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October 14, 2022 (November 30, 2022)

National Gallery of Art’s Newly Acquired Photographs Contemplate British National Identity During the 1970s and 1980s

Pogus Caesar, "Handsworth Riots: Birmingham, United Kingdom"

Pogus Caesar
Handsworth Riots: Birmingham, United Kingdom, September 1985, printed 2022
gelatin silver print
image: 50.8 x 60.96 cm (20 x 24 in.)                      
sheet: 41.6 x 57.4 cm (16 3/8 x 22 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund
© Pogus Caesar/OOM Gallery Archive, ARS, New York, DACS, London

Washington, DC—Profound changes in British society in the 1970s and 1980s inspired a revolution in British photography. This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s highlights the work of socially conscious photographers who captured this period of unrest. The exhibition features some 45 newly acquired prints by Vanley Burke, Pogus Caesar, Anna Fox, Paul Graham, Sunil Gupta, Chris Killip, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Martin Parr, and others. It brings together photographers who examined national identity as Britain grappled with deindustrialization, uprisings in inner cities, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the sometimes controversial policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On view on the Ground Floor of the National Gallery’s West Building from January 29 through June 11, 2023, the exhibition also features the film Handsworth Songs (1986). The 59-minute film, produced by the Black Audio Film Collective and directed by John Akomfrah, explores uprisings in London and Birmingham in 1985. Reece Auguiste, a member of the Black Audio Film Collective, is the guest curator for an accompanying film program.

Beginning in the 1970s, photography gained its contemporary prominence in Britain, with a rapidly expanding network of galleries, artists’ collectives, schools, and magazines dedicated to promoting the medium. Immigrants and artists of color, reflecting Britain’s growing multiculturalism, introduced fresh perspectives, as did the many women who entered the field. A generation of young photographers moved from largely black-and-white, documentary styles to more conceptual and often humorous projects in color in the 1980s. As photographers forged new directions, they pictured a country redefining what it meant to be British and, ultimately, modern.

This Is Britain tells history on an intimate scale, highlighting stories we may have otherwise missed. The addition of these photographs to the National Gallery’s collection allows us to reflect on two decades of artistic innovation and celebrate the talented, diverse group of creators who captured them. We hope that this exhibition inspires visitors, as they contemplate some of the highs and lows experienced by British citizens in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition Organization

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition Curators

The exhibition is curated by Kara Felt, Assistant Curator of Art at the Denver Botanic Gardens and a former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, with the organizational assistance of Diane Waggoner, Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition Dates

January 29–June 11, 2023

Exhibition Overview

This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s focuses on the work of photographers who recorded ways of life that were under threat or disappearing in those tumultuous decades. John Davies’s expansive view of Agecroft Power Station, Salford (1983​) emphasizes the displacement of industrial structures. Paul Graham’s​ elegiac series A1: The Great North Road (1982​) examines the shift away from the A1—a major thoroughfare from London to Edinburgh—to the newer, more direct M1 motorway, resulting in businesses along the former highway to suffer. With their forlorn colors and barren spaces, his pictures challenged the expectation that photography on social themes should be in black and white. Reflecting Britain’s growing immigration and multiculturalism during this period of modernization, Vanley Burke’s Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park (1970) pictures a Black youth proudly displaying the Union Jack from his bike. 

Many artists in the 1980s continued exploring color photography, using intense hues inspired by advertising to poke fun at the rise of leisure activities, consumerism, and corporate greed. The series The Last Resort (1983–1986) by Martin Parr, arguably Britain’s most influential living photographer, surveys seaside tourists in New Brighton with acerbic wit. Chris Steele-Perkins​’s decade-long project The Pleasure Principle (1980–1989) captures Margaret Thatcher’s England through surreal images, such as Hypnosis Demonstration, Cambridge University Ball. Six photographs from Anna Fox’s Work Stations (1987–1988​) signal the competition and stress of London office life in the late 1980s. Sunil Gupta strikes a more polemical tone in his series "Pretended” Family Relationships (1988) by responding to Thatcher’s policy prohibiting the promotion of gay and lesbian lifestyles.

The final room presents Handsworth Songs (1986, 59 minutes), a landmark nonfiction film that connects the civil unrest in London and the Handsworth section of Birmingham in 1985 with Britain’s colonial past, weaving contemporary reports and interviews with historical footage and photographs. The film, produced by the Black Audio Film Collective and directed by the acclaimed filmmaker John Akomfrah, features a soundtrack that mixes reggae and post-punk with industrial noises and voiceovers.

Related Programs

Films
January–June 2023
Reece Auguiste, a member of the Black Audio Film Collective, guest curates a film program of British films from the 1970s and 1980s.

Lectures
Introduction to the Exhibition:
This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s
January 29, 2023, 12:00 p.m.
East Building Auditorium; free registration required at nga.gov/lectures
Join us for an introductory presentation on This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s by Kara Felt, exhibition curator and former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow.

Arnold Newman Lecture Series on Photography: Sunil Gupta
March 1, 2023, 1:00 p.m.
Virtual; free registration required at nga.gov/lectures
Join us for a virtual presentation with artist Sunil Gupta. Kara Felt, exhibition curator and former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in the National Gallery’s department of photographs, moderates the conversation.

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This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s
National Gallery of Art, January 29–June 11, 2023
 
Washington, DC—Profound changes in British society in the 1970s and 1980s inspired a revolution in British photography. This Is Britain highlights the socially conscious photographers who captured this moment in time, among them Vanley Burke, Pogus Caesar, Anna Fox, Paul Graham, Sunil Gupta, Chris Killip, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, and Martin Parr. The exhibition features some 45 newly acquired prints in the National Gallery of Art’s collection. It brings together works by photographers who explored the national identity as Britain grappled with deindustrialization, uprisings in inner cities, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the controversial policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The exhibition also includes Handsworth Songs (1986), a 59-minute film on the uprisings that rocked London and Birmingham in 1985. It was produced by the Black Audio Film Collective and directed by John Akomfrah.
 
The exhibition is curated by Kara Felt, assistant curator of art at the Denver Botanic Gardens and a former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, with the organizational assistance of Diane Waggoner, Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art.
 
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art.

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