Exercise 3-7: A British Tradition

Look at the work of the photographers featured in the 1993 ‘Documentary Dilemmas’ exhibition at: http://collection.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/documentary-dilemmas-1993

The Arts Council document ‘Changing Britain: documentary photography from the arts council collection’ provides a brief contextual background to ‘Documentary Dilemmas’

The 1993 exhibition ‘Documentary Dilemmas’, curated by Brett Rogers, traced the development of documentary practice in British photography between 1983-93. Rogers described this ten-year period as ‘renaissance’ of the documentary genre with the work of earlier photographers such as Tony Ray-Jones inspiring a new generation with a fresh approach to documentary. This work, largely made in colour, subverted documentary conventions about aesthetics and objectivity by questioning and challenging notions connected with the British landscape and identity – a response to the socio-economic changes in 1980s Britain.

Changing Britain: Documentary Photography from the Arts Council Collection

This arts council leaflet is an interesting overview of the development of British documentary photography and argument for the changing status and importance of photography as an art form, indeed, the article can be seen as a manifesto for the Arts Council to collect photography. The year 1973 is significant with the appointment of Barry Lane as the Arts Council’s first full time Photography Officer with a remit to organise touring exhibitions, produce publications and both commission and buy photographic work, the status of which was changing from a news medium to recognition as an important artform in its own right. This coincided with a marked change in the way British photographers were working as they began to show a more ambiguous view of social divides. An increase in small photography galleries across the country also meant increased opportunities to show work. The grants provided by the Arts Council as part of this programme supported photographers such as Daniel Meadows, Ian Berry and Martin Parr to produce work.

Documentary Dilemmas:

I was glad to find a copy of the exhibition catalogue with the essay by Brett Rogers that is cited in the course notes as the link quoted no longer works. The arts council website we are directed to gives a very brief overview of the exhibition and the photographers featured, however, it is not clear which bodies of work are included and many images are also missing.

Rogers describes that documentary photography in the 1980s faced a “crisis of confidence” due to the realisation that objectivity is mythical, claims about

documentary truth false and that it fails to effect any real change. These works were both subjective and ambiguous and practitioners explored nuances rather than facts interpreting subjects in a personal way by showing life as complex with many layers of meaning and association to which photography could offer no straight or easy answers. The emergence of critical theory showed photography as an opaque, highly coded artefact which led to work which focused on photography as a socially constructed discourse. Colour, emphasised by the use of flash, innovative sequencing, captioning and experimentation with text as part of the image were among the aesthetic strategies chosen. The photographers in the exhibition are examples of this new approach and are unified by the theme of how post-industrial culture has affected the physical and social landscape of Britain at the time.

The period that the work presented in ‘Documentary Dilemmas’ was made was one of great social upheaval and change and the work gains an extra layer of meaning with the addition of time. Despite the clear differences in fashion that date the images and add a level of historical documentation, I am surprised by how many of the photographer’s concerns are still relevant, albeit changed somewhat. For example, the concerns Paul Graham has in ‘Beyond Caring’ about welfare and the dehumanisation of poverty sadly remains today. Instead of the DHSS offices that are bleak and run down however, the modern system of universal credit is perhaps even more alienating because it is not as overtly oppressive – I wonder if it would be possible to make these sorts of images in a modern job centre with its Kafkaesque bureaucracy and sanctions?

Two photographers particularly resonated with me because of their approaches and subject matter: Anna Fox and Paul Reas. Fox’s ‘Workstations’ series uses text quotes alongside the images in a way that I attempted with assignment 2. While I was preoccupied with quoting exactly and providing links to the online versions of the articles that I used to accompany my advertising images, Fox simply features the quote and the publication – a direct approach which emphasises her subjective stance. Reas is concerned with consumerism and the heritage industry which are both subjects I am currently thinking about and working out ways I can make into a project of my own. Some of his images in ‘Flogging a dead horse’ are taken at Beamish museum which is five miles from where I live and somewhere I know well so these particularly resonated. There is a much more biting edge to Reas’ images as opposed to those of Martin Parr who has photographed similar territory, his aim of questioning the rapid changes happening in Britain in the 1980s is focussed, direct and pessimistic as opposed to Parr’s use of humour. Despite being almost nihilistic in his world view, there is also an empathy present in Reas’ work that is lacking in Parr – something that is perhaps explained by his working-class background which while not sympathetic, is an insider’s view all the same. Stylistically, the use of flash makes both Fox and Reas’ images bold, brash, confrontational and give an abrasive edge. This emphasises both the artifice inherent on photography and the act of photographing itself – with their flash illuminating the scenes in front of them both photographers would have drawn attention to themselves and the act of picture making.

Links to photographers featured in ‘Documentary Dilemmas’:

John Davies:


Anna Fox:


Workstations (1987-8)

Friendly Fire

Julian Germain:


Steel works (1986-1990)

Paul Graham:


A1 – The Great North Road (1981-2)

Beyond Caring (1984-5)

Troubled Land (1984-6)

Anthony Haughey:


Chris Killip:


John Kippin:


Karen Knorr:


Martin Parr:


Paul Reas:

James Hyman Gallery

Flogging a dead horse (Hyman gallery)

Impressions gallery: ‘Day dreaming about the good times?’ Exhibtion

Paul Seawright:


Jem Southam:


Andreasson, K. (2014) Paul Reas’s best shot: a dad buying army wallpaper for his son. The Guardian, 12th March 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/12/paul-reas-best-shot-dad-army-wallpaper [accessed 22nd April 2018]

The Arts Council (2010) Changing Britain: documentary photography from the arts council collection. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/ChangingBritain.pdf [accessed 9th April 2018]

Chandler, D. (2014) Paul Reas: Elephant and castle. Photoworks issue 10. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/paul-reas-new-work/ [accessed 22nd April 2018]

Durden, M. (2009) Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007. Foto8. Available at: http://www.foto8.com/live/anna-fox-photographs-1983-2007-2/ [accessed 9th April 2018]

Lubbock, T. (1993) The broader picture/the vision thing. The Independent 24th April 1993. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-broader-picture-the-vision-thing-1457297.html [accessed 22nd April 2018]

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007 review – the many faces of middle England. The Observer, 10th August 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/10/anna-fox-photographs-1983-2007-review-faces-middle-england [accessed 22nd April 2018]

Reas, P. (1988) I can help. Manchester: Cornerhouse publications.

Reas, P. (1993) Flogging a dead horse: heritage culture and its role in post-industrial Britain. Manchester: Cornerhouse publications.

Rogers, B. (1994) Documentary dilemmas. London: The British Council

Williams, V. (2007) Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007. Brighton: Photoworks

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