An exhibition of Bruce Davidson’s work is currently on display at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London. Shot entirely in the UK during the 1960s, A United Nation casts an American perspective on the British people.
1960s Britain was characterized by transformation. Often described as ‘the decade that shook Britain’, it was one of cataclysmic change. By the 60s, the first teenage generation free from conscription emerged in Britain. And as the decade progressed, they turned London into the cultural centre of the world, bringing the Swinging Sixties into the fore. The 1950s, on the other hand, was a decade spent recovering from the ravages of war; both physically and emotionally, the UK bore the scars of a country in a state of trauma. A United Nation shows the British people in the interim of these two opposing decades.
American photographer Bruce Davidson is the unlikely source of some of the most intimate and gritty photographs of British life in this period. Davidson first cast his lens on the British people when he travelled to the UK in 1960, on commission for The Queen, a British society magazine. At the time, Davidson had just become a member of Magnum Photos. He was known for photographing communities that were hostile to outsiders, and particularly for his work shot in Harlem, New York City. The Queen gave him free rein to create his own personal portrait of the UK, and he toured for over two months, spending several weeks in London, before visiting the South Coast and heading North to Scotland.
On his travels, Davidson found a country that, in parts, appeared untouched since the 1930s, and a society that was driven by difference, whilst still emerging from its post-war traumas and years of austerity. Davidson chose to focus his photographic essay on the extremes of city and country life, and on the shifting social attitudes to class and custom. The resulting series offers a nuanced look at life in the UK, a country in a state of flux.
One group that Davidson was particularly drawn to was the new brand of teenager emerging in London at the time, representing an exciting new era, but with it a growing disparity between the youth and older generation. In many of the photographs, Davidson depicts care-free couples showing public displays of affection. In one image, two couples gaze lovingly at each other on Brighton beach, in another, a couple kisses passionately on a London street. These photographs are set in juxtaposition to images from rural Wales from later in the decade. In one image, a child pushes a buggy along an empty road, behind him the chimneys of factories billow smoke into the sky.
The photographs were originally published on 12 April 1961, under the title Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us: A Picture Essay on Britain. The photographs in the essay, and the resulting series, reveal a photographer attuned to traditions and social cues, perhaps even overlooked by the British people themselves. With his perspective as an outsider, he looked to formal dress rituals and customs, also capturing a sense of British stoicism and humour. Collectively, these photographs reveal the complexities of both the people and the country he encountered on the brink of social change.
By Sarah Roberts
Bruce Davidson: A United Kingdom
17th January 2020 - 31st August 2020
Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 3 - 5 Swallow Street, London, W18 4DE