Written by Deianira Tolema
Now more than ever, it’s become more and more important for the British to establish a singular identity as a country. As we’ve previously explained in Western Cultural Identity and the American Market the world is in a mad state of flux. Trump’s America is taking center stage, aggressively forcing American ideals as international representations of the west. While in Britain, the country is dealing with the aftermath of Brexit, which will isolate itself from the rest of Europe. This has put the question of British identity at the forefront of the public conscious.
As the country’s identity is put into question, one group that might be able to provide some answers are Britain’s artists, particularly its photographers. If a picture can say a thousand words, could those words answer the question of what makes Britain today? Photography can be a very powerful tool for artistic expression as well as chronicling human history. In terms of skill and subject matter, here are five photographers who’ve managed to capture Britain’s ever-elusive sense of national identity.
“The details are there to be read within the frame… It’s all in the snippets of information you can garner from the images.” In an interview with the British Journal of Photography, Simon Roberts explains what makes his work representative of British identity. Considering that nobody in the UK lives more than 72 miles from the sea, Roberts’ photographs capture a quintessential British activity: a day at the seaside. 21 of his photographs are now being shown in an exhibit called The Great British Seaside which can be visited at the National Maritime Museum aka NMM (until September 30 2018). In this exhibit, he is joined by three other prominent photographers from the UK.
Joining Roberts in The Great British Seaside is the phenomenal Martin Parr, master of intimate and impromptu shots, and a steward of British photography since the 70s. He recently talked to Dazed Magazine about how he believes the UK regards his work. “I think the art world in this country doesn’t truly appreciate how good British photography is.” It is one of the reasons why he established the Martin Parr Foundation – to create a multi-functional creative hub for photography in the UK. Additionally, the exhibit at the NMM will be featuring 20 new images from Parr that the museum commissioned specifically for the event.
Beatlemania chronicler and internationally renowned documentary photographer David Hurn is another big name who’ll be joining the exhibit.
Hermann Wilhelm Brandt was born in Germany in 1904. While he spent most of his early life and career in Vienna, he always wanted to be English and moved to Britain in April 1934. Fueled by the then young man’s fantasy of what Britain was like, Brandt went on to become one of the most important chroniclers of British life in the mid-1900s. A look back at his career on The Guardian reveals that most of his early work was accomplished in a makeshift darkroom at his humble London flat. There, he produced some of the strangest and most surreal class-conscious photography to ever come out of the UK, in and around the Second World War era.
Michael Hess was also born in Germany, and just like Brandt, he moved to the UK in the prime of his life. His most important work is chronicled in his book Bingo & Social Club – a series of photographs featuring 60 of the UK’s bingo halls taken from 2005 to 2010. The gravity of his work lies in the uncertain future of live bingo as well as the community of bingo players who keep the subculture alive. Since the time he took the photos, the British bingo industry has suffered both losses and resurgences fueled by various factors, including flawed government taxation, changing British tastes, and the rising popularity of online bingo. While the online games may be overtaking the physical bingo halls, the sense of community captured in Hess’ photographs remains. Foxy Bingo Reviews has space where gamers can show their appreciation of bingo, and share with others their passion for the game. Not to be outdone, live bingo halls have taken drastic steps to attract newer and younger audiences, such as refurbishing bingo halls to look and feel more like the pubs and other haunts frequented by the British youth. The current efforts of bingo halls at re-branding are interesting to say the least, but if you want an authentic peek into the world of the traditional British bingo scene, no one did it better than Michael Hess.