How can photography document the world and also function as a creative medium? This is the challenge that British documentary photography – centered on the everyday scenes of British society – took up in the 1930s when a wave of modernist thought arrived in Britain from Europe. Notable examples were the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, whose dramatic photographs came to prominence through London street markets (1935), and the German Bill Brandt, whose English at home (1936) was, according to photography writer and critic Gerry Badger, “the most important photo book of the decade”. Moholy-Nagy worked quickly and unobserved, using experimental perspectives to capture the spontaneous and the instantaneous, while Brandt’s technical and compositional innovations gave his images an unusual narrative quality.
This is where Badger’s Illustrated Extravagant Investigation Another country begin. His new book recalls the catalog of the exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain (Tate 2007), to which Badger contributed, but the chronological emphasis here is tighter. Immediately after the war, the revolutionary photojournalism magazine picture message (1938-1957) became the primary publishing vehicle for documentary photography, with the independent group at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London playing an important role in the exhibition of photography in the 1950s. It is here that the bustling street scenes of Nigel Henderson and his friend Roger Mayne, often of children playing, acquired special status.
In the 1960s, the mass media of television, advertising and music became increasingly important, even as the innovation of color supplements to Sunday newspapers brought documentary photography to new audiences. Photographers outside London also began to gain significant recognition, with Oscar Marzaroli and Joseph McKenzie recording Scotland’s urban transformation primarily during these years.
Politics and photography became more intertwined in the 1970s, and the decade’s political conflicts gave photography a new impetus. At the same time, it became a collectible art form as photography classes appeared in colleges and art schools across the country and photography galleries and magazines became more prominent. At the same time, women photographers began to change fields once again. The activist artist collective Hackney Flashers (1974-80), including phototherapist and photographer Jo Spence, used documentary photography to highlight poverty in east London.
The political momentum continued into the 1980s and 1990s, when color photographers Paul Graham and Martin Parr rose to prominence through the books they published and the critical debate that surrounded them. Photography commenting on race, class and gender in Britain also became more common. Ingrid Pollard and Maud Sulter formed the Black Women’s Creativity Project, while Richard Billingham’s family photography broke new ground with the sordid realism of his photobook, Ray is a laugh (2000).
In the new millennium, photography is part of the digital revolution in electronic communication and social media, as strategies and topics continue to develop. As Mark Neville questions the social function of photography and collaborates with his subjects, the importance of mental health is at the forefront in the work of Dan Wood and Léonie Hampton.
sometimes while reading Another country I wanted to know more. Thumbnails on individual works by some photographers are strewn about, but not always, and it’s frustrating, especially with lesser-known names. Badger clearly captures the development of documentary photography as an art form in Britain from 1945 to the present day, but it was the social, cultural and political climate of each decade that was the biggest driver. of change, and it is these important contexts that Badger conveys so concisely and accurately, showing how they have helped shape new generations of documentary photographers, determined to creatively record life and death.
Gerry Badger, Another Country: British Documentary Photography Since 1945Thames & Hudson, 312 pages, 250 color and b/w illustrations, £50/$65 (hb), published May 19 (UK) and July 19 (US)
• Beth Williamson is an art historian and writer specializing in the history and theory of 20th century art in Britain. She is currently writing a book on William Johnstone