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Does this image sum up Britain?
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Tuinol Barry, Chelsea, London, 1981 by Derek Ridgers (Credit: Derek Ridgers)
A new exhibition brings together photos that explore British identity. In a post-Brexit world, Fiona Macdonald finds out what that means.
(Credit: Derek Ridgers, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Derek Ridgers, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Tuinol Barry, Chelsea, London, 1981 by Derek Ridgers

The eyes are piercing, the nose pierced, the mouth unsmiling. There's a tattoo on his face where a dimple could be. A quote from The Sex Pistols runs across his forehead like a high tide, marking the hairline of a shaved head.

The man's name is Tuinol Barry. He appears in a new exhibition about British identity, An Ideal for Living – and 35 years after he was photographed, his image has more to say about what makes this island nation than countless postcards.

The skinhead: a racist neo-Nazi, right? Not necessarily. Before the ‘70s, it was a movement born from a love of black music. Derek Ridgers witnessed the growth of a youth tribe in which the most vocal – and vicious – set the agenda.

They were very exuberant – they liked fighting and drinking - Derek Ridgers

While photographing New Romantics at a Soho nightclub in 1979, Ridgers encountered a group of skinheads. They invited him on a trip to the seaside, and he photographed the extreme British youth cult for the next five years. “Ninety-five per cent of them were fine: polite, pleasant kids, although they didn’t have social and political views I agreed with,” he tells BBC Culture. “Some of their views were unpleasant but in a one-to-one situation with me, they were fine. They were very exuberant – they liked fighting and drinking. But five per cent of them were dangerous people, they were really nasty.”

They might have been associated with the far right movement, but skinheads were also a tribe defined by fashion. “When I was growing up in Hounslow in the late ’60s, for me the skinheads came from the Mods. You’d see Mods hanging about on the street one day, and then a few weeks later some of them had short hair and boots, and short jeans,” Ridgers says. “It wasn’t a political thing in the ’60s, it just got taken over. It was infested by politics in the late ’70s, early ’80s.” The movement emerged from a love of black music genres including soul, ska, rocksteady and reggae. According to Bill Osgerby, a professor of media, culture and communications, “It’s unfortunate that the racist elements have become such a by-word for skinhead culture… The sad bit is that the more enlightened, anti-fascist aspects have not better promoted themselves.”

Opening in the weeks after the UK voted to leave Europe, amid an increase in racist attacks and an atmosphere of uncertainty about national identity, An Ideal for Living is a timely show. While nobody could claim to define what it means to be British in a single picture, viewing these photos together allows a glimpse at a nation that increasingly sees itself as divided.

(Credit: Bill Brandt, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Bill Brandt, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Parlour-maid and under-parlour-maid ready to serve dinner, 1936 by Bill Brandt

Photographs in the exhibition often approach their subject obliquely. Whether by playing with national symbols that have become clichés, like Elliott Erwitt’s bulldog or by undermining formal occasions with humour (such as a photo of a man asleep on the street at the coronation of King George VI, taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1937), these images do not proudly proclaim ‘Britishness’.

The photograph is now considered a turning point... cutting critique of social etiquette - Flora La Thangue

Even an archetypally British scene – two maids in a parlour – is not what it first appears. Bill Brandt’s 1936 photobook The English at Home set the tone for a satirical approach to notions of class and propriety. This image, which features in Brandt’s photobook, was staged. Curator Flora La Thangue says it highlights “the theatricality of English social customs… The photograph is now considered a turning point in the history of documentary photography in its self-conscious construction and cutting critique of social etiquette”.

It’s a reminder that even the stiffest of formalities is often a performance: that the British can be self-deprecating as well as stuffy. Spanning 90 years, An Ideal for Living features 64 images by 29 photographers. According to La Thangue, subjects include “teddy boys, skinheads, Cambridge students, parlour-maids, bankers and protesters… the urge to rebel runs through the photographs.”

