Two nurses attend to a group of naked children wearing goggles and stretching their arms towards a bright light at the room’s centre. This scene has a futuristic quality reminiscent of Sixties sci-fi, but in fact depicts what was, in 1935 when this picture was taken, a routine medical practice: light therapy was often prescribed for ailments such as varicose veins and rickets.
This image, by the Austrian photographer Edith Tudor-Hart, is one of the most striking in a new exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London curated by Martin Parr, a photographer best known for his wry images of small-town England. “Strange and Familiar” captures scenes from British life through the eyes of 23 foreign photographers, beginning with the work of Tudor-Hart and coming up to the present day. Parr draws on his extensive collection of vintage photo-books, including the Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys’s “Term in Oxford” and the Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain’s “London 1958-59”. When visitors came to his house in Bristol, Parr would always make a point of showing them these books, telling them they would be “unlike anything they’ve seen before.”
Yet at first glance many of these photographers seem preoccupied with the clichés of British life: girls in miniskirts and bankers in bowler hats parade through photographs taken by Frank Habitch (Germany) and Gary Winogrand (America) in 1960s London. Look closer though, and almost every image reveals a surprising angle or a humane detail. Winogrand’s soldier isn’t standing to attention, he’s beaming at the camera from beneath his bearskin hat, apparently not guarding anything at all. A black man in Oorthuy’s 1962 photograph “Oxford Students” looks suspiciously at the camera, while his friend on a bicycle smiles, seemingly unaware of the photographer. In a picture taken by Hans Eijkelboom (The Netherlands) of a group of Birmingham shoppers clad in near-identical denim jackets, one woman sports a niqab. In this view of Britain, shafts of individuality shine through a fog of uniformity.
The exhibition walks a fine line between affection and mockery. This is typical of Parr’s own work on Englishness, which attends to the eccentricities, foibles and quiet grace of ordinary life. His most controversial work, “The Last Resort” (1986), features unflattering shots of working-class people holidaying at Brighton beach. This mischievous sensibility is echoed in pictures like one taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, in which a woman cavorts in front of a wall of graffiti reading “Gawd bless yer”; it is 1937 and everyone is celebrating King George VI’s coronation.
The class system looms large. The people the Swiss photographer Robert Frank documents in his series from the 1950s are worlds apart: elegant city workers swing their umbrellas as they stride through London, while a Welsh miner grins across the kitchen table, his face black with coal dust. Tudor-Hart’s social commentary is equally sharp: in one photograph a dog is pampered by two women at a pooch parlour while, in another, a ragged child stares longingly through the window of a bakery. A Soviet spy thought to have recruited Kim Philby, Tudor-Hart described London’s working-class districts as Europe’s “bleakest”. Tina Barney’s brash photographs of the great and the good are a brilliant counterpoint to Tudor-Hart’s work. In “The Ancestor” a smartly dressed man stands before a large portrait of a 19th-century relative who looks uncannily like him; a butler hovers in the background.
Some of the most unexpectedly touching photographs are those, like Hans van der Meer’s, that identify patterns of life common to both Britain and continental Europe. (Parr has come out enthusiastically for the EU.) Since the 1990s, Van der Meer, who is Dutch, has roamed Europe taking pictures of amateur football clubs in play (pictured top). Each scene has been shot from a distance. You might think they were taken at one single match were it not for the variations in landscape: here green hills, there a suburban street.
Several hone in on a small world and make it their own. These sequences offer some of the exhibition’s most compelling scenes. The Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura’s gripping images of Northern Ireland, where he moved in 1968 after covering the Vietnam War, reveal a country resolutely going about its everyday life in spite of an atmosphere of impending violence. A smartly dressed child and his mother cross a road framed by barbed wire; a soldier waits patiently in front of a bridal-shop display.
Evelyn Hofer’s photographs were taken during the same decade as many of Okamura’s, but could not be more different. Hofer (Germany) focuses on the charm and humour of London’s tradespeople, from milkmen and ticket collectors to the headwaiter of the Garrick Club. Parr took the images from her 1962 book, “London Perceived”, a collaboration with the writer V.S. Pritchett. The Economist’s verdict on that book could equally apply to “Strange and Familiar”. It notes that, although at first glance the collaboration between an English critic and “a foreign photographer seems strange”, the mixture was in fact “quite right. A stranger brings a fresh eye…and can see and record the qualities peculiar to his city.”