Humour is said to be a particularly important social convention in Britain. As the American travel-writer Bill Bryson observed: “Watch any two Britons and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. It won’t be more than a few seconds.” 1
In Britain, humour often acts subversively, whether it be in the form of nonsense (Edward Lear), absurdity (Monty Python), satire (Gulliver’s Travels), irony (as in Jane Austen or Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm), self-parody (Shakespeare’s Falstaff), intellectual wit (Peter Cook) or plain slap-dash (Norman Wisdom).
British society, and in particular English society, lends itself well to this. The “stiff upper lip”, the “mustn’t grumble” attitude to life’s hard knocks, the feeling of being an island bastion, the inability to take continental philosophy too seriously – there are many signs of the underlying English temperament at work. No less a commentator than Die Welt said:
Faced with the onslaught of “fragmenting family structures”, creaking public services and a rapidly rising cost of living, they (the English) employ two weapons: “inexhaustible humour” and a “total rejection of self-pity”.
Humour 2 plays a role in most facets of English life. It is part of the national identity. The playwright Dennis Potter called humour an “English inherent reaction” and considered this as one of the pillars of the English character.
We see it, of course, in British photography. Studies of the eccentric and humorous have not only produced some great pictures, but have also revealed how humour can work by increasing visual tension and creating a psychological dimension thereby invoking an emotional response in the viewer. In the words of the English photographer of the 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones:
“Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk like Alice, through the looking-glass, and find another kind of world with the camera”. 3
Ray-Jones’s well-known photograph of the English gentry at leisure at Glyndebourne shown below depicts this vision well. A field of cows and sheep is a very odd place to have a picnic. The fact that the man and woman are dressed in “black tie” makes it more bizarre until one understands the context of Glyndebourne. So at first there is simply an odd juxtaposition. And then, even within the context (an opera festival), the picture sends up the aristocratic class through the absurdity of the situation. 4
This article looks at the origins and development of employing humour in photography, through its various forms (wit and intellectual comedy, satire, surrealism and absurdity and slap-dash).
When can we trace the origins of incorporating humour as a device of social comment? The inclusion of humour seems to have ocurred quite late on in the development of social photography.
The noted photographer and British Conservative politician Sir John Benjamin Stone (1838 – 1914) would have had ample opportunity to have taken photographs which poked fun at a particular section of society. But he didn’t. 5
A typical example of his work is the Flora Day at Helston. 6 Without getting into a debate about how Stone’s position in society may have affected what photographs he took and how he took them, we can conclude that his pictures are essentially “documentary”, that is to say “straight”, reflecting “life as it is”, with little attempt at invoking an emotional response from the viewer through humour or irony.
But some pictures were being taken in the early 20th century that hinted at a developing social commentary – a “social point of view”. Take for example Horace Nicholl’s picture, “Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse” taken in 1910. One can’t look at this picture without thinking that this photograph was chosen for publication because it revealed something about the seeming smugness of those who could afford to lose money.
Improvements to camera and film technology and the influx of continental photographers escaping political persecution, such as Bill Brandt, Cyril Arapoff and Wolf Suschitzky, and later Koudelka, brought about big changes in approach and an impetus in developing a point of view.
Photographers such as Bert Hardy, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Monck started to explore the English from particular social standpoints. Monck’s Leica enabled her as a woman to be less conspicuous in a deeply conservative 1930s England when photographing social conditions.
- Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson, Black Swan, 1996 ↩
- Incidentally, I am not arguing here that other nations do not have a strong tradition of humour; only that it has been especially important in the UK. ↩
- Tony Ray-Jones quoted in “Tony Ray-Jones”, Introduction by Richard Ehrlich, Cornerhouse Publications ISBN 0948797363 ↩
- As well as recognising the possibility that these people are probably rich enough to own a huge farm but would only work it through a tenanted farmer ↩
- His vast collection can be seen at Birmingham City Council http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/benjaminstone ↩
- The early morning “Furry Dance” through the Town. In his book, Stone described this as the ‘most curious and interesting remains of the comus, or wandering dance’, celebrated annually to mark the return of spring ‘to a quaint old horn-pipe tune, repeated so often during the day that the visitor remembers it as long as memory lasts.’ Flora Day evolved from a pagan festival and remains an important annual event for the town ↩