Culture, Manchester, Review

Manchester Art Gallery’s Strange and Familiar shows Britain from an international perspective

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By Lewis Catlow
Image: Bruce Gilden, ‘Factory in the Midlands’, 2014 ©Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

Curated by Iconic photographer Martin Parr, the Strange and Familiar exhibition has recently arrived at Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition is a showcase of photographs about British life, as seen by international photographers. It considers how foreign photographers from around the world have captured the social, cultural and political identity of Britain.

The exhibition itself includes multiple styles, from social documentary and portraiture to street and architectural photography. There are over 23 photographers from Europe, Japan and North America involved, and some of the highlights include work by Raymond Depardon, Bruce Gilden, Tina Barney, Akihiko Okamura, Rineke Dijkstra and Hans Van der Meer, plus many more. Over 250 compelling photographs, some of which are previously unpublished, are on show.

The pictures on show as you first enter the gallery might not stand out to an untrained eye, but on closer inspection these photos are of quintessential British life. These images are of things that make Britain so very British and different from anywhere else in the world. Things that a British person wouldn’t think twice about, such as a traditional sweet shop in Yorkshire, the inside of a run-down chippy in Brighton, or the inside of a London textiles shop selling rugs. Not as cliché as the typical London red phone box or the red double-decker bus, but still predominantly as British as it comes. “Clichés have not become clichés without good reason,” says Martin Parr.

Photos on display include images from post 1930s Britain in the dark, dismal days when houses were stained black from the mills, and bleak depictions taken in 1980 by exhibition highlight Raymond Depardon in Thatcher era Glasgow. The images which Magnum photographer Depardon took were considered too bleak by The Sunday Times, who commissioned the photographer but never published: weary elderly couples beneath the towering blocks of flats, abandoned mills, drunkards outside gambling shops, the bleakest of grey clouds and a closed shop that simply reads ‘Revolution’. In addition, Bruce Gildens exceptional large scale portraits of unsuspecting passers-by in the West Midlands are simply mesmerising in the way they make visitors feel uneasy and uncomfortable,.

It is amazing how these set of photographs capture such a distinctly unique but also seemingly ordinary Britain. Perhaps to do that so brilliantly you need an outsider’s perspective to not overlook the simple, everyday images we as Brits might miss. As Ian Jack stated for The Guardian: “They express a truth about the place that a home-grown photographer may have deliberately avoided, or forgotten through over-familiarity.”

The Strange and Familiar exhibition is running at Manchester Art Gallery until Monday 29th May. For more information, visit the gallery website.




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