Photos celebrating eight decades of British documentary photography

A new book by Gerry Badger explores how photography has shaped British identity over the past 80 years.

A new book by Gerry Badger explores how photography has shaped British identity over the past 80 years.

For photo critic Gerry Badger, photography has always been about telling a story rather than illustrating it. Lewis Baltz’s description of photography as “a narrow but deep zone between film and novel” encapsulates Badger’s view of the medium and inspired his latest book. Another country: British documentary photography since 1945.

Bringing together more than 250 works by more than 160 photographers including Tish Murtha, Sunil Gupta, David Hurn, Tony Ray Jonesand Tom WoodBadger skillfully challenges our assumptions about how the story is told.

“Photography is such a seductive and dangerous art because it seems to reproduce reality, but it’s subjective, always about a point of view – literally and metaphorically,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. Every photographer tries to speak their truth and when photographing society and history they try to be as objective as possible.

Elaine Constantine, Mosh, 1997, The Artist

But Badger also understands that subjective judgments are implicit in the act of making these choices, both on the part of the photographers and the author themselves. Moving away from the limiting perspective of “documentary” photography as recorded evidence, Badger embraces both upright and arranged photographs as well as photo-text work. “For me, documentary is about attitude rather than form,” he says.

Arranged chronologically by decade, Another country explores the role that documentary photography has played in shaping British identity over the past 80 years. The book begins at the end of the Second World War as the sun was finally beginning to set on the British Empire. It traces the introduction of working-class Jewish, Caribbean, Asian, African and British photographers, who challenged dominant cultural norms and offered new points of view.

In the late 1960s, American protest movements began to radicalize a new generation of young Britons, who understood that photography could be an agent of change. “They began to form their own collectives and cooperatives to practice and spread their ideas,” says Badger.

Dougie Wallace, Untitled, from Stags, Hens & Bunnies, 2014

Elaine Constantine, Dancing Tea, 2001

During the 1970s, institutions like The Photographers’ Gallery, the Arts Council and the Half Moon collective and gallery filled an important void. With the 1980s, the all-female photo agency Format and the Association of Black Photographers and their gallery, Autograph, dedicated to photographers of color.

Although the new millennium has brought about a populist revolution thanks to the internet and digital technology, Badger explains that these advances have not changed “the fundamental mission of photography to examine questions related to history, such as the politics, memory, culture and identity, but rather completely modify it and make its dissemination much easier”.

With photography becoming accessible and affordable, a camera is literally within everyone’s reach, transforming the way images are both made and seen. “We can now say that there is a global photographic culture”, observes Badger.

“This culture largely demonstrates that people around the world are essentially the same, with the same basic hopes, aspirations and fears. Hopefully this helps bring people together and that photography could be a force both for a more tolerant Britain and also for a more tolerant world.

Alice Mann, Victoria Olanrewaju, of (Always) Wear Your Best on a Sunday, 2014-16

Chloe Dewe Mathews Southend, 3.30pm, from Thames Log, 2013-18

Willy Lott’s house in Flatford, East Bergholt, Suffolk, 20th July 2014

Mitra Tabrizian, Correct Distance, 1985-86

Nick Hedges, Lunch Hut Joke, Steel Furnaces, British Steel Bilston, 1977.

Paul Reas, Pig’s Hand, from I Can Help, 1988

Ron McCormick, street musician, ‘Banjo – Jimmy Cross’, Spitalfields, London, 1972

Chris Killip, Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976

Another Country: British Documentary Photography Since 1945 is now available on Thames and Hudson.

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