Reas was part of a movement in the 1980s that became known as ‘independent photography’, a new type of colour photography that was an emphatic response to the conditions at the time in Thatcher’s Britain. The approach was a new type of social realism – unsentimental, scathing, sometimes grotesque and above all subjective. The paramount ideal of the ‘concerned photographer’ was not one that this nihilistic vision shared, people were pictured trapped in a life shaped by forces outside of their control, somewhere between awkwardness and bewilderment, destitution and comfort – “the banal face of the everyday [shown] as a bizarre pantomime.” (Chandler, 2014) The social struggles shown were a modern and new type of impoverishment other than that which had been shown by the black and white social documentary photographers of the past – rather than showing people facing poverty imposed on them by an uncaring and unfair system they are shown as trying, but failing, to get anything out of a life which is shaped by forces outside of there control – life as endurance, boredom and conformity.
Reas’ aesthetic and subject matter shares a similarity with Martin Parr with his use of harsh flash and bold primary colours, however, his working class background and political intentions mean his work has a much more abrasive edge. This is partly due to having a clear focus and intent in the series’ ‘I can help’ and ‘Flogging a dead horse’ which both look unflinchingly at consumerism and the heritage industry respectively. As Chandler (2014) states: “This was the colour of new social struggles, new defeats, new humiliations; it was the colour of the supermarket, the glare of the high street, the red and yellow glow of a McDonald’s on every corner.”
I Can Help (1985-88)
This was Reas’ first colour project in which he examined life as he saw it in Britain in the mid to late 1980s through the prism of consumption. The consumer boom of the time, fuelled by cheap credit and the rise of the middle classes, led to massive social, political and economic shifts which saw Britain move from a manufacturing nation to one of service industries. The series also shows a movement towards shopping as a leisure activity with the arrival of large out of town shopping centres becoming destinations for consumers to spend their spare time and their money. In the introduction to ‘I Can Help’, Stuart Cosgrove argues that the shopping-mall is one of the most obvious phenomena of post-industrial culture and a means by which late capitalism is defined: “One of the peculiar but recurring customs of consumer culture is the way our taste, emotions and preferences are guided towards objects rather than actions. In many ways consumer goods are the fatally attractive objects which deflect is away from action.” Later, he makes a scathing rebuke against free market economics and the consumers right to choose which is held as the highest form of freedom: “choice is not necessarily a synonym for freedom, often it means the opposite.”
Although the pictures are now dated they take on another layer of meaning as documents of a particular time, there is much to digest in the project. I can understand why Reas felt so pessimistic about the rise of consumerism and the effect he expected the decline of industry would have on British society. Thirty years on, with this process now established I can recognise that although we may have developed into a more sophisticated retail environment, much of what Reas shows is the same, and it is quite depressing – an emotion that affects me strongly as I view the work. Despite this, the series’ strength is that it faces head on into the realities that Reas sees, and crucially, although this is definitely not a sympathetic view of the working class, there is a sense that it is an insider’s view. There is a separation between photographer and photographed in Parr’s New Brighton work that I do not see in ‘I Can Help’, and yet, it is Reas who is most scathing and critical.
One image in ‘I Can Help’ is particularly familiar – and perhaps the only image I was aware of before beginning my research. ‘Dad buying army wallpaper for his son’ is shot in a B&Q store in Newport, South Wales and is a moment of brilliant observation with the father’s camouflage trousers echoing the military design of the wallpaper which he is showing someone out of view of the camera. The expression on the child, who we assume to be the son he is buying the paper for, is priceless and a comment on how the interests of parents are directed onto their children – something that is even more poignant with the knowledge that the child eventually joined the army and fought in Iraq – Reas speculates about whether it was the wallpaper that provoked this. The image appears effortless, however, Reas describes spending two months walking the aisles of this particular store to capture this moment. (He describes the low point of photography as being “all the fruitless days spent in pursuit of photographs.”) Another contemporary resonance, that is now perhaps lost, is that the picture was taken shortly after the Hungerford massacre, although consumerism was the main thrust of his project Reas acknowledges that this event and the questions it raised, are there in the background. Reas states that there were two main reasons for his use of colour: firstly, it is a comment on the psychology of selling and the way big stores use bold colours as an aid to this, black and white he felt would miss this vital point. He also wanted to make a conscious challenge to the orthodoxy of the black and white documentary image. (Andreasson, 2014)
Flogging a dead horse (1993)
Flogging a dead horse is an exploration of the heritage industry and how previously industrial sites have become theme parks offering a nostalgic and commercialised presentation of the past. When Reas made these pictures Britain had undergone a period of de-industrialisation and he was particularly drawn to what he saw as the reconstruction of labour history – echoing Jean Baudrillard, he demonstrates how the ‘experiences’ are only representations of the real world: “It’s so much of an experience, that having experienced the experience, you don’t need to actually experience the real thing.” (Luddock, 1993) This appropriation of working class history removes the hardships of how life really was and turn it into entertainment – a cynical rewriting of the past where history is over simplified and sanitised. Reas employs the same aesthetic strategy as ‘I can help’, his use of flash results in bold, primary colours which freezes his subjects and emphasises their absurdities. These sites are intended to be fodder for the camera of the tourist, Reas’ pictures focus on the gaps in the charade he sees in these inauthentic experiences as a kind of anti-tourist.
Reas’ pictures of Beamish Museum particularly resonate with me as it is somewhere that is close to my home and a place I have visited many times. The 25 years that have elapsed since this project was made however give me a different, and more ambiguous, reading of the experiences that heritage museums represent. On the one hand I believe it is important that our history is remembered, heritage museums are a significant way that this can happen, but, I am concerned about the inauthentic nature of this and the danger of slipping into nostalgia. The subject also resonates because it is something I a currently exploring myself, particularly how mining is represented and remembered in the North East of England. My area is somewhere that is built on the legacy of coal, however, my local pit closed in 1972. While the dismantling of industry in the North East had an economic and social effect that is still being felt, I am conflicted about how the difficult, dangerous and often exploitative reality of working in these hard industries is now viewed with a rose-tinted nostalgia. The rhetoric often insists on the dignity of work and the strength that a common focus, such as a mine, would give a local community. And yet, the prevailing comment from actual miners is that it is not a life they would wish on their children.
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]
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]
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]
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