In 1991, British photographer Graham Smith appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called British photography from the Thatcher years. It showed the lives of his friends, neighbors, and fellow drinkers in Middlesbrough, a town in northeast England that had once been at the forefront of industrialization and now, after the enforced decline of the Thatcher years, was depressed in terms of economy, infrastructure, and hope for the future.
“For the last ten years I have photographed in Middlesbrough, nowhere else,” wrote Smith in his MoMA bio. “Like my parents I was born and brought up in the town. My father, mother, stepfather, and their friends are all good drinkers and they have used, and they have always used the same few pubs, which we consider to be the best in Middlesbrough. They are used by those who live on the edge, whose future is the next good time, the next good drink. It’s never clear to me why I photograph in these pubs. It might be that I’m using the camera as a way of looking at friends, family, people from their past and, in turn, my background. The truth might be that the camera is just an extension of my drinking arm.”
Rediscovery of a work
MoMA’s 1991 exhibition (which also featured work by Chris Killip, Martin Parr, Paul Graham, and John Davies — see the catalog here) was seized upon by the News of the World newspaper. The working-class people in Smith’s pictures were labeled “drunk and disgusting” as the London-based journalists from this tabloid (which has since shut down after allegations of phone hacking) projected their regional and class biases over a photographer and a community 300 miles to the north.
Their reporting spread to local papers, and the effect on Smith and the community was devastating. Smith was blamed for the words of sensationalist journalists and threatened with violence.
“Because of that he stopped taking pictures, he stopped photography,” says gallerist Augusta Edwards. “He turned to woodworking and frame making. Most galleries in London at that time had his frames in their gallery.”
The 20/20 Chris Killip / Graham Smith exhibition at the Augusta Edwards Gallery is the first time his work has been extensively displayed in the UK since that time. Smith’s work is shown alongside photographs by his close friend Chris Killip, as a homage to an earlier 1985 exhibition called Another Country.
“The original Another Country had 140 pictures, this has 20 by each photographer, with no accreditation of who took which picture. I asked Chris if he could persuade Graham to exhibit. At first he said no, but after a few more calls, he persuaded him to do that.”
COVID-19 delayed the original exhibition, and Chris Killip sadly died in 2020. This exhibition is a remembrance of both Killip’s work and his friendship with Smith. It is a small but perfectly formed encapsulation of northeast England at a particular point in time. Where Killip’s brilliant images (which will be examined more closely in an upcoming review of his Photographer’s Gallery show) cut across the major strands of his work and show the deindustrialization of England, the marginal economies of the Seacoal community, and life in the fishing village of Skinningrove, Smith’s gives us a more intimate view of working-class life in Middlesbrough.
A powerful portrait of British society
A key opening image is of that of the Commercial Pub. It’s a multi-layered image where Smith introduces a cast of community characters: the stern, suited man, the woman with her handbag, the child with a pram, and the three people standing outside the pub.
It’s an image anchored in its time: the cars, the McEwans and Whitworth brewery signs, the advertising, and even the grim-up-north layer of mist add to the picture.
The print itself, printed on a very warm paper, adds another layer of detail. Look closely at the three people by the pub and you can see one laughing, his mouth caught as he mouths a word that might begin with ‘f.’
The images from inside the pubs are filled with affection and life, merging people and place, showing a world in which Smith and his large-format camera most definitely belonged. Sandy and his Aunty Elsie, Early Doors in the Commercial, shows a man and a woman having a drink, his face close to hers in hazy affection. His best-known image, of Robert Mitchum and Elizabeth Taylor lookalikes, reprises that easy comfort of being in a pub: being enveloped in the drink, the smoke, the company, the table.
The projection of the term “disgusting” onto these people is a moralizing judgment that is class, gender, and region-based in its origins. It’s the same judgment that saw Richard Billingham’s mother labeled as unfit for purpose and pushed Jo Spence into the photographic wilderness for being of the wrong class, gender, and appearance.
There are more affectionate pictures, like the man in the Zetland Bar smiling shyly as he has his hair caressed and braided by two women in fur coats, but there is also sadness and struggle in the exhibition—signs that life is hard, that money is tight, that people worry about where the next pay envelope will come from, how the next gas bill will be paid, what the kids will have for dinner.
It is work with soul and understanding, both of the places and the people that he photographed, and the ways in which people and place coexist. Rarely in photography do you find places that are so easily lived in.
“Graham was as much a part of the culture of the place as anyone in the pictures,” says Augusta Edwards. “But because of the negativity surrounding his work in the past, he felt it important to give it his context. He started writing. On the backs of the prints he has stories of people in the photographs. These were not intended for public reading. And different versions of the same print would have a different story. It adds another element to the work. It adds a different level of control to how it’s interpreted. Maybe it’s been a bit cathartic for him. He’s printed again for this show and he wrote for the catalog.”
The exhibition is part of a reinforcement of Killip’s status as one of the greats of British documentary photography. It is also part of what many hope will be a rebirth of Graham Smith’s photography career, with the hope that more exhibitions and books will come.
20/20: Chris Killip/Graham Smith / Augusta Edwards Fine Art, Gallery 8, Cromwell Place, Londres