At Bristol Photo Festival, the exhibition entitled “Island Life” is a collection of photographs by some of Britain’s great post-war photographers. Does it make sense? Does it have to?
The first image that greets you when you walk in “Island Life” is a couple of images from Clementine Schneidermann’s and Charlotte James' 2017 project, It’s Called Ffasiwn. One image shows a group of Welsh children having an impromptu street party. The children are dressed in grey, the street is decorated with purple and lilac balloons, and the houses are boarded up, derelict monuments to the stagnation of the Welsh Valleys economy.
Turn your head around and you see Paul Trevor’s brilliant image of a group of kids huddled around another derelict street, this time in Liverpool in 1975. It’s in black and white, the kids have long hair and wide trousers, the street is strewn with a thin layer of smoggy mist, and there is a sense that the ‘managed decline’ the city will be subjected to by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s is already accidentally taking place.
Schneidermann and Trevor’s images share a remarkably similar subject matter – a cluster of children set against a background of architectural decay – yet both use radically different approaches. Schneidermann’s is collaborative in intent, focused on ideas of participation and consent, while Trevor’s comes with more of an observational feel to it. There’s the idea of witnessing underlying it.
That diversity of approaches is what makes “Island Life” such an interesting exhibition. It’s also what makes it somewhat flawed. The range of subject matter is bewildering at times, with images from France, from the Republic of Ireland, and the Falkland Islands put on show.
The individual images are fantastic though and range from the large format poetry of Chris Killip’s long term community projects in the Northeast of England to Jo Spence’s self-portrait commentaries on the history of photography, and Lorenzo Vitturi’s sculptural representations of the diversity of London’s increasingly gentrified urban markets.
Embedded in “Island Life” are changing ideas of what documentary can be (and perhaps this could be highlighted more) and a potted social history of the British history over the last 80 years. There are the lush colours of John Hinde’s brilliant promotional pictures for Butlin’s Holiday Camps, pictures that catch the postwar working class optimism of the country. There are Sunil Gupta’s images examining what it is to be a gay Indian man, class is directly or incidentally referenced in images by Karen Knorr, Daffyd Jones, and Richard Billingham, while Daniel Meadows’ portraits from the 1970s show the warmth with which photography can be made and received by everybody involved.
Political conflict is there in images of protest. There are images of poll tax riots, photojournalism from the troubles in Northern Ireland, and Pogus Caesar’s images of demonstrations against police violence in Handsworth.
The final image in the exhibition in chronological terms is Colin Moody’s photograph of the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, being thrown into Bristol Harbour in June 2020. It’s an image that summarises the changing sense of history, the idea that there are stories that remain untold. Underlying this exhibition is a reminder that photography can help tell stories about who we are and it can do this in many different ways.
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.
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