(Credit: Derek Ridgers, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Derek Ridgers, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Babs, Soho, London, 1987 by Derek Ridgers

In an introduction to The English at Home, critic Raymond Mortimer wrote that Brandt’s book “brings home very amusingly the variety and importance in England of clothes”. More than 40 years later, Ridgers snapped young people on streets and in nightclubs with a borrowed camera, revealing the way in which fashion and politics coincide. An introduction to his book Stare describes how “every midnight tribe is here – hippies, punks, ravers, goths, teds, mods and every pretty boy and dirty girl in between”.

The memories have turned it into something it wasn’t at the time - Derek Ridgers

But the images can make it easy to fall into a nostalgia for some kind of golden age. “The memories have turned it into something it wasn’t at the time,” Ridgers tells BBC Culture. “People from all over the world get in touch with me about my photography and they say ‘I wish we lived through that time’; the thing is, it wasn’t really all that much different from now – certainly in terms of clubbing and hanging out on the streets. I was only photographing remarkable people, and over the years I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of photos of remarkable people… in retrospect 30 or 40 years later, it looks like there were hundreds of people all around at the same time.”

According to photography professor Val Williams, who co-curated Tate Britain’s How We Are: Photographing Britain exhibition, however, those images together represent a unique record of a period of history “which changed the way we thought about music, fashion and consumption”. In an essay for a book of Ridgers’s club and street portraits, she writes: “He has produced thousands of remarkable photographs of remarkable people, transient beings moving across an urban landscape, experimenters, flamboyant souls who cared more than anything about how they looked and whose greatest fear was of being ordinary. But it was the ordinariness that Derek Ridgers glimpsed in these costumed characters that makes his photographs so powerful.”

Ridgers, she argues, made “the rapid and transitory, still and immortal”.

(Credit: Derek Ridgers, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Derek Ridgers, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Tuinol Barry, Kings Road, London, 1983 by Derek Ridgers

“When they’re young, people like to dress up,” says Ridgers. But the early ’80s wasn’t a time for pure hedonism. “Back when I photographed them, it was a dark time for a lot of young people. They didn’t feel they had much to look forward to.”

He photographed Tuinol Barry twice, two years apart. “He went from being a skinhead to being a punk. Some of them switched around, some of the skinheads were very committed – some are still skinheads, although they’re no longer young – but some of them were just skinheads for a few years and then they forgot about it,” Ridgers says.

In the days when I was photographing Tuinol Barry, I might be the only person other than their families who photographed these people - Derek Ridgers

Ridgers believes street photography today is fundamentally different than it was then. “Everyone’s got a camera, so they can photograph themselves. But in the days when I was photographing Tuinol Barry, I might be the only person other than their families who photographed these people. In some cases, they told me I was the first person to photograph them. Which is an amazing thing to think.”

In the catalogue for How We Are, Val Williams describes the way in which these photos froze moments that, before smartphones, would otherwise have been lost forever. “Ridgers’s photography captured the transitory nature of culture, a fleeting glimpse into what arrives, passes and is gone,” she writes.

(Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Girls Dancing in Wolverhampton Club, 1978 by Chris Steele-Perkins

In 1978, Chris Steele-Perkins was commissioned by The Sunday Times to photograph Enoch Powell’s constituency, 10 years after the Tory MP had prophesied an apocalypse caused by immigration in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. “Wolverhampton in the 1970s was a grey place, rather flat, dull and uninspiring, but there were little islands of energy – like this church youth club,” the Magnum photographer told The Guardian. “I went there one evening in 1978, to find hardcore reggae playing. The place was packed out: you had to squeeze through the gaps where you could.”

Wolverhampton in the 1970s was a grey place, rather flat, dull and uninspiring, but there were little islands of energy - Chris Steele-Perkins

Despite the tight space, Steele-Perkins captured what has become one of his most iconic photos. Space constraints aside, it was a difficult task. “This wasn't the easiest story that I've done: there was a degree of tension… These were slightly pissed-off youth and they weren't dying to hang around with me. The best way to describe it is that they put up with me.”

