International photographers bring a ‘Strange and Familiar’ focus to Britain

International photographers bring a ‘Strange and Familiar’ focus to Britain

Britain’s doyen of domesticity might be a more apt title for the photographer Martin Parr. For over forty years, Parr has chronicled every banal facet of his homeland with his Technicolor touch – from supermarkets to seaside resorts, railways to rhubarb farmers. Now, he hands the reins over to fellow artists, stepping into the curator’s seat for a new London exhibition at the Barbican, ‘Strange and Familiar’, which explores the UK through lens of photographers from abroad.

‘It is the nucleus of this idea, the notion that many people had come to Britain since the war and have photographed here,’ explains Parr of the catalyst for the show. ‘Here we are in England and in Britain and we aren’t familiar with these pictures.’ Designed by Stirling Prize-winning, London-based firm Witherford Watson Mann Architects, the exhibition brings together a medley of images by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rineke Dijkstra, Bruce Gilden, Paul Strand, Candida Höfer, Raymond Depardon, Shinro Ohtake, and Tina Barney.

The works are as eclectic as the countries from which the photographers originate, spanning street, documentary, portrait and architectural photography. Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain was 27 years old when he pitched up in London; here, he spent four months documenting nannies in Hyde Park, the top-hatted gentlemen of the city, pubs and more. Hans Eijkelboom, meanwhile, is presenting an anthropological visual catalogue of shoppers at Birmingham’s Bull Ring – an endless, monotonous (but intriguing) parade of women wearing ushankas, men in coated nylon tracksuits and so forth.

Japanese photojournalist Akihiko Okamura’s remarkable images of The Troubles are amongst the most compelling in the group exhibit, which occasionally feels burdened by the sheer breadth of work on show. Okamura was exiled from Vietnam in the 1960s for his provocative war coverage and found himself in Ireland, seeking out John F Kennedy’s ancestry. He eventually settled in Dublin with his family, producing a jarring body of work covering the conflict in Northern Ireland. In one image, a bouquet of pink flowers lies strewn across a pool of blood on the pavement; in another, an ominously black troop of policemen make a stand on a quaint suburban street. They’re masterful in the way they seem to embody snapshot and cinematic qualities both at once

Inevitably, similar motifs can be found threaded through the works of multiple artists. ‘Often they’re drawn in to some of the clichés that surround Britain,’ says Parr, ‘but they’ve come in and found their own little world.’ To that end, Cas Oorthuys, Okamura and Larrain – from the Netherlands, Japan and Chile respectively – all trained their lenses on the humble milk bottle. Parr adds: ‘I think you’ll see that all the photographers here have found one thing that they’ve really hooked into and that’s the thing that’s so fascinating.’

‘This is an incredible insight we can glean and learn from these photographers and often this is connected to the country’s class system,’ explains Parr. ‘You’ll find that people have honed in on the wealthy or in some cases like Robert Frank, who came to London and [captured] the businessmen there and then went down to the Welsh mines and made a complete contrast.’ American photographer Brue Davidson – who brings the first jolt of colour to the exhibition – similarly captured the mining communities of Wales.

Elsewhere, photobooks are peppered throughout the space, housed in vitrines and displayed on shelves (Parr is an avid collector). Like Parr, many of the photographers he has chosen share his innate ability to make the boring seem bold, and at times, brilliant. ‘What is it about all these photographers that we find fascinating?’ he asks, before adding, ‘I think it’s really interesting to understand and see that we are really a strange nation.’

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