Using the Camera as a Tool: Strange and Familiar at the Barbican

The camera is often regarded as a tool for seeing the world exactly as it is. This may be true, but this means that it is the person behind the camera who must provide direction. In the worlds of street and documentary photography especially, the ability to see what others may miss is essential, and it is with this in mind that the Barbican launched Strange and Familiar. At times a celebration, other a mourning of British culture, the exhibition features photographs from foreign artists who visited Britain from the 1930s onwards.

The prospect is an innovative one, and leads to an engaging examination into some of the most intrinsic aspects of British culture and geography. Few native photographers would have thought that bowler hats, the inside of a London cab, or the sight of milk bottles on a doorstep would be worth much attention, yet here they form leitmotifs as cultural artefacts in some way intrinsic to Britain.

Nor are the visions static: Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain (1933-2012), visiting London in 1958, portrays the capital’s steps towards modern living, from escalators on the Tube to crowds of commuters seen blocking the increasingly packed roads. At times, the sense of change is violent and dark, as in Akihito Okamura’s (1929-1985) gritty and journalistic visions of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, made all the more striking by his use of colour.

Another Japanese photographer, Shinro Ohtake (1955), visited in 1977, is represented by his enormous number of photos and scrapbooks, which document obsessively the aspects of an alien culture that stood out. The effect for one who is used to them is a renewed vision of the smaller, forgotten parts of British life.

Britain is also a varied place, and this too is reflected in the choices made by curator Martin Parr. Alongside the bowler hats and businessmen are visions of Welsh mining communities by American Bruce Davidson (1933), or of the poverty apparent in Glasgow in the early 1980s by French photographer Raymond Depardon (1942). No location, from the Outer Hebrides to Liverpool, is given any distinct focus. Instead, the interests of the photographers themselves is able to shine through, their images presented with little ornamentation or commentary.

Strange and Familiar is as honestly titled as it is laid out. The visions of 23 photographers are at once distinct in style but similar in subject. While some are monumental, many are direct chronicles of the daily life and struggles of British people. To see them is to see not only into the past, but into a world once known but made new by the eyes of others.

Jack Richardson

Strange and Familiar is open at the Barbican, London, until 19 June.

1. © Frank Habicht / Courtesy of the Artist. Peace message,Vanessa Redgrave, Grosvenor Square, London, 1968