Britain in focus – A Photographic History (part 3)

Documentary series, BBC4. In three parts, commencing 6 March 2017.

I thought it would be helpful to my learning to take notes as I watched this program, and to record my learning in my learning log.

This final part of the series documents the progress of photography from colour to digital. The presenter, Eamonn McCabe says that he has seen a photography ‘revolution’ during his career.

I was particularly interested in this episode for its focus on some of the photographers I have been introduced to on this course, such as Faye Godwin, Peter Mitchell and Martin Parr. It is interesting to see how these are becoming familiar manes to me now, and I had not heard of them prior to starting this course.

First though, I was interested in McCabe’s focus on 1960s postcards. He looked at the work of John Hind who created the vivid coloured postcard images that we all know, highlighting the mood of optimism and ‘Britain enjoying itself again’.  Hind’s colours and effect were not just created by his camera, but were produced by the ‘cutting edge printers’ and the alteration and enhancement of colours post-capture.

The Kodak Instamatic camera, developed in 1963 ‘was simple to use and widened the appeal of colour photography’ . People could take their own colour snapshots, send away the cartridge for development and receive their prints in the post.

In terms of colour photography however, McCabe said that ‘some aspects of British life didn’t seem to lend themselves to colour photography’. ‘Black and white’ was still considered the proper medium for ‘serious’ photography.

John Bulmer photographed ‘the north’ in colour. Until then it had been considered ‘a black and white subject’. Bulmer’s images of the north were often taken in winter and in rain or fog, because he felt that if they were taken on sunny days, his images wouldn’t ‘get across the atmosphere of the place’. As a northerner, I am not sure quite what to feel about this depiction of the north as an homogenous and depressing place. However, I can’t deny that I really like these images.

Photographer Jane Bown ‘refused to shoot in colour’. She was a portrait photographer who worked for The Observer and she used mono to reveal the characters of the many famous people, including the Queen, who she photographed.

The 1970s saw a ‘new generation of photographers, driven to tell stories that they thought no one else was telling’. Van Lee Burke (I may have misheard this name and am unable to find record of this photographer), for example, took photographs depicting his experience of African Caribbean culture ‘from the inside’ as a challenge the negative stereotype and to show the reality of the growing black community in Birmingham. He felt that black people were ‘not in charge of their own history’ and his work was an attempt to address this by ‘writing our history ourselves’. He took photographs to show locally, he didn’t want his pictures in the press and he said ‘the community is the audience’. This may explain why I have been unable to find more information about this artist.

Peter Mitchell recorded change within his home town of Leeds. He created a 40 year record of demolition within the city and he chose to do this using colour since he felt that ‘it is the way we all look at stuff’. He says that he regards photography as ‘almost slightly religious … almost that God’s light comes down and hits you.’ McCabe says that although his photographs are now valued as an important historical work, Mitchell could have been overlooked were it not for Val Williams, Gallery Curator who exhibited his work in her Impressions network of new galleries. Please see my post Peter Mitchell, Planet Yorkshire.

Faye Godwin worked in the traditional landscape genre. Her work Land, in 1985, presented a picturesque view of Britain, ‘in contrast to her disillusionment with other aspects of natural life’. Paul Hill, interviewed, said that ‘Faye could say something with her pictures’ – about access to the land – she used photography as a vehicle for her beliefs and opinions’. I had not consciously thought of Godwin’s work in my assignment 5 submission, but I can now see similarities in my attempt to say something about the accessibility of industrial spaces. Val Williams says that ‘Godwin could find out a lot about how the land was being used and her Forbidden Land became a political project in which she explored how the land was being bought up, restricted and controlled’.

Martin Parr’s images have divided opinion. His The Last Resort images ‘made his name’. McCabe says that Parr ‘mixes the colour and quality of commercial photography with documentary realism’. Critics accuse him of being cruel in his capturing of unflattering images of the working class. Parr explains that in a follow up book The Cost of Living , he ‘turned the camera on his own tribe’. Here, his images show the middle class attending anti-natal classes or going to craft fairs (which he hates), capturing them because Parr ‘finds people funny’. He insists he is ‘not taking the p***’ out of people but admits to a ‘sense of mischief’. Parr’s use of colour and flash makes his images look like ‘glossy magazine shots rather than traditional documentary images’. However, he does provide a ‘documentary’, taking images exploring consumerism among the middle classes – people deliberating over which sofa to buy, or attending aerobics classes, for example. He says that ‘flash makes it clear that it is an interpretation of a scene rather than a depiction of reality. McCabe says he shows ‘a parallel reality, instantly recognisable but somehow ludicrous, a kind of Parr world’.

In terms of digital photography, McCabe says he is sceptical. His ‘worry is that the camera, which is more like a computer, does so much of the work, there is less consideration to composition and framing.’ In an age where ‘everybody is a photographer’,  he asks ‘how, in the vast ocean of images, are you supposed to take a really great photograph?’

McCabe interviews Mishka Hannah, who creates images in a studio ‘with not a camera in sight’. Hannah uses material from the internet and satellite imagery to ‘access forbidden places, for example industrial farmland in Texas’ – in common with Faye Godwin, he reveals how landscape is used and controlled. His technique seems far from traditional photography but he uses existing images from Google Earth which he superimposes onto maps of land boundaries and puts them together ‘to make a new composition’.

McCabe says that the digital revolution has ‘affected how we take, present and share photographs. He interviews a 16 year old girl, Molly Bonneyface, about her use of Instagram. She tells him that the images she takes with her smart phone is not just a hobby, ‘it is a means of expression’. She explains that she ‘can use her phone all the time, it is always there, it’s what I do all the time’. She says that the images she presents to her 1300 followers who like her pictures ‘are just a version of me that I choose to show everyone… its a public diary that looks nice.. other pictures I keep just for me’. McCabe confirms ‘taking pictures is central to who Molly is’ and says ‘the most important subject for the everyday photographer is now themselves’.

This series of three episodes has looked at the development of British photography since the first images were taken 180 years ago and has ‘considered the changing ways in which we have pictured ourselves… we have learned how science and technology have shaped the course of photography at every stage of its history and how great art has come from the camera’.


Britain in focus (2017) (TV Programme)


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