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This Is Britain: The Ship is Sinking

The idea behind “This is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s” is simple. It shows the work of photographers “who recorded ways of life that were under threat or disappearing.” It shows the influence of car culture, migration, de-industralisation, and banking deregulation  on a nation that found itself in various pockets of decline in the post war years. 

That decline is only finding its full expression in the current post-Brexit years. Come to the UK today and you will find a country that is looked on with a mix of pity (“it’s so terrible what’s happening in your country, Colin”) and schadenfreude. 

But the decline really began to be felt in the 1970s as manufacturing disappeared, as Thatcherite policies and the resulting mass unemployment destroyed the social fabric of the nation. 

Handsworth Riots: Birmingham, United Kingdom, September 1985. © Pogus Caesar/OOM Gallery Archive, ARS, New York, DACS, London
Handsworth Riots: Birmingham, United Kingdom, September 1985. © Pogus Caesar/OOM Gallery Archive, ARS, New York, DACS, London

A new era of industry

Shifts in the industrial power are apparent in the photographs of John Davies. His image of Salford’s Agecroft Power Station shows a God’s Eye view of industrial power. Four immense chimneys rise above a field where men are playing football. The fields have an idyllic, pastoral look about them; there’s a light mist in the air and the bare branches of the trees dominate the foreground.

Look a little more closely and you’ll see a white horse standing in fly-tipped debris in the bottom left corner. There’s an overturned car and if you look to the area between the field and the chimneys, you’ll see an outflow from the power station into the River Irwell, from which water was drained for use in the cooling towers. 

Agecroft Power Station, Salford, 1983 © John Davies, Courtesy L. Parker Stephenson Photographs
Agecroft Power Station, Salford, 1983. © John Davies, Courtesy L. Parker Stephenson Photographs

The towers are no longer there now. Instead there’s a private prison, a distant byproduct of the privatisation obsession of the 1980s. References to that market driven mindset are made in Anna Fox’s Work Stations, a series of images that show workers at their desks and out about in the 1980s. These are images that were made in the late 1980s of a kind of person who was created following deregulation to the banking sector. They are pictures of wealth, power, and a class at ease with that. 

London Turns Left

Class also comes in the earlier work of Karen Knorr. Her Gentleman series shows the disappointments of Upper-Class English people as they struggle with a new world. Inspired by photographers the work of Bill Owens and his book Suburbia in particular, the photographs are accompanied by captions

Newspapers are no longer ironed, 

Coins no longer boiled 

So far have Standards Fallen 

reads one caption as a young man in a pinstriped suit sits at a table reading a newspaper with a headline that reads London Turns Left

Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards Fallen from the series Gentlemen, 1981-1983, printed 2015. © Karen Knorr
Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards Fallen from the series Gentlemen, 1981-1983, printed 2015. © Karen Knorr

The transformations in British society went both ways. As laws on homosexuality, abortion, divorce, racial discrimination, and women’s rights  were challenged and amended in the 1960s and 1970s, so there was a reactionary backlash in the 1980s, the start of the so-called culture wars that dominate British society today.

One law that exemplified this backlash was Section 28, a law that prohibited local authorities from promoting ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. To call this a culture war, as with most so-called culture war, would be a misnaming. It was an attack on human rights and human dignity. Sunil Gupta’s images from his Pretended Family Relationships series are a direct response to this law, a series that makes gay love visible in public space. One image shows a couple standing in front of the Houses of Parliament. The caption reads,

I call you my love though 

you are not my 

love and it 

breaks my 

heart to tell you

Untitled #1 from the series “Pretended” Family Relationships, 1988, printed 2020. © Sunil Gupta
Untitled #1 from the series “Pretended” Family Relationships, 1988, printed 2020. © Sunil Gupta

A story still relevant

The change in British demographics is apparent in Vanley Burke’s images of Winford Fagan standing by his bike in a Handsworth park. The bike has been put together from separate parts, the most notable of which are the massive handlebars (there was a period when the wider the better was the rule). And on top of the handlebars there’s a union flag, a symbol of the country he was born into. 

It’s a supremely positive image, but beneath it lies racism, violence, and a history that continues to this day. That undercurrent is evident in the pictures of Pogus Caesar of the Handsworth riots of 1985, one of a number of disturbances in which local populations protested against the endemic racism of the police in economically challenged urban areas.

Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park, 1970, printed 2022. © Vanley Burke
Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park, 1970, printed 2022. © Vanley Burke

Caesar shows the morning after these events, two men walking past an car standing on its side. Behind the image, however, lies a complex interweaving of histories, ideas of citizenship, and class that are examined further in the exhibition. 

Images from Chris Killip, Graham Smith, and Sirkka Liisa Konttinen show working class communities in the northeast of England, while Martin Parr’s iconic Last Resort images from New Brighton shows daytrippers from Liverpool enjoying the delights of the Irish Sea on the beach, lido, and concrete ramps of the resort.

Martin Parr New Brighton, Merseyside from the series The Last Resort, 1984
New Brighton, Merseyside from the series The Last Resort, 1984. © Martin Parr, Courtesy Rocket Gallery

There’s a preponderance of children in the series, partly because Parr had recently become a father for the first time, and his image of a young mother holding her hand over face as her baby screams in the umbrella-covered pram above her is a memory of the more trying times of motherhood. 

Longing for a bygone era

The mass market of leisure and pleasure is shown in Chris Steele-Perkins image of a Hypnosis Demonstration at a  Cambridge University Ball, an image that has something of the uncanny about it, but is also about the normalisation of public expressions of elitism as the 1980s progressed. By the end of the decade, the people in Karen Knorr’s images moaning about the end of civilisation because newspapers aren’t ironed anymore are knee-deep in their profits from housing, banking, and the sell-off of British national resources to the wealthy. 

Hypnosis Demonstration, Cambridge University Ball, 1980–1989 © Chris Steele-Perkins
Hypnosis Demonstration, Cambridge University Ball, 1980–1989. © Chris Steele-Perkins

And what’s left? By the end of the 1980s, British society was on its long path towards a flat commodification of everything. It’s evident in Paul Graham’s pictures of the Great North Road, the A1, a road surpassed by the M1, the cafes and roadside economy replaced by the motorway service behemoths of KFC, MacDonalds, and Burger King.

He shows us a little bit of 1970s nostalgia, the red and white striped awning of a Little Chef, Britain’s very own home-grown chain of American-inspired roadside restaurants. The chain went into decline in the 1990s, the number of restaurants slowly shrinking until the holding company converted them into franchises of Starbucks, Greggs, and Subway.

Little Chef in Rain, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire, May 1982. © Paul Graham, courtesy Pace Gallery
Little Chef in Rain, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire, May 1982. © Paul Graham, courtesy Pace Gallery

And now all that is left is the memory of the red and white awnings, and its capitalised block font, a memory that comes complete with the knowledge that, like so many things the British get nostalgic about, it wasn’t very good in the first place and it’s no better than what replaced it. Thanks for the memories, they’re better than the reality. 

This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, Jan 29–Jun 11, 2023, National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC.

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