British photographs of the ’70s and ’80s showcase a nation in decline


In early-1980s Britain, dub reggae melded with post-punk in eerie laments of a disunited kingdom, beleaguered by economic decline and interracial strife. Among the more audacious examples of the style is Mark Stewart and Maffia’s radical remake of “Jerusalem,” the William Blake ode to his “green and pleasant land” set to music by Hubert Parry. Stewart’s distressed version of “Jerusalem” features 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 the soundtrack to the entire exhibition.

The show consists of about 45 recently acquired prints and a few issues of British photo magazines of the period, as well as the hour-long “Handsworth Songs,” made in 1986 by the Black Audio Film Collective and directed by John Akomfrah. The red-walled first gallery emphasizes naturalistic black-and-white images of everyday life, mostly downscale. The vibe shifts, however, in the blue-walled second room.

Visitors who turn right upon entry will encounter Gilles Peress’s picture of Belfast, in which three people, two of them embracing, lean against a wall while a small street fire burns at the opposite side of the frame. Turning left leads to John Davies’s 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 jarred by modernity and succumbing to disruption and decay.

Equally stark are a pair of 1970s portraits of young couples with a child. Colin Jones pictures two people in a shabby room in a shelter for Black youth in Islington, a London borough that later was largely gentrified. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s photo centers on a naked man — dripping wet, presumably from an outdoor bath or shower — in a small backyard in Newcastle.

In a statement excerpted in the show’s wall text, the Finnish-born Konttinen notes that her foreignness meant “I could be nosy, and be forgiven.” But the photographer also proved herself to the neighborhood she documented by residing there for about a decade, an approach employed as well by Chris Killip. He lived in a van on the beach on the Northumberland coast as he chronicled his hardscrabble neighbors, “seacoalers” who subsisted by collecting waste coal washed up from the ocean.

Many of these photos suggest the frustrations of life in ’70s and ’80s Britain, and a few show the aftermath of violence. From a position that appears to be halfway in the grave, Peress observes the casket of an IRA member entering the earth in West Belfast. In Pogus Caesar’s grainy photo, two men walk behind an overturned vehicle that appears to be still smoldering. The location is the Birmingham neighborhood of Handsworth, whose Black and South Asian residents erupted in a 1985 riot that’s central to the film shown in this show’s back room.

In between the first gallery and the screening room are pictures, mostly made in the 1980s and usually in color, that depict a more affluent Britain. The images can be pointed, but generally with a lighter touch. In South Wales, Paul Reas contemplates a man who’s pondering an array of meat while wearing a sweater covered with pictures of pigs. Near Liverpool, Martin Parr captures an older couple who appear quite content to eat chips on a bench encircled by trash. Also included are two Parr photos of upper-crust Britons at garden parties, looking much less comfortable than the chip eaters.

While most of these photos are as raw as they are artful, a few of the 1980s items are more self-conscious. Anna Fox’s colorful pictures of London’s white-collar workers include a shot of two people at adjacent desks, presided over by a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. (She was the U.K.’s prime minister when most of these photos were made.) Karen Knorr’s portraits of “Gentlemen” at leisure and Sunil Gupta’s vignettes of “Pretended” couples are all staged.

The 1980s color photos appear more contemporary, but perhaps they’re just as outdated as the 1970s work. Recent economic forecasts for post-Brexit Britain are not optimistic. While black-and-white film photography is not going to make a major comeback, the discontented 1970s chronicled in “This Is Britain” may be due for a reprise of sorts.

This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s

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

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