Thursday, 13 November 2014

Old book, new book

At long last I have found, and bought, a copy of Ian Berry's The English to replace my long lost copy. The condition is not great but the price was bearable. If I hadn't owned a copy before I would have been more likely to pay a higher price for a better copy. Not very logical. However I'm not a book collector. It's the pictures I want to have and this 'working copy' is fine for my purposes.

Published in 1978 this was the very first photobook I bought - almost certainly in the year of publication, a couple of years after I was given my first proper camera.

There seems to be a spate of books being published at the moment of photographs made in the UK around the late '70s and into the eighties. I'm still trying to avoid the temptation of buying them because I mistrust the nostalgic effect has on how such pictures are regarded. A new collection of old pictures is a different thing to an old collection of old pictures. That's why I had no compunction about buying The English. Besides, I already own a copy - I just don't know where it is!

Although I had forgotten most of the pictures in the book I soon realised just what an influence it had been on me. At the time it made me want to take photographs. It also introduced me to looking at photographs. Mostly I think it gave me my interest in photographs of British people doing ordinary things in their natural environment.

With a more educated eye than I had back then I can see influences in Berry's photographs - in both directions. There are hints of Tony Ray-Jones in the book, and also pre-hints (if you get my drift) of Martin Parr (who has cited Ray-Jones as an influence). Maybe there is something about British life that provokes a certain kind of photography? Subtle self-mockery combined with affection is part of it. There's also an attraction to tradition. Be that ancient tradition or modern.

In the introduction Berry states that England hadn't changed much in the 15 years between him leaving the country and his making the photographs in 1975. In a lot of ways it hasn't changed much in the 40 years that now have passed. Certainly not in the subjects which a British photographer like Martin Parr chooses to  aim his lens at.

Although I like Parr's garish work it can become tiresome, and I feel that he has also become something of a brand - which I naturally rebel against. He's still a fine photographer though, and having followed his work from the project he was involved with Multistory on-line over the last two or three years the publishing of Black Country Stories tempted me to buy a copy. It wasn't a disappointment.

Although the subject matter of Black Country Stories is the English it is a completely different book to Think of England. The photographs in this book are far more 'straight'. There's very little of the saturated colours and obvious use of flash and close-up. There is, on the other hand, plenty of his wit and acute observation.

While he has been criticised, at times, for cynical, fun poking portrayals of his subjects in this book the view that comes across is more that of the affectionate mockery which I mentioned earlier. It's a much warmer look at the subjects than often comes across in a Parr book. There are a lot of semi-formal portraits (such as the picture on the cover) in Black Country Stories. By which I mean pictures of people stopping what they are doing and looking at the camera. Sort of environmental portraits, but less obviously set up. More like 'street' portraits, but not always in the street! I like them a lot.

While things may have changed on the surface over the last forty years what these two books have shown me is that underneath it all people are still people, doing the things they have always done. Be that racing pigeons or putting out the bunting for a royal occasion - a silver jubilee and a royal wedding in the case of these two books.

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