No Such Thing As Society: Photography In Britain 1967 - 1987 At Aberystwyth Arts Centre

By Narelle Doe | 26 March 2008
A black and white photograph of a little girl crying outside in the street by some bin bags.

Christina Voge. Crying Child, 1978. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre. Courtesy the artist, 2007

Exhibition Preview: No Such Thing as Society – Photography in Britain 1967 – 1987, From the British Council and Arts Council Collection at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, until April 27 2008.

Serving as witness to the unrest and transition in British society from the late 1960s until the 1980s, this exhibition takes its name from the famous Margaret Thatcher statement: “…society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

The rise of Thatcherism is firmly associated with the miners’ strikes and conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as radical shifts in the structure of society. This exhibition, which opens in Aberystwyth before embarking on a national and international tour, brings together 150 photographs by 33 documentary photographers including Keith Arnatt, Victor Burgin, Peter Fraser, Brian Griffin, Tony Ray-Jones, Graham Smith and Homer Sykes.

A photograph of a wedding scene with bride, bridesmaids and attendants, and an elderly woman in a big fur coat.

David Butterworth. Emma's wedding. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre. Courtesy the artist, 2007

Pop Art had firmly cemented photography’s place in contemporary culture at the end of the 1960s – and it was at this point that the Arts Council of Great Britain began to commission and collect documentary photography, capturing social history on camera. The British Council continued this trend in the early 1980s, documenting the decade’s unique social scene in colour photography. No Such Thing as Society is the first collaboration between the British Council and Arts Council Collections.

Divided chronologically into six themes, the exhibition builds a strong contrast of the different areas of society from this era. The pursuit of leisure across the class system is portrayed in A Social Carnival (1967-75), with sea-front beauty contests, Maypole dances, and the races at Ascot.

Yet society was deeply divided and Portrait and Place (1973-77) reveals such schisms - from industrial workers to representatives of youth culture. National identity was as much an issue then as it is now, and Ethnicity, Community and Street (1972-80) documents race tensions by contrasting National Front racist graffiti to an image of a proud Asian matriarch in her Birmingham home.

Picturing the Civic Crisis (1976-81) captures changes in the cultural face of Britain. Houses are bedecked with Union Jacks to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and women campaign against domestic abuse. Wastelands (1976-82), is a bleak look at industrial change with once thriving communities abandoned to decay.

A photograph of depressed looking people sitting in rows in a bleak waiting room.

Paul Graham, Crouched Man, DHSS waiting room, 1984. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre. Courtesy the artist, 2007

Lastly, Society in Colour (1984-87) takes a looks at the mixed blessings of life in Thatcherite Britain. Simultaneously celebratory and bleak, seaside sunbathers scrabble for their hot dogs in stark contrast to the drab and cold expanses of a Department of Health and Social Security waiting room.

This is a compelling visual slice of recent social history – one that is within living memory for many of us – and the rich collection of photographs paints a picture of an era of huge social change that has led to Britain as we know it today.

For more than 60 years the British Council has been collecting works of art, craft and design to promote abroad the achievements of our artists, craft practitioners and designers. The collection, started in the late 1930s with a modest group of works on paper, has now grown to a collection of more than 8000 works covering all media and all aspects of British art and design of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This is an exhibition preview. If you’ve been to see the show, why not let us know?

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