Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new exhibition reveals more than just bad teeth and grey skies.
What does your country look like when seen through an outsider’s lens? This is the question addressed by an exhibition opening in London this month that explores Britain through the eyes of photographers from other countries. Curated by the photographer Martin Parr, Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers looks at the ways overseas photographers have viewed Britain since the 1930s. Featuring big names such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank among other lesser-known artists, the exhibition, which runs until June 19, lives up to its title. It showcases images of the U.K. that British people would have found highly familiar during the era in which they were taken, but which clearly show their creators’ distance—a distance that can at turns make their subjects doubly heroic, striking, or ridiculous.
Some photographs contain images so iconically British that they now verge on the point of cliché. Bad teeth, grey skies, and butlers all feature, and it seems that many mid-century photographers couldn’t come to London without taking (still compelling) photos of bowler or top-hatted men strolling through smoky streets. Others, however, are striking, unsettling. Photos taken in troubled Northern Ireland in the early 1970s by the Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura are all the more remarkable for suggesting an atmosphere of banal normality, even among fire-gutted streets. Elsewhere, the influence of Dutch landscape painting helps give a refreshingly austere beauty to shots by the photographer Hans Van Der Meer of amateur soccer fields in Northern England.
Many of the older photos seems centuries, not decades into the past, with their fusty clothes, coal dust and quiet streets. But the photos still show a recognizable Britain, exhibiting its perverse combination of dumpiness and elegance, its wintry colours and the frequent, easily worn eccentricity of its inhabitants. Below is a selection of images take from across the exhibition’s timespan.