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British photographs from the 1970s and 1980s show an empire in decline


In early 1980s Britain, dub reggae and post-punk merged in eerie laments about a divided kingdom, ravaged by economic decline and interracial strife. One of the more daring examples of the style is Mark Stewart and Mafia’s radical remake of “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s ode to his “green and pleasant land,” set to music by Hubert Parry. Stewart’s distressed version of “Jerusalem” appears in “Handsworth Songs,” a film included in the National Gallery of Art’s “This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s.” It could serve as a soundtrack for the entire exhibition.

The show consists of about 45 recently purchased prints and some issues from British photo magazines of the period, as well as the hour-long ‘Handsworth Songs’, created in 1986 by the Black Audio Film Collective and directed by John Akomfrah. The first red-walled gallery emphasizes naturalistic black-and-white images of everyday life, mostly on a smaller scale. However, the mood changes in the second room with blue walls.

Visitors turning right upon entering will come across Gilles Peress’ photograph of Belfast, in which three people, two of them embracing, lean against a wall while a small street fire burns on the other side of the frame. Turning left takes you to John Davies’ photo of a power station in Salford, near Manchester, whose cooling towers dwarf a horse in the foreground. Both images convey a sense of traditional life disrupted by modernity, succumbing to disruption and decay.

Equally grim are a few portraits from the 1970s of young couples with a child. Colin Jones portrays two people in a shabby room in a shelter for black youths in Islington, a London neighborhood that was later largely refurbished. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s photo revolves around a naked man – dripping wet, presumably from an outdoor bath or shower – in a small backyard in Newcastle.

In a statement from the show’s wall text, Finnish-born Konttinen notes that her foreignness meant, “I could be curious and be forgiven.” But the photographer also proved herself to the neighborhood she documented by living there for about ten years, an approach also adopted by Chris Killip. He lived in a van on the beach on the Northumberland coast while he reported on his persistent neighbours, ‘sea coalers’ who lived off collecting waste coal washed up from the ocean.

Many of these pictures suggest the frustrations of life in 1970s and 1980s Britain, and a few show the aftermath of violence. From what appears to be mid-tomb position, Peress observes the coffin of an IRA member entering Earth in West Belfast. In the grainy photo of Pogus Caesar, two men walk behind an overturned vehicle that appears to still be smoldering. The setting is the Handsworth neighborhood of Birmingham, where black and South Asian residents erupted in a riot in 1985 that is central to the film shown in the back room of this show.

Between the first gallery and the screening room are photographs, mostly taken in the 1980s and mostly in colour, depicting a more prosperous Britain. The images can be pointed, but generally with a lighter touch. In South Wales, Paul Reas watches a man contemplate an array of meats while wearing a sweater with images of pigs on it. Near Liverpool, Martin Parr captures an elderly couple who seem quite content eating crisps on a bench surrounded by rubbish. Also included are two Parr photos of upper class Brits at garden parties, looking far less comfortable than the chip eaters.

While most of these photos are as raw as they are artsy, a few items from the 1980s are more self-aware. Anna Fox’s colorful photographs of the London servants include a picture of two people at adjoining desks, presided over by a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. (She was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom when most of these photos were taken.) Karen Knorr’s portraits of “Gentlemen” at ease and Sunil Gupta’s vignettes of “Pretended” couples are all staged.

The color photographs from the 1980s seem more contemporary, but are perhaps as outdated as the 1970s work. The recent economic forecasts for Britain after Brexit are not optimistic. While black and white film photography won’t be making a major comeback, the disaffected 1970s chronicled in “This Is Britain” could well be in need of a reprise of sorts.

This is Britain: photos from the 1970s and 1980s

National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Ave. NW. 202-737-4215. nga.gov.

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