It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt. While that may not be true in life all the time, in photography at least, introducing a new observer to a tired scene can definitely produce some fresh perspectives. It is with this notion that British photographer Martin Parr curates Strange and Familiar, a photography exhibition of British subjects by foreign photographers. Known for his work scrutinising all manner of British clichés, Parr now turns his attention to what Britain might look like to an outsider.
The exhibition held special significance for me, as a foreigner and an amateur photographer. When I first stepped into the UK in 2006, and then again in 2011, the kind of pictures I took with my then camera (a compact – how quaint!) were of all the things I now find absolutely quotidian, having lived here for three years. Red telephone boxes, pub signs, tubes pulling into the station, squirrels in Hyde Park –these are things that now go as unnoticed as queueing up on the right on escalators. In a similar vein, the selected pictures show us a side of Britain from an outsider’s perspective, drawing our attention to the little quirks of British life that we so often overlook and corners that we neglect to acknowledge.
For example, American photographer Bruce Davidson had a keen interest in photographing commonplace things that were representative to foreigners, such as formal dress codes and British stoicism – things locals would hardly bat an eyelid to. Yet, his picture of women having tea in a car (pouring it into teacups from a thermos flask) and another of couples basking on the beach in formal dress encapsulate so much of what is unique to British culture.
Twenty-three international photographers are featured in the exhibition, all of whom travelled to Britain for varying lengths of time spanning the 1930s to the present day. Some, like Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys, were here briefly with an express mission to capture the character of British cities, while others, like Edith Tudor-Hart, eventually married and settled in the country. Shinro Ohtake, a 22-year-old scrapbook enthusiast who had never previously been out of Japan and spoke no English, came to the UK to document the experiences of a transient traveler. What he produced was a body of work almost like a stream-of-consciousness observation of his peregrinations through various British towns and cities.
It is precisely the varied experiences and purposes of the photographers featured that made the exhibition interesting. Laid out across two floors, the photographs are arranged in chronological order, each individual photographer’s body of work getting a section to itself. While some common themes ran through the exhibition, no two photographers were the same. Akihiko Okamura dedicated himself to documenting the conflict in Northern Ireland, and on display is an almost matter-of-fact look at the sense of ordinary lives disrupted. Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht produced work that looked at the sexual freedom and psychedelic optimism that permeated London’s youth in the 1960s – the latter’s book “Young London: Permissive Paradise” is on display in a nearby case.
While the older photographs give a more general take on Britain, the more recent works seem to focus on one or another aspect of life in particular. One of the more memorable projects is American photographer Jim Dow’s Corner Shops of Britain (1994), the result of his fascination with local vernacular architecture and their uncertain future. He photographs the shopfronts in taxonomical detail, and they are printed on large, richly coloured canvases. There is a sense that it is only with his outsider’s eye that the unique historical and cultural value of the British family-run corner shop is highlighted and documented for posterity.
Strange and Familiar is a delightful romp through the history of Britain in the last century as seen through foreign eyes. Although it is made up of a patchwork of very different perspectives, the vignettes come together beautifully to tell the story of what it means to be British.
Strange and Familiar is on at the Barbican Art Gallery until 19 June.