Archive for October, 2010

Images of England

October 24, 2010

A recent article in the New Yorker, about Cameron’s Big Society, analyzed the new Tory call for Austerity, and what exactly this Big Society entails apart from curtailing services and expecting the private citizen to step into the breach as the government recedes.

Two kinds of images most often come to mind when thinking of British Austerity. One is of post-war England, which Tony Judt wrote about so poignantly last May in the NYRB , and that Mike Leigh portrayed so starkly  in Vera Drake – that kind of stoic resignation to bare-bones living that makes you feel downright spoiled for having heat, food and a comfortable bed.

The other kind of image is of post-industrial England, especially its North.  The North, and the Midlands, have gotten to see themselves portrayed rather often the last few years,  poster children of England under and after the Iron Lady.  In 2006, This Is England (you can watch a great trailer for it here), captured the jobless, colorless landscape in the Midlands in the 80’s, during the Falklands and the reign of Maggie Thatcher (all with a great soundtrack). Through the angst of a little boy who has lost his father in the war, and who can’t seem to understand on whom to blame it, we watch the need of everyone he encounters to figure out how to live with their own frustrations and lack of choices and control over their lives.  A misfit himself, he befriends a group of local, friendly, fun, and mostly apolitical skinheads and then, ultimately, finds what he thinks is the right answer with nationalist, racist ones who feel like they have

“lost their  country” and know exactly whom to blame it.  

Not long after This Is England, Control, the Ian Curtis biopic, showed us its bleakest views of Manchester and England, emphasized by the film’s palette of black-gray-white.  While Ian Curtis’ state of mind and experience likely guided that choice, it was hard not to imagine that one might become suicidal just by living in that sooty landscape, in the shadow of large factories and row houses that at least in the movie did not seem like the kind of refuge you seek when you step inside your home and close the door.

More recently, in 2009, the epic Red Riding Trilogy (New Yorker review here), used post-industrial Yorkshire as the setting for its hard-boiled crime story. The resulting three films, which screened together at the IFC Center last year, were satisfyingly grim and violent but so visually lyrical and beautiful, with a proper soundtrack to match, that you did not want to fault the filmmakers for once again using northern industrial landscapes to create that effect. It might be easier to set a gritty police procedural in Yorkeshire than elsewhere, but is that so wrong? I wouldn’t mind seeing a whole new series set in Yorkshire in the 80’s or even today (England’s answer to Baltimore in The Wire?) Probably not right to romanticize it , but it is hard not to at the same time.

A current exhibit at the Amador Gallery, on 57th street in the Fuller Building also shows images of the de-industrialized North.  It is Chris Killip’s first commercial exhibit in the United States, which is surprising since he is one of England’s most accomplished photographers. It’s possible that his very direct criticism of Thatcher through his photography was seen as unfashionable as other, more subtle, modes of artistic critique took hold, much as Ken Loach is derided for his heavy-handedness. However, Killip’s work is too monumental and beautiful as an art form to dismiss as Old Labour propaganda. His book In Flagrante, based on his years photographing the northeast of England in the late 70’s and early 80’s, is seen as an iconic documentation of that period in England, and is considered by many the most important book of English photography from the 80’s. Killip won the Henri Cartier-Bresson award for it and it was republished last year by Errata.

While the photos in the Amador exhibit are  unflinching observations of a dour and depressed North, most are also arrestingly beautiful. One, called True Love Wall (taken in Gateshead, Tyneside, in 1975), is of a man with his back to us, looking at a brick wall, with newspapers flying past him like tumbleweed. If only for this picture alone you should go to the exhibit, because no reproduction can do it justice, the light reflecting on the newspapers has not been reproduced in any book or other image of the print I have seen. While there you can also flip through In Flagrante and read the essay in it, beautifully written by John Berger.

As Britain’s new government demands more of its citizens, it will be interesting to see whether the dynamics of England’s supposedly fading rigid class system of days of yore will come into relief again like under Thatcher, or, hopefully, class lines will be further blurred by a shared experience of these measures of Austerity.