Britain Revealed by International Photographers.

Barbican Art Gallery, London, till 19th of June 2016.

If you don’t see any other photography exhibitions this year, this one is worth checking out – and there’s only two weeks left, so hurry!

Curated by Britain’s own Magnum Master, Martin Parr, the works assembled for the show cover a period from the 1930’s to the present day. Among the features photographers are names just about anyone would recognize, including Robert Frank, Paul Strand, Bruce Davidson and Garry Winogrand.

If you buy a ticket for this exhibition, for an extra £1 you also get entry to Martin Parr’s own behind-the-scenes view of the traditions and ceremonies of the City of London, showing at the Guildhall Gallery about 10 minutes walk from the Barbican, or a little longer if you take a stroll through the Barbican high-walk via the Museum of London.

There are too many stand-out images to mention. However, as with all large exhibitions, individual images can lose their impact through thematic repetition. For that reason, those that break the theme in terms of style or content tend to stand out, so I mentioned three below which are strikingly different from the rest. (Click on name to see portfolios):

Sergio Larrain (Chile)

His ‘from the hip’ style captured a sense of spontaneous dynamism in the scenes he shot. Some were blurred, some shot from odd angles with double exposures and reflections, some shot through windows and some of retreating figures, but the result was a hugely varied and fascinating series of compositions which were also very aesthetically satisfying.

Some of the images looked like the kinds of classic mistake we are told to avoid, with people half in the frame or obscuring the background, except that in each case it works.

Jim Dow (USA)

Jim’s subject matter focuses on the facades and interiors of small, family run corner shops and local businesses. These detailed colour images were a counterpoint to the mainly character-based exhibition and showed a different perspective on how people’s surroundings differed in the 1980’s from the way they look now.

For someone who can remember the ’80s with the clarity of a twenty-something, I found these images strangely evocative and poignant, given the freefall decline of small independent shops in the face of competition from large franchises. The images are themselves unemotionally objective, but that’s the point. The viewer is left to react in their own way to the content, not the photographer’s interpretation of it.

It is also a good example of unseenery. To local British people, such sights were so mundane as to be forgettable and not worth photographing, but to a visitor they can be a unique source of fascination. Now they’ve gone to be replaced by franchises and chains, the sight of them brings a nostalgic lump to the throat to those of us who remember the names of our old shopkeepers.

Raymond Depardon (France)

Raymond’s dispassionate and stark views of Glasgow during it’s decline and regeneration in the 1980’s include a lot of the background scenery, putting the subjects very much in the context of their environment.

Despite the desolate backdrop of closed factories and dockyards, there is still a lot of implied humour and resilience in the posture and attitude of the subjects themselves.

It is a scene that is repeated continuously across the country even today, and mirrors the decline of London’s Docklands in the 1970’s and their eventual transformation into a hugely successful financial services centre. The overall feeling is one of quiet optimism for a brighter future rather than hopelessness and dejection.

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