Strange and familiar reviewed: clever cliché at the Barbican

Photography has always been a medium I’ve struggled with. By nature, it’s a tool imbued with more seeming authenticity than other forms of art — a lens for documentary that doesn’t express the same subjectivity of, say, a canvas made choppy in the name of abstract expressionism. What I struggle with is what I’m meant to be looking at: the beauty of a moment captured? A historical record? How and where do I draw the line between the artist’s control over the photo, and the truth of the story I’m seeing?

The Barbican’s Strange and Familiar precariously treads around this latter question while posing another: what, really does it mean to be British? Curated by Martin Parr, the show features work from an array of international photographers who have sought to chronicle some nuance of ‘Britishness’ from their ‘outsider’ perspective, from the 1930s to now.

We get a thorough — albeit often predictable — overview of British archetypes through the ages: doe-eyed hippy youths making the most of the morally ambiguous 60s, the grimy poverty of London’s East End, the desolate stares of the lower classes in forgotten crevasses of the country. Whilst nothing we see (baring Japanese photojournalist Akihiko Okamura’s work) really surprises us, enough cues are given off to help us feel we’re piecing together a palpable idea of some sort of Britishness. It’s a familiar Britishness, but one that has a decisive and memorable effect when we’re confronted by all the different facets that construct it in a single space. This effect is perhaps the ‘strange’ Parr means for us to feel; where it comes to the familiar, we rest on what we know.

Historical photos can’t really be completely divorced from readings (at least in part) as reportage and documentary. We stare into the frames and feel as if we’re hovering over a window to the past, and somehow gleaning a better understanding of ‘what it was like’ by starting over a scene otherwise unremarkable: a woman in Glasgow hangs her laundry out to dry; six milk bottles wait on the doorstep of a house in Northern Ireland. We stare into the sooty faces of Robert Frank’s iconic Welsh coal miners and imagine we’re now in on some secret of how their lives played out. We take the familiar ‘truth’ of this for granted.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin ParrInstallation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Except, perhaps where it comes to Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain’s quirky take on London. Addressing documentary in a way that’s refreshingly self-aware, his photos are arranged on the wall in an unusual and deliberate cloud formation, clustering our exposure to the photos together as a single, continuous experience. He assures us that it’s fine we’re seeing these moments through the lens of his own discretion: he’s offering us an expressive vantage point by which to draw new conclusions from the scenes we guess are playing out.

Larrain brings us minute flashes of moments slightly obscured. We look out onto the street from ground level behind a woman’s ankles, we catch a man peeping through a window at the very bottom of a frame. Larrain’s London at once communicates disjuncture and randomness: the most compelling argument of authenticity we see from this exhibition about the capital.

London may have been the exhibition’s most popular subject, but failed to match pace with Akihiko Okamura’s exposition of the the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Focusing on the nuanced effects war has on people living through it, Okamura brings us forgotten moments of conflict: unreported and unacknowledged by all but those who were there. We see armoured troops cluster on residential streets beneath a stunning blue sky, while people peer over their wonderfully green, manicured lawns to watch. People watch fires on the street; a mother and child walk through a shopping strip behind barbed wire.

It’s human nature to try and elicit a story from photos we see of a situation we don’t know: here, coupled with sheer surprise at how ludicrous these moments seem, there’s not much ambiguity left for us to not trust Okamura’s eye as storyteller.

24. Strange and Familiar, Curated by Martin Parr, Barbican. Photo Tristan Fewings_Getty ImagesInstallation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Downstairs we tread into contemporary territory, seeing more focused interrogations of modern British life, rather than attempts to capture an epoch altogether. Tina Barney stylishly introduces us to Britain’s old wealth, presenting subjects as deliberate factors of their surroundings — a tactic not unlike old school oil paintings. We immediately get both a palpable sense of the types of lives they lead, but at the same time, wonder exactly what that would mean. It’s a focused snapshot on a small and largely invisible group, reminding us that our daily lives are one of many microcosms in today’s larger Britain.

A clever and visually stunning exhibition, Strange and Familiar couples what we know and expect to encounter in a discussion of Britishness with the specificities of different types of British life. We see an expert mix of technical skill, social reportage, and artistic licence: all confronting us from different angles to form part of a complete, but largely multifaceted idea of collectivity. Does it resolve the ever-present dichotomy between a photograph’s authenticity and subjectivity? No, but is it really fair to expect it to? For all the flaws of reportage and artistic criticism, Strange and Familiar succeeds in creating a collectively understood fluid reference point by which to gauge our own nationhood.

Strange and Familiar is showing at the Barbican, London, until June 19

Featured image Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Mon

Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.