silly country for giving out money …
Mind, I think whatever happens here, this is the best country in the world. England, definitely, I really do. I think it’s the finest country in the world. I haven’t been anywhere else, but the way things are, they let everybody come in and welcome people in, don’t they? I mean, we can’t go to other countries and be accepted the same, can we? They are all accepted here, aren’t they, more or less?”.
And I wonder about the current debate over immigration, how the economy has driven the political discourse to the right again and focussing on the ‘Other’ as the source of the problems the country is facing.
IN AMONG IT ALL
Mrs Stenson (a resident of St Hilda’s estate, she is in her twenties and lives with her husband, who works on the buses, and their young son): I mean, I’m not a snob or anything but I like to think I’m a bit better than some of the folks around here. And I really don’t want to bring him up round here. You see, we applied for a transfer last summer. We were told, “Oh no, you’ve got to wait till you’ve lived in a council property two years.” Well, that two years was up on the 1st of January.
The first thing that got me when we lived round here was the little three-and-four-year-old kids cursing and swearing. “You effin’ this, you effin’ that.” I said, “Hey, watch it!” He says, “Eff off missis, who d’you think you are?” I thought, “Blimey, we’re here! We’re in among it all, aren’t we?”
Exit: So what do you do most of the time?
Mrs Stenson: Nothing. I get up in the morning. Do the housework. Go to town. Come back. Get his lunch. Sit and watch television all day and night … That’s it, my week. Every day’s the same. Do the washing, do the ironing, clean the windows, it’s just all housework. We never go out. Never. The only time I go out is when we’re on holiday, when we go down home. My husband sometimes calls in for a drink on his way home, but he won’t go for a drink on this estate, he calls at a pub in town. As for bringing anybody home, he wouldn’t.
Exit: And your husband’s working seven days a week?
Mrs Stenson: Yeah. You see he pays maintenance to his two children from his first marriage as well. So … he works seven days a week. I say on average he works about thirteen to fourteen hours a day, apart from when he should be having a day off. And if he’s working that day, which he always does, he only works eight hours. “
The dispossessed with seemingly no future, a generation that will go without work. And what is different now. Daytime television and video games supplement to the apparent choice for daytime boredom relief? This article is a contemporary view of Middlesborough’s unemployment concerns. Significant concerns over the future, but there are changes, now the news is wrapped into a marketing opportunity – the grim realism is offset by news of some celebrities impending birth or mammary gland enhancement – tune into Capital Radio and win an iPad.
And what of Brandt – the image that we asked to consider is his now quite famous “Parlourmaid and Underparlourmaid ready to serve dinner”. Brandt’s view is to leave the connotation to the viewer; subtle, understated. We see two females in full Parlourmaid uniform from an age when Service meant employment for a huge portion of the working classes in the UK. Those same working classes who were dispossessed of servitude in the intervening years between the two wars and then re-employed in the boom of the late fifties and sixties. In cities like Birmingham and Middlesborough. Brandt leaves to us to interpret the thoughts of the two women as they stand in attendance to their Master’s wishes.
The exercise asks why the medium of black and white photography has become a trusted and respected medium in documentary; both of these works are in monochrome, both in panchromatic monochrome, a full tonal width film. Recording in the fullest detail all it saw, recording for posterity a time that once was, that generations of social activists have tried to improve the lot of those that have never had.
That respect comes partly of course because there was no other means by which photographs could be made; through the early decades of the twentieth century, through the emergence of documentary as a distinct genre in photography, monochrome was all there was. That tradition continues through the sixties and even in to the seventies, when the emergence of colour film started to challenge the primacy of black and white. Monochrome carried on being a medium because of it’s immediacy, for a long time after the development of the C41 process black and white was still easier and more reliable in processing. Larry Burrows and others in Vietnam in the sixties for example started to challenge that and introduced a new veracity, which altered the perception of the public’s perception of what was being documented. I’m now not sure that monochrome photography has the place that it once had in the minds of the viewer. I wonder about how the viewers, who are in the main quite savvy about how photographs are ‘edited’ and know that black and white is an ‘edited’ version of colour. A public that can probably make the jump to assume they are being presented with an object that wasn’t actually there because it doesn’t contain all the information presented to the lens at the time he photograph was taken. I’m not sure about that any more. Aesthetically it sometimes has added drama, or can focus attention by ‘de-cluttering’ the image of extraneous colour, but it’s claim for the high ground in veracity is becoming more and more tenuous.
What I am more sure of is the effect that Exit and Brandt’s work have had with the fullness and benefit of hindsight. I wonder about those voices in Birmingham when I listen to the quips from UKIP, oras I learn that the domestic service “industry” is in a growth period with all the mega rich people coming to the UK and requiring servants. That with the progression of time I don’t see a similar progression of conditions for either the haves or the have-nots.