Pinning The Brits Down

I saw this exhibition at the Barbican last year and since I was flagging by the end then I thought I would pop into Manchester Art Gallery and have a look at the second half again.  The exhibition is curated by Martin Parr and is about the way the UK has been portrayed by foreign photographers (twenty-two in all) over the past seven decades or so.  The first half is mostly what you would expect: telephone boxes, British bobbies, milk bottles on doorsteps, bowler hats and so on.  It plays to a certain view of the UK in the fifties and sixties.  What is interesting about the more modern work though is that the instant recognisability has gone and what emerges is a process of homogenisation.  The Rinejke Dijkstra portraits of clubbing girls, the Bruce Gilden close-ups, the Hans van der Meer football landscapes and the Axel Hutte housing estates could all have been taken more or less anywhere in western Europe.  There is very little that is recognisably British.  The Hans Eijkelboom slideshow really drives the point home. 

That poses quite a difficult curatorial problem.  You choose photographers because they have something to say and say it well but then what emerges when you put them all together is something else.  So you are caught between the ethnographical and the artistic/documentary.  What you put on the wall as a picture has become data. This is one of the most fascinating characteristics of the photograph.  Just when you have decided what you are looking at it becomes something else.  You just can’t pin a photograph down.