Why People Love to Take Photos of Britain Looking Shit
The 'Shit Britain' style of photography – Pukka pies, pot holes and pre-pubescents posing with pricked footballs on tower block stairwells – proves there can be hope in sentimentality.
There's a strain of documentary photography that runs from Robert Frank through to Martin Parr, and then on to generation after generation of photography students resolutely determined to alleviate the guilt that comes with going to art school in a time of economic crisis. It doesn't really have a name but you know it when you see it. It's photos of Pukka Pies, pot holes, and the torn remnants of a page 3 rotting in the bushes behind bus stops in Preston. It's shorn pre-pubescents posing with pricked footballs on tower block stairwells. It's morris dancing around discarded cans. It's a way of exploring the total and utter mundanity of Britain in a way that's both disarming and strangely comforting. We willingly trap ourselves in a Baudrillardian simulacrum of pigeon shit on an old bandstand because there's a sense that to do so is to take some form of control over the situation. It's Shit Britain, a love of making our country look crap.
If there's one man who truly understands Shit Britain, it's Parr himself. His masterfully curated Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, which has been running at the Barbican since March, is a painfully accurate representation of how the observant outsider can see a nation as it sees itself.
The pieces are at once shameful and exhilarating: the knowingly grim work of Luke Overin, Dougie Wallace's tragicomic visual essays on hen nights and Shoreditch revellers, and Richard Billingham's deeply haunting book Ray's a Laugh. In each, you're not supposed to contemplate the quotidian horrors of the wracked and wrecked lives on display; rather, you're supposed to feel sentimental for a Britain you may never have known but feel somehow like you identify with it.
In effect, the Shit Britain aesthetic was born in 1962 when Henri Cartier-Bresson decamped to Blackpool for a summer on a commission from Vogue. He shot adverts for bingo halls, and old birds on the pebbles, suited workers and paper hats.
Fast-forward to the present day and you'll find rundown seaside towns the nation round swarming with DSLR-toting magpies looking for a bit of photographic magic amongst the piles of puke and kebab wrappers.
You can also feel the legacy of Cartier-Bresson's trip to the seaside in Hans van der Meer's European Fields series: flat, intentionally affectless shots of the muddied football pitches in northern towns like Mytholmroyd or Consett, where amateur dramatics are played out on damp Sundays in November. You can see it too, in Bruce Davidson's images of Welsh mining towns—valleys and gorges punctuated by abjectly evil looking machinery.
Sentimentality links nearly everything in Strange and Familiar, and totalises Shit Britain as an aesthetic whole in a wider sense. Ever image is an interplay between reality as is – the tatty jelly shoes, and the half-drunk pints of Boddingtons, the Sally Army band marches and the abandoned pitch and putt putters – and the characters you empathise with: old men at bus stop and children gamely trying to enjoy with broken toys.
It's easy, and all too often tempting, to dismiss the urge towards the sentimental, to think of sentimentality as a childish emotion, a self-indulgent strain of thinking that elevates shallow reaction to the level of important emotional insight.
But in Shit Britain, sentimentality is the natural reaction to the strange sensation one has when attempting to be sincere in an age where irony is the dominant mode of discourse.
What these photographers show is that sentimentality seeps into everything. Photography and sentimentality are inextricably linked because both are a way of processing the difficulties and horrors of reality in a way that makes them feel less horrifying and difficult. The photo allows you to encase misery in aspic, and then put it on a shelf to admire later.
The sentimentality that powers Shit Britain as a photographic style is the same sentimentality that gets us voting for dancing dogs or cutting out tokens from a tabloid for a £9.99 camping holiday. It's Gazza's tears and Prince Charles toby jugs. It's a necessary and important mechanism for self-reflection. Britain is dismal and dull and ordinary and crap. And the whole world sees that and understands it and makes art that explicitly deals with that inherent shitness. It's what makes the place so great.
Follow Josh on Twitter
More on VICE: