A short visit to Manchester over the Easter weekend proved to be very sweet indeed, as it presented the opportunity to catch the Strange And Familiar photographic exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery before it winds up next month.
Curated by the brilliant Martin Parr, the exhibition doesn't actually feature any of his own pictures. Instead, it showcases the work of an assortment of international photographers who looked through their lenses at the UK with an outsider's eye and in doing so both defamiliarised the familiar (hence the title) and captured the recent social history and some of the essences and eccentric foibles of the British. A broad range of styles are displayed, from straight, stark, "objective" photojournalism to artfully composed and surrealist images.
Visitors begin with Henri Cartier-Bresson's shots of crowd reactions to coronations and his atypical pictures of holiday-makers in Blackpool produced for Vogue. The whole exhibition is informed by his belief that the value of photography as an art form lies in its ability to capture in-the-moment immediacy, while his keen eye for the significance of apparently trivial minutiae sets the tone for the work that follows.
The exhibition takes visitors all the way from Cartier-Bresson and committed socialists/communists like Edith Tudor-Hart and Paul Strand (both of whom sought to depict the poverty and struggles of the working class) to Hans Eijkelboom's surreptitious snaps of people at the Bullring in Birmingham, meticulously arranged into patterned grids relating to matching items of clothing (Union Jacks, branded T-shirts, hoodies, headscarves) and then assembled into a mesmerising reel that makes a pointed comment on conformity and the illusion of individualism.
London inevitably features most frequently - in Frank Habicht's pictures that encapsulate the Swinging Sixties era, for instance, and in Axel Hutte's stylised images of the architecture of the city's post-war social housing (all rigid lines and beautiful clinical composition, tranquil and yet eerily devoid of people in a way that underlines the fact that the buildings were designed with insufficient consideration of their actual prospective inhabitants).
However, there is also a pleasing geographical diversity, with the exhibition transporting visitors to places as far afield as Liverpool (Candida Hofer's pictures from the 1960s), the Black Country (Bruce Gilden's close-up portraits of battered faces with life stories etched on them, blown up to such hard-to-look-at proportions that every capillary is visible), Belfast and Derry (Akhiko Okamura's dispassionate images of the Troubles) and the Outer Hebrides (Strand's pictures of stoic, resilient islanders).
My personal highlight? Raymond Depardon's series of images taken in Glasgow in 1980. At first glance, they're incredibly grim, depicting a world of darkness and deprivation - so much so that they weren't published despite having been specifically commissioned. From this perspective, the occasional flashes of colour only underscore the bleakness. And yet, looking at the same scenes in a different way (as the whole exhibition and the photographers whose work it features would urge us to do), those same flashes of colour - a pink dress, bright white socks, a pink bubblegum bubble - function to counteract the gloom, offering a small measure of hope. It's surely no coincidence that (in the exhibited photos, at least) the colour is very often provided by children within the setting rather than by the setting itself.