Born in Myanmar, Steele-Perkins has described Britain as “a strange place – funny, complex and sad. Distance yourself from it, experience other cultures, then look again. That strangeness becomes almost overwhelming.”

(Credit: Charlie Philips, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Charlie Philips, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Outside the ‘piss house pub’, Portobello Road, 1968 by Charlie Philips

Roland ‘Charlie’ Philips is able to see British life from a distance. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he joined his parents in London when he was 10, and the family lived among other Afro-Caribbean migrants in Notting Hill. Taking photographs with a Kodak Brownie camera he had been given by a black American serviceman, he captured protests and race riots in the area as well as street parties and the birth of the Carnival.

Growing up in Notting Hill at that time, in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a community that’s never been acknowledged - Charlie Phillips

“Growing up in Notting Hill at that time, in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a community that’s never been acknowledged,” he tells BBC Culture. “I got my inspiration from Norman Rockwell when he documented American life, and I thought as I went along I’d document Caribbean life in Notting Hill. It was more or less a ghetto at that time.”

He photographed this pub in 1968. “As a kid I used to be outside the pub because my dad, after work, he’d give me a glass of shandy. So about 10 years later I thought I’d include that in my photographic document,” he says. “Funnily enough, those were the days before you had community centres – right across the road was the Electric Cinema, which was known as ‘the bug house’. All these landmarks used to have their local names. So that one was ‘the piss house’… It had sawdust on the floor, it was that era.”

The area has been transformed since then. “The part of London that I know has changed a lot, because right now in Notting Hill it’s gentrified… The local community is broken up, moved out all over the place – as far as Milton Keynes. It’s not the working class community I once knew.”

(Credit: Charlie Philips, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Charlie Philips, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Notting Hill Couple, 1967, by Charlie Philips

Phillips has been called “arguably the most important (yet least lauded) black British photographer of his generation”. His work is beginning to be recognised: this image has featured in exhibitions at the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery. “It’s become one of my most iconic photos,” he says. “That was taken at a house party many years ago, there was this couple and I just thought they were beautiful. I didn’t really know them.”

A museum is showing it for the first time, and they’ve got to acknowledge we’re part of London history, whether you like it or not - Charlie Phillips

He’s not sure why people like the image so much. “It could be the social issues that this country has been going through over the years; it’s a good case study that maybe Britain isn’t as divided as people think,” he says. “The image is just showing a local community and a museum is showing it for the first time, and they’ve got to acknowledge we’re part of London history, whether you like it or not.”

(Credit: Emil O Hoppé, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Emil O Hoppé, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

School boy with luggage, Paddington station, London, 1933 by Emil O Hoppé

Phillips’s favourite image from the exhibition was taken 83 years ago. “That one of the boy at the railway station with all the luggage brought flashbacks, because it reminds me of when I first came here,” he tells BBC Culture.

My parents came and met me at Paddington railway station in 1956, and when I first came here, that’s how I was dressed - Charlie Phillips

“My parents came and met me at Paddington railway station in 1956, and when I first came here, that’s how I was dressed. I was 10, and it had been two years since I’d seen my parents; they came over before I did. They sent these horrible clothes over from England, grey flannel trousers and a cap. I wasn’t used to them. In London, I was in a whole different environment. It was an overcast August day, I remember it clearly. Photographs, you can identify with them or find something in common – that really did it for me. It unlocked memories, like a time tunnel.”

(Credit: Syd Shelton, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Syd Shelton, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Civil liberties activist, Darkus Howe, addresses ‘anti-anti-mugging march’ demonstrators from the roof of a public toilet, Clifton Rise, Lewisham, London, 13 August 1977 by Syd Shelton

Youth tribes in Britain rose up against the National Front in the mid ’70s. Syd Shelton was a founding member of Rock Against Racism, a movement that aimed to promote racial harmony through staging concerts, at a time when white nationalist groups were gaining popularity. “There are some clear parallels between that period and this period,” Shelton tells BBC Culture. “In 1976 when Rock Against Racism started, we were in the throes of the first major recession since World War Two, and the IMF had made a condition of supporting the British economy that the Callaghan government imposed the most incredible, stringent cuts… We didn’t use the word ‘austerity’ then but it was very much the first ‘austerity package’ after World War II – which meant the people at the bottom of the pile, the poor, were hit the hardest. And it also provided opportunity for the same sort of xenophobic scapegoating that we’re seeing right now.”

