Pictures From The Real World
Essay by David Chandler
If the chemically charged 1960s brought new constellations of colour to the drab austerity of post-war Britain, then British documentary photography remained that period’s more sober shadow: resolutely black and white and firmly rooted in a past, it was the serious, furrow-browed alternative to what it so often saw as the frivolous, sell-out culture of pop. So, for many wedded to that tradition, the adopting of colour by a new generation of documentarists from the late 1970s onwards, was like the slow unfurling of a toxic season – strange, unnatural and dangerous. It is no surprise that the advent of British colour documentary photography coincided (and found an affinity) with punk. It embodied a similar provocation: an insouciant presence whose godfather was William Eggleston, the dandy rebel, ‘voluptuous and corrupt’ who wore ‘a severe suit’ in a world of denim. But in Britain colour was not just a moment of aesthetic rebellion and renewal, it was also a critical response to the new political and social realities imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government from 1979. Now the inequalities and injustices that had been the subject and rallying point for old school documentary photographers seemed more complex, paraded by the right as the necessary fall-out of another form of radical change. While the look of politics, increasingly defined by a faceless group of advertising creatives and marketing consultants, glowed in spot-lit media spaces, the championing of a competitive individualism that expressed itself primarily through material consumption gave the idea of shopping a high-key intensity and symbolic prominence, an alluring and colourful retail phantasmagoria that also, of course, harboured new forms of desperation and disenfranchisement. With hindsight colour documentary was inevitable; the reassuring poetic gradations of black and white simply couldn’t deal with the fine details of this new social reality and the implicit ironies it offered up. The new photography embraced those ironies and nailed them, and along the way it also used colour’s mesmeric distractions as a form of resistance. The new photography’s often oppressively bright images conjured both a forensic glare and a dark satire that combined to became one of the most vital, eloquent moments of late twentieth century British art.