Curator's Choice: David Mellor on Martin Parr, Enoch Powell and Real Britain 1974

By Ben Miller | 03 October 2014

Curator's Choice: David Mellor on Martin Parr, Enoch Powell and new show Real Britain 1974: Co-Optic and Documentary Photography at the Brighton Photo Biennial

Martin Parr, Blackpool 1971

A black and white photo of a man and a woman asleep on deckchairs
© Martin Parr
"I’ve spent more than a lifetime curating exhibitions about British photography from the 1930s to the present. Here was a little cache of material from a very interesting moment in the '70s.

The Photographers’ Gallery had just started, a magazine called Creative Camera was offering polemics about how we should upgrade how photography was seen. Photography from America was coming in.

This was a co-operative organisation, hence the word Co-Optic. There’s our early '70s excruciating pun.

The idea was that exhibitions and projects could be democratically voted upon by all members.

At the meetings, everyone looks like they’re a member of a heavy metal band from the period.

However, members of this group included Nick Serota, who was at that time a young curator at Modern Art Oxford.

He felt, as he does to this day, that photography was important as part of contemporary culture.

One man epitomised this new mood, and that was Tony Ray-Jones. He is the English Elvis of photography, or James Dean – he was very short-lived, died very young, very dramatic career.

It was a meteor flashing across the heavens: '72, '73, '74, and then it petered out. But it offered an interesting vehicle for people like Martin Parr.

Parr was still in short trousers in about '72 or so. Ian Jeffrey, a critic at the time, called Parr the funniest photographer still alive at this moment.

For Parr and particularly Ray-Jones, most of these pictures are around visual jokes."

Paul Hill, Enoch Powell Electioneering, 1970

A black and white photo of a boy blowing bubblegum in front of a political speaker
© Paul Hill
"You’ve got to put yourself back in that period: there’s a war going on in the north of Ireland, on the streets of London, and terrorism is a very pressing reality in terms of the provisional IRA. There’s the idea that the United Kingdom is actually falling to pieces.

Enoch Powell had given a racist speech in 1968 called the Rivers of Blood. Farage and company are like junior league versions of this moment.

Here he is in Wolverhampton. Even then he has an anachronist Homburg hat. He’s speaking from the back of what the British Army would call a Snatch Land Rover.

Paul Hill has made a comic point about this man’s peculiar discourse of nationalism. He’s got a paisley shirt – still fashionable, you see, even though the moment of psychedelia had passed.

He’s offering a raspberry – the bubblegum that’s being blown. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful photograph."

Sirkka Liisa Konttinen, Girl on a Spacehopper, 1971

A black and white photo of a woman bouncing on a spacehopper on a cobbled street
© Sirkka Liisa Konttinen, courtesy Amber and L Parker Stephenson
"This is the moment when women photographers make an entry. Lisa Konttinen was Finnish – still alive – very, very interesting photographer.

It's a girl in glitter on a spacehopper. If you think of Channel 4 always wanting to do this kind of shorthand about the 1970s, they always have vintage footage of a spacehopper. But Lisa got there first with something like this.

She documented the particular community in the north-east, part of Newcastle, called Byker. One of the great hits on television at the time was Byker Grove.

We’re dipping into a very rich, complicated culture. There was a fairly homogenous popular culture. It’s a wonderful, wonderful photograph."

Dorothy Bohm, Brighton Billboard

A black and white photo of a woman standing next to a billboard on a street in 1970s
© Dorothy Boam
"She was a fundraiser for The Photographers' Gallery, which was very much the scene-maker at the point. This is a photo of old Brighton.

At this point one of the first Diane Arbus shows was being held. It was a scene-setter in London in the 70s. That really suggested there was an enormous audience out there for photography in museums.

I got lucky out of that because I was involved in the follow-up show called The Real Thing at the Hayward."

Homer Sykes, John Knill Ceremony, 1971

A black and white photo of a series of young girls in white dresses standing near a church
© Homer Sykes / My British Archive
"The other thing that’s being played with a lot is the idea of a folkloric English identity.

If you see something like The Wicker Man then you’re thrown back into this: it’s there in English folk rock, Fairport Convention, all of that.

One of the things Sykes did was to follow up on Ray-Jones’s touring around to see local festivals, what was left of a folk tradition.

Here he finds this extraordinary fantasy of a rural community and it’s wonderful.

Sykes is still around, an indefatigable photo journalist. He chronicled the conflict in the north of Ireland.

He’s a very interesting person. I’ve shared half a pork pie with Homer Sykes because that’s all he had.

We still don’t treat these people properly. On the other hand, with someone like Martin Parr it’s reached mainstream and beyond – his visions, his film collaborations with the BBC and so on.

It’s had a peculiar legacy: it’s kind of worked but not worked. There were these small workshop soviets forming, if you like.

There was a very radical social and political climate at the time: great fears that were taken very seriously by security agencies and the Conservative party that Britain was being undermined by subversive enemies.

There was a genuine sense that perhaps it would be better if there was a military coup to stop all this nonsense going on.

A lot of these people are quite elderly or dead now, so it’s the artists' stories if you look a bit deeper. It’s an archival exhibition straight out of the folders and onto the walls."

Stephen Weiss, Cricket Power, Acton

A black and white photo of three people playing cricket on a green near a power station
© Stephen Weiss
"A man called Steven Weiss, who was an entrepreneur, found his way into this interesting ferment of photography in this country.

Weiss kept the archive of the organisation. It sold 50,000 postcards. Although this thing as a kind of cultural vehicle only lasted a few years, it did have an impact on the scene.

It was held in the house next to Amy Winehouse’s house, in Camden Square, so that old rebel spirit is still there. It’s a big archive and sorting it out requires a lot of time and money.

The most striking thing here is that we’ve got this very tasteful, monochrome world. And then in the 80s people started to use colour, and that was one of the big jumps, I think.

That was in the age of Thatcherism. We’re still in an age here where people are almost politically naïve.

They felt that colour was being done in magazines and paid for by advertisers, but if you wanted to be seen by American museums as a serious commentator you had to be monochrome.

They were wrong, because there was lots of very good colour being done. These people got together because they thought that in America, France and elsewhere there was more support for photography.

They’re also motivated by a deep feeling that photographers are not treated right. This is almost a political movement in its own right.

They feel they don’t get proper political or critical attention and are not paid right. They think the grass is greener over every fence they look over.

There’s a huge shared drive here. These people were motivated by feeling that they were in an art form that nobody did people.

Fay Godwin, for example, was a successful commercial photographer but still resentful that she wasn’t treated as a proper artist. Arguably nothing’s changed.

France and Germany look after their photographers. That’s not the case here."

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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"It sold 50,000 postcards" - interesting. I can't remember what I received except a set of cards and some extras of my image. Great group of photographers though.
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