27th September – 24th November 2019
Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead
Part of LOOK Photo Biennial 2019
By Kenn Taylor
Distinctly features the work of ten photographers whose images capture aspects of life in Britain over the last sixty years up to the present day. The exhibition takes up two of the Williamson’s spacious, well-lit galleries, which give the diversity and volume of work in the show room to breathe. The Williamson is a great space for art and has been showing increasingly dynamic programming of late.
Some of the first pictures featured are from Martin Parr’s weather series; well known, but less typical of his work being in black and white. More than the weather, these images seem most to capture the physical landscape of much of urban Britain in the 1980s and early 90s – rain stained concrete and a general air of being run down. The people are just a small part of these scenes, hunkered down in resignation, even if only because of the drizzle.
A stark contrast from these are Trish Murtha’s images of children playing, joshing and hanging around, in the 1970s ruins of Victorian streets. In these pictures the children are vivid and central. Images like these are a staple of British photography of that era, but contain more warmth than most, a product perhaps of Murtha’s familiarity with her subject, from her own upbringing in Elswick, Newcastle.
Ken Grant’s images of 80s and 90s Merseyside meanwhile, capture a landscape and community familiar to me, but his pictures are always more than just documentary, each heavy with a particular mood and sometimes the air of drama having just happened, or about to.
Markéta Luskačová’s photographs of London street musicians from the 1970s to the 90s seem much older than their era, featuring people with dress and instruments appearing to be from the start – not the end – of the 20th century. John Myers’ 1970s images too, capture how many people were living in an almost Victorian way right into that decade, even as boxes of Surf and chipboard walls highlight the creeping advance of the consumer world we’re more familiar with.
Both Myers and Luskačová’s pictures show in many respects how slowly things changed in the 20th century for most people, right up until the 1970s, with other photographers in this exhibition capturing how rapidly things changed after that. The two roads of Britain after then, the decay and the hyper development that scars the country in different ways, run through many of these works, whether a central theme or in the background. Daniel Meadows’ portraits, first in the 1970s and then of the same people in the early 2000s, picture those who lived through and experienced that change.
Flipping this over though are Robert Darch’s recent images of agricultural life in south west England. While clearly contemporary, the traditional work seems to exist out of time. It’s almost a shock to see colour in his images after so much black and white, but colour is also central in Kirsty Mackay’s images looking at housing and landscape in her native Glasgow and their relationship to the city’s challenges with poor health.
Chris Killip’s large prints of work from his In Flagrante series are amongst the better known and the most dramatic works in the exhibition. The deep contrast between dark and light tones and sharp cropping making them at once intense, brilliant documentary and at the same time strikingly cinematic.
Niall McDiarmid’s recent portraits of people in high streets around the UK, happy to be photographed, confident, dressed in their gear to go to town, feel very different to the rest of the images in Distinctly and a necessary reminder of the expression of individual, sometimes vivid personality. Even some of these portraits, however, are also framed to a degree by the run down streets in the background, omnipresent.
Decay unnecessarily frames the images in this exhibition in a literal sense too, with the damp in the walls of the Williamson clear in one of the galleries. Like so many museums and galleries in Britain, no doubt a product of limited funds leading to endlessly deferred maintenance.
Images such as those in Distinctly, have resonance with audiences, I think, because they capture some essential aspects of humanity, as well as the specificity of certain cultures in Britain, whilst highlighting realities familiar to so many though not always seen in art. Over six decades in the UK, the brief periods of intense boom followed by long periods of stagnation and decay, the kind that leaves children playing in ruins and resignation on the faces of adults. These photographs portray people and landscapes from the concrete edges of the North East coastline to the ever-changing communities of East London, who are so often marginalised, mistreated, talked over, misrepresented; shown here instead with dignity, vividness and complexity.
Mention must be made also about the strong work by the young women photographers featured in the adjacent exhibition Women of Iron, which captures Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird shipyard, in particular its female workforce. Images which stand up just fine against the work in Distinctly by far more experienced photographers. This was a project developed by Wirral’s Creative Youth Development programme. Such programmes are amongst the most important part of public cultural provision and there are not nearly enough opportunities like that for young people. Wirral is drawing to an end this year as Borough of Culture within the Liverpool City Region. Now, like everywhere else in the UK, it deserves a lifetime of the level of arts activity and opportunities that has been seen within it.
This piece was published by Corridor8 in February 2020.
Images copyright: Chris Killip, Robert Darch, Trish Murtha, Declan Connolly, Suzanne St Claire