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Martin Parr shows Britain in all its 'stiff upper-lipped, jubilant glory'

Barbican exhibition presents the country through the lenses of 23 photographers from abroad

by Anny Shaw  |  18 March 2016
Martin Parr shows Britain in all its 'stiff upper-lipped, jubilant glory'
Hans van der Meer, Mytholmroyd, England (2004). © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist
Few people are better qualified than Martin Parr to curate an exhibition of photographs depicting Britain in all its eccentric, stiff upper-lipped, defiant, bloody, jubilant glory. And so it’s little wonder that Strange and Familiar: Britain Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican (until 19 June) is such a hit.

Parr has brought together a rich assortment of images taken from the 1930s onwards by 23 photographers—none of them British. In the first half of the 20th century, the roll call reads like a greatest hits of photojournalism: Paul Strand, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sergio Larrain.

Some of the best photographs in the show can be found upstairs, in the section dedicated to the earlier part of the 20th century. Among them Larrain’s blurry flock of pigeons taking flight in Trafalgar Square, the Soviet spy Edith Tudor-Hart’s tender image of a group of children being treated with ultraviolet light in a south London hospital and Strand’s abstract pictures of seaweed splayed on a sandy beach.

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson, Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
  • Tina Barney, The Red Sheath (2001). © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery
  • Candida Höfer, Liverpool IX (1968). © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
  • Candida Höfer
    Liverpool XIX, 1968
    © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
  • Akihiko Okamura, Northern Ireland, 1970s. © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan
  • Akihiko Okamura, Northern Ireland, 1970s. © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan
  • Edith Tudor-Hart, Gee Street, Finsbury, London (around 1936). © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland
  • Edith Tudor-Hart. Kensal House, London (around 1938). © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland
  • Cas Oorthuys, London (1953). © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum
  • Cas Oorthuys, London (1953). © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum
  • Sergio Larrain, London, Baker Street underground station (1958-59). © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos


Downstairs (one of the few criticisms of the show is its counter intuitive layout), Britain bursts into postmodern colour. As photojournalism gives way to fine art, Parr’s selection becomes a bit more hit and miss—perhaps because the nostalgia has faded and only surface remains. One standout is a shot by Jim Dow of an eel and pie shop with a powder blue interior in Peckham, south London that resembles an unpopulated Edward Hopper painting.

In some ways it’s a show full of clichés: the bowler-hatted gents in the City of London, the George VI coronation street parties, the dogs in baskets. But it is also full of hard truths: the bloody pavements of Derry/Londonderry in 1969, the gnarled hands of a woman from the remote island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, the broken capillaries creeping over the face of a gummy, presumably heavy-drinking, man. It is indeed strange to see the nation defined through the eyes of others, but ultimately it’s a stirring photographic portrait of a kingdom united by its people.

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