The modern era
Martin Parr and the period to early 2000s
Since Ray-Jones and John Benton-Harris 1 the lineage (if we can call it that) of photographic expression through humorous social commentary was taken on principally by Martin Parr. Ray-Jones’s “pictures were about England,” Parr has said. “They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.”
At first sight it appears that Parr’s view is tough and uncompromising. But taken as a body of work in the context of the whole collection we see humanism tinged with affection. Who could not feel a sense of warmth for the young mother’s predicament in this following picture?
Parr’s output and breadth of interest since “The Last Resort” has been prodigious. But even in his more recent study of Llandudno, we see him returning to a (favourite?) theme: the uncompromising but witty and humanistic view of the British at the sea-side:
This approach contrasts strongly with, say, Paddy Summerfield’s “Empty Days” where there is no quarter given, or the gritty work of Chis Killip or David Chadwick’s Manchester. But even in the “gritty” school of photography, some still find that humour helps to tell a story. Graham Smith’s “I thought I saw Liz Taylor and Bob Mitchum in the back room of the ‘Comical” is a good example:
Homer Sykes 4, inspired by Benjamin Stone 5, has also been observing British society with a good-natured but (I think) tongue-in-cheek way for many years. His “Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs” has received much deserved recognition. Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq of Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau writes that “…observing his countrymen with humour and curiosity, over several years [Sykes] produced a fabulous visual archive of a nation in crisis and beset by doubt.” 6
Since 2001 – Street photography
Modern British street photography is now the main vehicle for the expression of the humorous, giving us many examples:
Justin Sainsbury’s images perhaps most directly show how absurdity is used to good effect. As he himself says, “without the before and after, a picture (frozen in time), has the potential to change what really happened. To me this triggers an emotional response that is all the stronger if it proves whimsical, irreverent or plainly absurd”. Good examples are to be found at his web-site and his interview with Eric Kim.
Two examples are self-explanatory:
And David Gibson‘s photograph beautifully captures the incongruity of a man sitting on a wall:
And Paul Russell’s quirky vision:
And Dave Mason‘s hilarious and acutely observed moments:
“I also try not to take pictures that are too sarcastic or belittling, I don’t like the sort of ‘derisive moment.’ I like humour, I like to project my personality in the pictures. There was a newsreader who once said, “we need more happy news.” And he got absolutely panned. People were like, more happy news? We need news. He almost lost his job, but I think that exactly. I’ve tried to be dark and gloomy and atmospheric but it’s not me.”
And Nick Turpin, one of the founders of In-Public for whom “street photography is about selecting the unusual from the mass of everyday, for some of us that means a crazy surreal ‘perfect storm’ kind of happening and for others it can mean the slightest of glances or gestures.” 7
And, finally, one of my own photographs:
We have seen that photography has analysed and gently mocked the contradictions inherent in English society. Class, race, gender, religion and politics have been put under the lens using humour and eccentricity to parody social conventions. Fun was poked at things that needed to be poked at. As Kate Fox has said 8 the value put on humour is one of the defining characteristics of the English. The rules of irony, understatement and self-deprecation allow and indeed encourage the “poking of fun”.
This has enabled a strong tradition of photography to arise. We have seen that humour is very much alive in British photography, particularly recent Street Photography. Several groups of photographers (In-Public, Burn My Eye for example) continue to reflect on modern life through occasionally emphasising the humorous.
But, where once this observational spot-light took on the hallmarks of social critique and satire, as in Ray-Jones’s and Parr’s work for example (even if subconsciously or very gently), today’s street genre seems unanchored to a form of social comment. Perhaps this reflects a current trend in British comedy where Satire has declined as a form of humour and been replaced with Absurdity and Self-Parody. Poking fun at others is now considered to be politically incorrect. And perhaps likewise, in Photography. We no longer care much about poking fun at others, but rather prefer to see ourselves as the butt of a big cosmic joke!
- (the “American in England”, see “Looking at the English” (http://www.johnbenton-harris.com/looking-at-the-english.php) ↩
- The Last Resort by Martin Parr, Introduced by Gerry Badger, Dewi Lewis Publishing 2008 ↩
- op cit ↩
- for a biography see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Sykes ↩
- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Sykes ↩
- Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq, “Homer Sykes: England 1970–1980“, Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau, 2014. (French) Accessed 9 July 2014. (Observant ses concitoyens avec humour et curiosité, il produit pendant plusieurs années une fabuleuse archive visuelle de la vie ordinaire dans un pays en crise et en proie au doute. ↩
- private communication ↩
- “Watching the English – The hidden rules of English behaviour”; by Kate Fox; Hodder, 2004 ↩