Teddy Boy and Girl, Petticoat Lane. © Roger Mayne. 1961

The exhibition Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now shown in 2006 at Tate Liverpool, claimed to ‘survey the impact of the documentary form on art and artists and vice versa’. In this review of the exhibition Mike Ricketts and Hope Kingsley considered this claim and looked for points of synthesis between art and the document in the show.

It appears that we have reached an extraordinary moment, one that we could not have contrived.” The camera zooms in on Desmond Tutu, spot-lit in the darkness. The Archbishop turns from a forty-something man in a leather jacket to face a tearful woman of similar age seated at the other end of a long table. Tutu’s seemingly impossible task is to suggest, tentatively, that this defiant, shattered widow shake hands with the man opposite her, an ex-Loyalist paramilitary who has just told her of his involvement in the murder of her husband.

The BBC’s televised ‘truth and reconciliation’ sessions in Northern Ireland (“Facing the Truth,” BBC2, 6 March, 2006) resulted in some truly compelling footage, a powerful and disturbing mutation of ‘reality TV’. The series hinges, even trades, on how past traumas can live on, unresolved, in everyday lives and psyches.

There are interesting parallels here with the concerns of contemporary artists which featured in Tate Liverpool’s exhibition, Making History. Though more consciously layered and encoded than the BBC programme, art works by Willie Doherty, Jeremy Deller, and Isaac Julien addressed the abiding imprint of historically distant experiences. Old wounds were invoked; Doherty visualised the Troubles, Deller restaged an incident in the 1984 miner’s strike, and Julien dramatized the legacies of colonialism.

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The emphasis was on memory, on history as the past. A different understanding of the exhibition’s title was suggested by the lens-based work that dominated the early sections of the show. Many of the most powerful practices represented strategic responses to moments of crisis: Edith Tudor-Hart’s photographs for the socialist press during the Depression, Humphrey Jennings’ filmed paen to the British homeland during World War II (“Listen to Britain” 1942), Nick Hedges’ series for the homeless charity Shelter in the late 60s, Chris Killip and Paul Graham’s autopsies of Thatcher’s Britain. These photographers and filmmakers ‘make history’ in the sense of capturing contemporary lives, events, injustices. History was keenly felt as sustaining (Cavalcanti’s “Coalface” 1935) or compromised, as Chris Killip wrote of the communities he photographed in North-East England (1976-84): “The objective history of England doesn’t amount to much if you don’t believe in it, and I don’t, and I don’t believe that anyone in these photographs does either, as they face the reality of de-industrialisation in a system which regards their lives as disposable.”

History is more than chronology; it is the flux of social, political, and economic realities, not as schematic principles or forces, but as confluences of events and realities that reach a critical mass. As such, the histories in the show rightly went beyond the urgency of war and economic collapse; they included transformative shifts, having long-lasting effects. There was work in the exhibition that connected to recent public debates about the persistence of racism in white working-class communities, stemming in part from the dissolution of old neighbourhoods in post-war slum clearances. That disintegration is presaged in Roger Mayne’s street shots of the jittery kids of London’s working-class Southam Street (1956-61) just prior to its demolition, and Karel Reisz’s film of their South London peers in “We are the Lambeth Boys” (1959). A larger national identity is also under siege: in the late 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones’ “A Day Off” series (1966-68), captured, as he wrote, “an English way of life… before it became Americanised,” and Lindsey Anderson’s “The Flower Market” (1957) memorialized a place and a traditional economy in decline.

These post-war projects displayed a sharp eye for a very British combination of the surreal and the everyday, while retaining a real social bite that resurfaced in work by Martin Parr (“The Last Resort,” published 1986) and Paul Graham (“Past Caring,” 1983-4). By the 1980s, photography may no longer operate as activism; Parr, in particular, had few illusions about the social power of his medium. Yet studied neutrality produces equally damning material, as in the Granada television series, “The Family” (1974).

The Tate exhibition screened the opening episode, and it is riveting, exposing the terms of voyeurism in a discussion between the family and producer. “So we get paid…that’s a bonus,” remarked the mother. At the suggestion that the TV audience might object to the family’s behaviour and beliefs, one of the sons asserted: “People don’t have to watch us. They can always turn the volume down.” The axial point in the programme also showed a critical shift in documentary; no longer a ‘top down’ mode of address, its straight-to-camera mode appeared unmediated. In procedure and in specularity, this prefaced projects by Gillian Wearing, who cited “The Family” as a resource and inspiration.

Much of the most interesting documentary work in the exhibition was a contemporaneous response to instances of social and political upheaval. That immediacy has dissipated – or is simply not present – in the more recent art here, virtually all of which was produced as multi-referenced and reflexive representations operating first and foremost within the art world. They lack urgency, for they have a different function. As John Grierson explained in 1939, the key characteristic of the documentary film in Britain was its “social use… [it] was created to fill a need, and it has prospered because that need was not only real but wide.” Grierson believed that this pragmatic, informative purpose was why documentary “persisted when other aesthetic or aestheticky movements in the same direction [i.e., film] were either fitful or failed.”

The exhibition was predicated on the function and relevance of documentation in providing constructive access to historical events and issues. The historical material takes documentary as a valid and productive form of communication using a variety of modes; still and moving lens-based images, sound effects, music, voice-over narration, and straight-to-camera interviews and testimony. Contemporary works use the form: some, like Richard Billingham’s photographs of his family (1995-6 ), certainly look like documentary, with an apparent directness or rawness characterized by inconsistent focus, framing, and lighting. Equally, many contemporary pieces take on social and/or political subject matter associated with earlier documentary. But these are reconstructions: the inspirations and events are twenty to thirty years old, and the work draws on a borrowed sense of crisis. Indeed, the final rooms of the exhibition were imbued with a palpable sense of melancholy, interiority, and, in the case of Patrick Keiller’s influential film “London” (1993), nostalgia.

