Akihiko Okamura
Akihiko Okamura

Strange and Familiar is an epic exhibition about Britain, in which photographers from around the world and from down the years offer a fresh eye to the look and feel our idiosyncratic island.

Martin Parr, the British documentary photographer and photojournalist, has curated a show spanning from the 1930s to the present day, giving an outsider’s view of people and places that might otherwise feel familiar.

London and its citizens feature heavily, as might be expected, but so do the cities of the north, the mining villages of Wales, and some of the most isolated and intriguing corners of the British Isles.

Britain being one of the centres of culture in the world throughout the 20th century, the list of photographers who have placed it under their lens unsurprisingly corresponds to some of the biggest names in the history of the medium.

Giants like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank are included here, but their work is placed alongside less well-known or more recently-lauded artists, informing and strengthening the impact of iconic images and often-imitated styles.

Edith Tudor Hart’s images, which appear alongside Cartier-Bresson’s, for example, offer a counterpart insight into 1930s Britain, seen through the eyes of an émigré Jewish woman. Her self-portrait with a random shopper in a market mirror was one of the first moments of stand-and-stare wonder in an exhibit of infinitely fascinating images.

As the exhibition moves forward through time, similar pairings evoke a sense of the feel of an era or moment. Robert Frank and Paul Strand’s 1950s explorations of London bankers, Welsh miners and the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides acutely demonstrate the gulf in lives and society across the country at the time, and the difficulty of moving between them.

The importance of the changes in medium, and the technical advances that occur throughout the exhibition’s span are as equally present as the photographers. Noticing the shifting grain and quality of different artists’ preferred cameras and film stocks is a fascinating aspect of the experience of viewing so many images so closely together.

Key moments in photographers’ use of new technologies stand out, most vividly when Bruce Davidson’s mid-1960s photos of Welsh mining towns explode into hyper-real colour, the pink smoke staining the images of cobbled streets and grey stone houses. Frank Hablicht’s sexually charged images of the swinging 60s are playful and mobile, the camera peeking up and out to offer a flavour of the motion of the bright young things portrayed.

Raymond Depardon’s images of 1980s Glasgow contain some of the most striking uses of colour in the whole exhibition, the flames of burning rubbish glowing against a grimy background, or the harsh red of a car popping against slate grey housing. In the downstairs section of the gallery we are offered work that is further away from the conventions of portraiture, landscape and photojournalism, including the intricate scrapbooks of Shinro Ohtake, and Bruce Gilden’s contemporary extreme close-up grotesqueries.

The exhibition pans around the upstairs gallery and the ground floor corridor rooms, built around a central library space that gives visitors a wonderful opportunity to sit and leaf through the books that many of the photographs are drawn from. It’s an opportunity to handle the images, to inspect them in your hands rather than squint between shoulders at the wall. The break this offers may also be welcome, as the exhibition is enormous and warrants a leisurely visit to see it all.

Parr has created a huge and expansive survey of Britain, and done so in a way that might provide real insight into the funny place that many of us call home. Like the best survey exhibitions, different parts will appeal to different viewers, and you and I will each come away with our favourites and less-favourites. But more importantly this show is an excuse to wallow in beautiful documentary photography, in still images of everyday life and mundane strangeness, in the swim of history and the artistry of its documentation.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers
Until 19 June
Barbican Art Gallery
Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS
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