When they heard that the National Front would be organising an ‘anti-mugging’ march through Lewisham, Rock Against Racism joined a counter protest. As Shelton has said, “at the time, if you were young, black and male in particular, then you were really caricatured as a mugger”.

Racism is a shifting sea, and it finds new targets - Syd Shelton

He believes the group’s message is still relevant. “Racism is a shifting sea, and it finds new targets,” he says. “Hopefully, people will think about doing Rock Against Racism again – but each generation invents new ways of expressing themselves. There may well be people coming up with more original ideas for ways in which we can try to move towards a more equal, less racist society.”

(Credit: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Child with pram, from Welsh Miners, 1965 by Bruce Davidson

Photographer Robert Frank captured Welsh miners in Caerau between 1951 and 1953: according to The New York Times, “They lived in a land the color of slag, and their faces and clothes absorbed coal dust as if it were oxygen”.

More than a decade later, Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson was to create his own series in Wales. He spent ten days in Cwmcarn, on the edge of the South Wales coalfield, and his images show the community just as the mines were closing. “I think I got there just before it changed very much,” he told the Western Mail. “It was in a state of changing and it just all seemed very beautiful to me.”

I wasn’t there to make any kind of political statement – I was there to find something beautiful in the people and in their work - Bruce Davidson

Davidson aimed to show more than the misery of life in the mines, with photos of a horse in a field and children on rope swings. “There’s a lyrical beauty to it with the children playing in the cemetery and the pit ponies – the way they were let loose and would walk around the city. The pony is absolutely beautiful – it’s like a unicorn.” Davidson wandered around, capturing what he saw. “I wasn’t there to make any kind of political statement – I was there to find something beautiful in the people and in their work. I was very open – I wasn’t there to photograph the poverty.”

He reveals the domestic as well as the industrial, choosing colour for this shot in order to show the sulphuric acid pumping out of the factory in the background. “A lot of people think it’s a boy but it’s actually a girl. I don’t think you’d find many boys in a mining town pushing a baby carriage like that. They wouldn’t stand a chance.”

(Credit: Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Glasgow, 1980 by Raymond Depardon

The French photojournalist Raymond Depardon was commissioned to photograph Glasgow as part of a Sunday Times series on Europe’s overlooked tourist destinations, but what he sent back was far from a postcard perspective. According to The Scotsman, “The districts Depardon visited were the frontline of city’s post-war struggle with de-industrialisation and depopulation, where a legacy of slum clearance and high unemployment had left them bruised.”

Depardon won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his work in Chad, and had come to Glasgow straight from Beirut. “I came to Glasgow twice, once in the autumn of 1980 and once in the spring,” he told The Daily Record. “I was shocked by the poverty. I wasn’t expecting to find a population in the north of Europe that was so deprived… I worked in Glasgow like I did on the streets of Beirut, without prejudice and despite being shocked by the destitution, I loved every minute. No matter where I went, the people were welcoming and never seemed sad with their lot.”

You can turn a corner and this new 21st-century city disappears and in its place are the wide rain-washed streets of an older Glasgow - William Boyd

While they were dropped by The Sunday Times, a book with the complete set of his 1980 Glasgow photos was finally published this year. In its foreword, the author William Boyd writes: “The city is largely transformed today from the one that Depardon photographed in the early 1980s. The abandoned wharves, shipyards and warehouses of the riverside – Glasgow’s imperial industrial heartland and the source of its wealth – are now landscaped parks and yet, you can turn a corner and this new 21st-century city disappears and in its place are the wide rain-washed streets of an older Glasgow.”

