I visited a great exhibition at the Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham at the weekend. It was called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The Authentic Moment in British Photography, and although it closed on Sunday, you can download the catalogue as a pdf here.
The show focused on the interest in regional British working class culture – and poverty – among photographers, filmmakers, journalists and social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s. There were lots of different sorts of photos on show: documentary photography from the likes of Roger Mayne; architectural photography (of some of Nottingham’s new post-war housing developments); family snaps; photojournalism from the Nottingham Post; local adverts for hairdressers and grocery stores; snaps from local professional photographers of factory shopfloors and local clubs’ christmas dos. Karel Reisz’s 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning runs on a loop at its heart.
The mix of visual imagery suggests that this is really a show about a particular moment in British visual culture – and a particular version of visual culture. It doesn’t try to embed the different visions of working class life in different social locations – there’s no suggestion that different articulations of class, gender and race might be at work in its range of images. There were quotes on the wall from the author Allan Sillitoe and from the social research Richard Hoggart, both echoing the other. And there were indeed some interesting cross-overs between the social location of photographers and the genres of photographs they made; an 11 year old boy made some fantastic images of new blocks of flats, for example, and there were research assistants on sociology projects also snapping away. But the section called ‘Them and Us’ had a lot of proud images of ‘us’, skilled workers mostly, and none of ‘them’, or indeed by ‘them’ who might have been hostile to ‘us’ (and vice versa).
Nor was there much engagement with the particular pathways these various images might have taken as mediated objects in the ’50s and ’60s. Their circulation through a visual economy was rarely implied, though the adverts were surrounded by their anchoring text and there were some pieces of publicity for the film that embedded photographs of the stars in text and graphics. So it seems to be the concept of ‘visual culture’ that allows these images to appear in relation to each other, in a gallery space now, rather than an effort to map their non/convergence in an actual historical geography.
The exhibition does, though, locate that visual culture in a particular place: Nottingham, mostly (although there are a few of Shirley Baxter’s photographs taken in Salford, Manchester, and a few others from other towns). And there were lots of Nottingham folk wandering around like I was, reminiscing about how places used to look like and seeing if they could spot friends, family and acquaintances in the photographs on show. The exhibtion catalogue also contains quotes from people who lived and worked in the locations the exhibition pictures. All of which seemed a more significant enactment of that term ‘visual culture’ – making photographs part of ordinary everyday articulations of self, other and the social.