Tourism was not the only industry to experience massive growth in the post-war period. Growth in higher education meant that photography degrees became more widely available and those that graduated from these courses saw photography increasingly as a medium for personal expression. Naturally, it was a matter only a matter of time before the tourist gaze was subject to the critical eye of the photographer and these photographers would be come to be collectively known as oppositional photographers.
Martin Parr is now almost a household name but back in the 1980s his work was seen as a controversial commentary on Thatcher’s Britain. Parr’s most noted work of this period can be found in The Last Resort and The Cost of Living in which Parr honed his sardonic gaze as an outsider on the leisure pursuits of both the working and middle classes. The significance of Parr’s work is that he was commenting on tourist behaviour rather than the sites themselves and in doing so offered commentary on British attitudes, manners and habits and often makes for uncomfortable viewing as a result. So seductive are his images that for many they define their notions of Britishness, but I find that the more I look at them, the more I see the work of an outsider who has captured the tip of the iceberg rather than its bulk floating menacingly just below the surface.
This can be contrasted with Chris Killip whose book In Flagrante documented the impact of 1980s industrial decline on small communities in the north east of England suffering acutely from mass unemployment and poverty and whose lives were slowly but painfully slipping out of their control. His choice of location is important – Newcastle upon Tyne was one of the birthplaces of industrial Britain with coal, shipbuilding and the railway industry forming the industrial backbone of the nation for over a century. Killip worked in a traditional documentary fashion, spending large amounts of time living in the communities he photographed and getting to know the people that appear in his images. If he hadn’t could he really have created such beautiful and haunting images from such devastation and turmoil? Undoubtedly, Killip’s images would be very different if he had made the same choices as Parr, photographing in colour with flash and visiting only as occasion permitted.
And that leads us onto Chris King’s work at the Tower. This residency has allowed Chris to immerse himself in the project for a longer period of time, returning repeatedly to the same locations and talking to the people who inhabit them which, in turn, informs his work. Although I am yet to see Chris’s final body of work, I know enough of his process and work in progress that it will provide a welcome and fresh insight into the Tower, overlooking spectacle and colour, and reaching for deeper and stronger connections in the landscape and history of the space.
In my next post I’ll look at some of the more oppositional photographers who have been working since the 1980s.