Strange and Familiar – Manchester Gallery

I visited the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the Manchester Gallery on 15 May 2017.

The exhibition was curated by Martin Parr and included the work of leading photographers, documenting what it means to be British over the ages.

I was particularly interested in Bruce Gilden’s images.

These images were huge; in some ways they reminded me of the scale of Les Monaghan’s work in The Desire Project. More than life size, and of ordinary people, they demand that you look at every mark and imperfection on faces that would ordinarily go unnoticed.

Gilden, in his introduction to these images says ‘What I am searching for when I walk the streets are people I can engage with, somebody whose face, and particularly eyes, scream a story.’ These images were created as a contribution to the Black Country Series which documented working class Britain. Gilden focussed on the ‘invisible people’ of Dudley, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.

His images show individuals who are not typical in terms of our expectations of portraits, and as such are quite uncomfortable to look at. Gilden’s approach is controversial, he takes his images without consent and uses bright flash light to capture people unawares, showing them in unflattering poses and in minute detail. I recorded my discomfort with this approach at the beginning of this course, and looking at these images, I still feel the same.

Jim Dow’s work also interested me.

Façade of Chapman’s Hardware, Islington, London 19.2.93

Window detail, wallpaper and lino shop,Leytonstone, London, June 83

Interior of Bert’s eel and pie shop, Peckham, London 15.7.85

Southward’s sweet shop, Scarborough, North Yorkshire 3.6.83

The introduction to his work says ‘..when the French emperor Napoleon was asked what he thought of Britain he is supposed to have replied that it was nothing more than a nation of shopkeepers’. This idea of representing England by showing the traditional local, or ‘corner’ shop appeals to me; it says a lot about the nature of work and consumerism, and the orderly displays seem to suggest a sense of pride.

Jim Dow was fascinated by this local architecture, and he travelled to Britain (from America) ‘on numerous occasions between 1980 and 1994, recording this traditional way of life slowly beginning to disappear’. He says, of the local shop: (it is) doomed by the juggernaut and ‘park and shop’ megastores.

I like the idea of making images like these to record history and change. Peter Mitchell’s recording of the demolition and rebuilding in Leeds, similarly, makes an important historical document. Please see my post on Mitchell’s Planet Yorkshire.

Being part of a family with an almost 60 year history of retail in a small northern town, I was particularly interested in Dow’s documentation of the local shop as an important British institution. I am hopeful that there will be a return to the valuing of honest local traders. I would like to consider the documentation of my husband’s family’s business further as a photographic project in the future.

List of Illustrations

Images are my photographs of work at the Strange and Familiar Exhibition, Manchester Gallery 15.5.17

Bibliography

Exhibition. Strange and Familiar. Manchester Art Gallery (25 November 2016–Monday 29 May 2017)

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