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Exhibition Review: Strange and Familiar

Outsiders can sometimes provide a fresh look at a time or place, observing things that those who live there fail to notice or consider too obvious for comment. Such ideas are behind the exhibition ‘Strange but Familiar’, currently on at Manchester Art Gallery, which shows the work of a number of international photographers who have depicted Britain (though there are no photos of Manchester).

The photos included cover a period of almost eighty years. The earliest are by Henri Cartier-Bresson, of patriotic crowds at the coronation of George VI in 1937, complemented by some of Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee in 1977; these indeed focus on the spectators rather than the official celebrations. Many of the photographers whose work is exhibited adopted a left-wing position, and provide a kind of documentary record of people’s lives.

Edith Tudor-Hart (originally from Austria) photographed appalling living conditions from the 1930s, while Candida Höfer shows depressing Liverpool scenes from 1968. More overtly political photos include those of demos against nuclear weapons from 1961 and the Vietnam war from 1969, and of parades and bombs in Northern Ireland, from 1968–9.

As times changed, the depictions of rundown streets give way to the ‘swinging sixties’, with joints and skimpier clothes. But decaying council estates and tower blocks from the 1980s show how some things change very little. Jim Dow’s shots of corner shops from 1980 to 1994 emphasise how few of these now remain, while Bruce Gilden’s striking large photos of three unhealthy faces from West Bromwich in 2014, each of which occupies virtually the whole frame, are a stark reminder of the effects capitalism can have. Raymond Depardon was commissioned by the Sunday Times to photograph Glasgow in 1980, but the results, of a city in decline, were too bleak to publish: sometimes the capitalist media cannot accept an accurate picture of the society they support.        

PB