Strange and Familiar – potent nostalgia, not all banished to the past

What a curse is self-awareness for those whose life has turned to mulchy grimness.
I feel prurient, staring at the man who doesn’t even allow his eyes to look into the lens that is capturing his despair.
His teeth are too few, his eyes are rheumy, face hollowed out and the nose is linguini mass of broken veins.
Next to him is a thickly made up woman, each follicle of soft downy facial hair from cheek to nose to chin, is captured in the light. The faintly hipsterish woman next to me thinks it may be a man in drag, this is not a face she has seen out and about. I don’t think so.

These photographs are amongst the last few images of the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the Manchester Art gallery, unsurprisingly curated by Martin Parr (and formerly on show at The Barbican in London).
It is a collection of mid to late twentieth century images of Britain caught by foreign photographers.

I have reached an age where my early childhood is distant history to children. My son looks in wonder and with a juvenile historian’s eye at the Dandy and Beano annuals of the early seventies that I bring him. 1972 seems to be roughly where the line is drawn between innocuous old fashioned cartoon strips and those that hold the jeopardy of a language or character that may need a little more explanation. He looked a little perplexed at the blacking up in one old Dandy strip about amateur, but needy vaudevillians.
I try to imagine what my son sees when I look at seventies documentaries. What does he see that I can’t see when James Mason walks around the mills and brass band practice rooms of 1972 Huddersfield. I was alive then. This what the world looked like when I was toddling. This may be the world that some strive for when they vote for BREXIT, as sense of community and purpose in work.
The first photographs are from before the time I was alive enough to see things. Cas Oorthuys captures the Soho market, a bryl-creemed, bow-tied market greengrocer with a table full of pineapple. A useful weapon against Francis Bacon should be become drunkenly hostile in The Colony Rooms later on in the Soho night.
Trafalgar Square is full of Duffle coats and anti-Polaris placards.
Further back in time, a photographer captures the first British medical unit going off to the Spanish Civil war.

Evelyn Hofer was commissioned to work with VS Pritchett on London Perceived. She also photographed prisons and cells. The prison cell of Gartree is decorated with snipped out paintings of the Old Masters, the cell is Parkhurst has walls that hang heavy with endless images of pendulous breasts.

As usual in exhibitions of photographed humans, I want to know what became of them. Who are they now? Do they know how many people still stare at them? Bruce Davidson’s Girl Holding Kitten is one of the best known images in the exhibition. Each one of us hears a different accent and projects different ideas and beliefs on her. We casually judge by faces and looks like Victorian scientists judged criminality by the closeness of eyes and gap between nose and upper lip. Bruce Davidson wrote about her, “there was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn’t know where she had come from, and I didn’t get her name, but there was something about that face – the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life – it was the new face of Britain.”

I wish it could be imagined as an apt face of Britain now, but that face f that girl is too open.
There are also two delightfully quaint images of cars on the Davidson wall, a group of old women, darkly head-scarfed and inquisitive, looking into a fancy car, and a packed mini in a lay-by with passengers indulging in their thermos contained picnic treats.

I had never seen Cartier Bresson’s photographers of a rain sodden race goer at Ascot, shielding himself with a damp newspaper for millinery, or his images of Blackpool.

Child Staring in Bakery Window by Edith Tudor Hart fills you with sadness. Will that little smudge faced girl with her torn jumper get a jam tart? I hope that once Edith had caught the girl’s longing on camera, she bought her a pastry. (and what a tragedy our childhood poverty statistics are getting worse again).

Flicking through my notebook, I realise there is no way I can effectively summarise all the work. There is page after page of inky scribbling and accidentally opaque notes.

Candida Hofer’s image of three lone drinkers, each on their own, sat under the Yates’s Wine Lodge Dessert Wine Menu…

Paul Strand’s images of the young and old on distant Scottish islands…

Raymond Depardieu’s photographs of 1980 Glasgow, commissioned by The Sunday Times, but left unpublished because the images were too bleak…

Garry Winnogrand’s images of sixties London with all that energy for change that may have been spent changing wardrobes more than life…

Looking at the young people in the photograph, chattering and precocious, I think of The Undertones, “teenage dreams so hard to beat”. Did they get what they hoped for, or do they look back at their teenage dreams with mockery and cynicism?

Am I one of the few lucky ones who got at least some of what he hoped for?

What did the hollow faced man pictured in a Dudley bus station think was coming to him when he was running around in the playground?

Strange and Familiar is currently at the Manchester Art Gallery

If you want to donate to your local food bank, The Trussell Trust has information HERE

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles has new shows up every week – from Alan Moore via Sarah Bakewell to Geoff Dyer. The current interview is with the Janne Teller. She speaks powerfully and with great humanity.


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