A Brief Background of British Documentary Photography
What follows is a timeline describing the genesis of photo documentary in Britain. The examples outlined below give a taste, a clue to the growth of documentary photography in the UK. Each photographer named represents a genre or an approach to photography which they embodied or typified. It is not intended as a work of definitive research but gives the unacquainted reader a flavour…
From the earliest days of photography British photographers used the new medium to examine their lives and culture. The great Parliamentarian and possibly the first consciously social-documentary photographer, Sir Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) recorded the fading customs and eccentric rituals of British life. A few years later Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853 -1941) was one of the first to attempt to elide the worlds of art and photography. By the 1930’s Bill Brandt (1904-1983) would be casting a more ‘European’ eye on the life of Britain. During the war Burt Hardy (1913 – 1995) made the Blitz real for those who hadn’t experienced it and reflected the enormity of it for those that did and Magnum founder, George Rodger (1908 – 1995) walked the bombed out streets of London before making the truth of the concentration camps real for everyone. After the war photographers reflected a new democratic vision of Britain. The street photographs of Roger Mayne (1929 – 2014) gave status and a kind of nobility to an impoverished, inner city community. By the Seventies, Magnum photographer Ian Berry (b1934), returning to the place of his birth from years spent covering wars and social unrest around the world used his camera in a more personal way; to reconnect with his own country. At the same time photographers from other lands, such as Markéta Luskačová (b1944) gave us an outsider’s view of ourselves. There was an explosion of colour in the Eighties. Martin Parr (b1952) saw that the UK was as polychromatic as anywhere else and captured the layers of a class riven society in all the frequencies of the spectrum. A few years later Anna Fox (b1961), another colour practitioner of a different hue saw the British in more personal terms. Well into the Nineties Richard Billingham (b1970) used his camera to depict intimate scenes of his own family life in unerring detail. And shortly after the turn of the Millenium Vanessa Winship (b1960) would turn her camera away from the UK and make portraits and studies of the people and country of the Black Sea and the southern states of the US. In this way British photography’s new voice closed the gap in the circle that was opened a century before by the creepily named ‘The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring’ – a British, all male society dedicated to establishing that photography was as much art as it was science. The ‘Brotherhood’ inspired Alfred Steiglitz (1864 – 1946) to energise photography in America with the Photo-Secession movement – an energy that led directly and indirectly to the global recognition of America’s own photographers of itself with practitioners such as Paul Strand (1890 – 1976), Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965), Eve Arnold (1912 – 2012), W Eugene Smith (1918 – 1978) and Robert Frank (b1924) gaining global prominence for their work looking in on the American experience and psyche.
Since the turn of the 21st Century photographers from all over the UK have been watching Britain transmute from its post-Imperial age and examine itself in the wider context of identity. Adama Jalloh (b1993) is interested in ceremony and identity using her London community as a backdrop to ask these questions, whilst Alice Myers’ (b1986) work is concerned with one of the great themes of today, immigration.