(Credit: Peter Dench, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Peter Dench, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Picnic in the Car Park on Derby Day at Epsom Downs Racecourse, June 2001 by Peter Dench

“I was spending the day at Epsom racecourse shooting for long-term reportage profiling England’s relationship with alcohol,” says Peter Dench. “I saw the scene in the car park and raised my camera; the chap in the mustard coloured cardigan just started chuckling so I continued taking pictures and moving forward before having a conversation.”

The photo went on to win a World Press Photo Award as part of the series, Drinking of England, which Dench has called “an often laugh-out-loud stagger to the four corners of this badly behaved nation”.

The English have turned drinking into a national obsession, nearly an art form - Peter Dench

Dench’s parents both worked for a brewery in Weymouth. He remembers “The first time I got proper drunk was aged 12 at my former Junior School Summer Fete. Marc distracted the woman on the Hoopla while I placed the bamboo circle swiftly round the square that supported a bottle of Pomagne.” In fact, for Dench, alcohol is a defining characteristic of what it means to be British. “On 15 January 1915, during the First World War, the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George exclaimed that Britain was ‘fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink’,” writes Dench. “The English have turned drinking into a national obsession, nearly an art form… What I discovered is that the nation's favourite legal high is never far away. That drink is ultimately classless. Whether you are drinking £100 bottles of champagne or £1 bottles of cider, drink too much and the consequences are the same.”

(Credit: Mahtab Hussain, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Mahtab Hussain, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Red Hijab, Red Dress and Bling, 2013 by Mahtab Hussain

This photo is from the series Honest with You, described by Mahtab Hussain as “a commentary on the changing identity of the British Muslim woman, which examines the motivations of those who have resorted to concealing their femininity by re-veiling and wearing the hijab while others have rejected it outright. Like their male counterparts, British Muslim women are in flux, simultaneously clashing with and succumbing to Western ideology while attempting to uphold their cultural traditions.”

More often than not, they are labelled as ‘the others’ - Mahtab Hussain

Describing another project, You get Me, which photographed young British working class Muslim men living in Birmingham, Hussain wrote that “The desire of these young British Muslims is to be westernised and accepted, however their community is insular and inherently avoids integration with the wider population. Religion is often explained as the cause of the divide, part of which is true. However, several reasons play a role: poverty, social and cultural constraint by families, and a relentless reminder of British colonialism… Muslims are ridiculed by negative media representation and find it difficult to associate England as their home, as more often than not, they are labelled as ‘the others’.”

(Credit: Syd Shelton, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

(Credit: Syd Shelton, image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley)

Bagga (Bevin Fagan), Hackney, 1979 by Syd Shelton

“It’s noticeable that the day after the Referendum, my wife Carol – who’s black – didn’t want to go out of the house. She actually felt scared. I know lots of people who’ve had racist abuse since the Referendum. It’s given the confidence to all that backward thinking, and it’s tragic,” Shelton tells BBC Culture.

He believes that through multiple viewpoints, an exhibition like An Ideal for Living offers a more nuanced perspective. “It can give us a glimpse of how complicated society is, how varied; how rich in terms of cultural groups and social divisions,” he says. “In a group show like this, where there are lots of different points of view, different approaches to photography – that diversity of approach helps to put forward the diversity of the society that we live in, the complexity, and its contradictions as well as its unity. It shows Britain as a very successful multicultural nation – which it is.”

That isn’t to promote some rosy vision of Britain, though. “When you look at the pictures in this exhibition, it’s not that kind of notion of wanting our country back, of going back to this 1950s idea of church fetes on village greens with no conflict or problems. This exhibition contradicts that totally and says that is not Britain now, nor was it ever. When you look at the early pictures, it gives you a taste of what Britain really is like – and that’s a much more exciting and interesting place than that awful bland vision of bowling greens on a Saturday afternoon with high tea. That’s a part of Britain too, but it’s only a little part. It’s not a pattern for the whole country.”

An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain is at Beetles + Huxley until 17 September 2016.

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