‘Making History’ included contemporary practice as influenced by, or ‘in dialogue with’, documentary. Collisions of direct documentary and more mediated material can be found in Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) (2004) and in the Mike Figgis-directed “The Battle of Orgreave” Jeremy Deller” (2001), a film originally shown on Channel 4 but presented here on video. Deller brings ‘raw’ material into his work, but as conditional evidence: its multiplicity – interviews, eye witness accounts, ephemera, archive footage and staged re-enactments – cast doubt on the authority of any single testimony. Deller used key tools of documentary practice derived from Mass Observation’s direct oral histories, which were developed in the 1930s as an antidote to the official rhetoric of government and the media. Given the amount of misinformation in news reports of the 1984 miner’s strike, Deller’s approach was pertinent and pointed.

A similar range of modes of address was found in Mary Kelly, Margaret Harrison and Kay Hunt’s installation “Women and Work” (1973-75), William Raban’s “Thames Film” (1986), and Black Audio Collective and John Akomfrah’s “Handsworth Songs” (1986). These works were properly contextualized by earlier productions; in the 1930s, films by John Grierson and Alberto Cavalcanti mixed naturalistic, chronologically-sequenced narrative with more flexible, montaged material. The juxtaposition of such significant and complex works, screened in their entirety, was a great strength of the exhibition.

Arguably such work does comment on the methods of documentary from within the context of art. But to describe this as simply a matter of influence or dialogue is too simple – it suggests a continuous narrative and does not acknowledge significant factors such as the critical weight of conceptual artists and theorists over the last three decades. But continuities are the stuff of survey shows; a hook to reel us in and a device to keep us going through the great waves of material. The exhibition was premised on a dialogue between practitioners of ‘art’ and ‘documentary’, yet genuine dialogue is relatively rare. There are a few wonderful instances (John Grierson / Alberto Cavalcanti / W. H. Auden / Benjamin Britten; Black Audio and Berwick St collectives), but the many narrative gaps produced some curatorial gymnastics. For example, there was a rather forced imposition of a specifically surrealist context for Bill Brandt’s 1930s photographs. Some chosen works came from his studies of the markers of class in British society. But other images were more straightforward industrialized landscapes, and a surrealist reading is not born out in this phase, when, as David Campany noted in his catalogue essay, Brandt’s artistic motivations were ambivalent at best.

A further problem lay in the inclusion of several portraits by William Coldstream, and large 50s paintings by Lucian Freud, John Bratby and others. These practitioners may be linked by anecdotal and art historical contexts, but their presence in the show was unconvincing. Why include these paintings? Perhaps there was a suspicion that the lens-based work lacked the inflected sophistication of fine art and needed to be bolstered by material with proven art historical status. A more cynical possibility is suggested by the crowd-pleasing artists’ names which featured in the show’s publicity; ‘Lucian Freud’, ‘Gilbert and George’, and so on.

Many of the paintings came from the Tate’s own collection. Of course, this was standard and pragmatic curatorial practice, but the contemporary section  emphasized Tate-endorsed practitioners; five of the six artists (as opposed to filmmakers Keiller and William Raban) had been short-listed for, or won, the Turner Prize. These connections have, however, resulted in productive insights into contemporary debts to historical material, in particular Jeremy Deller’s active interest in Mass Observation and Wearing’s often-stated debt to fly-on-the-wall 70s reality TV. The inclusion of such little-seen historical work was a high point of the show.

These comparisons are rich and productive, but given the sheer number and diversity of works on display, it is crucial to distinguish the motivations behind individual pieces. Without background material it is hard to assess how works were understood in their own time, and thus they often function merely in terms of what curator Tanya Barson called ‘documentary form’. For example, a selection of Mass Observation books were displayed in a vitrine, but Mass Observation images were hung as singular framed photographs, without reference to their publication in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post. Bill Brandt’s 1930s work was represented by later exhibition prints, whose size and high contrast tonal range is inconsistent with their original appearance in Picture Post and Lilliput. The omission of original context for exhibited works  proved a concern to at least one of the photographers included, and to one of the lending institutions. More broadly, this tended to emphasize aesthetic form over concrete methodology.

Today, the art world seems to be carrying on an extended flirtation with documentary as a potent arena of ‘authentic’(-looking) practice. In a critical climate that receives most representations as compromised, documentary, compared other representational modes, might still offer some shard of authority and – suspect but still seductive – truth.

The role of Tate in this is central, for this was the third Tate exhibition (in as many years) of primarily lens-based media founded in documentary practice; in 2003, Tate Modern presented “Cruel and Tender: The Real in Twentieth Century Photography” and, in 2005, the monograph “Robert Frank.” ‘Making History’ complemented and revisited the intellectual parameters and visual vocabulary of those shows with an extensive and intelligent range of influential historical material. It was a reprise in other ways: the only two British photographers featured in “Cruel and Tender” (Paul Graham and Martin Parr), were both here, as was the device of a curatorial brief wide or slippery enough to encompass a great diversity of practices, many not ‘art’, but displayed as such. “Cruel and Tender” played fast and loose with the notion of ‘the real’ to canonise the photograph-as-document-as-art (order changeable at will). The  show was mammoth (there must be days of film and television viewing here), and was another provocative exercise in canon formation. One way or another, this exhibition was destined, of course, to make history.

Published in Photoworks Issue 6, 2007 edited by Gordon MacDonald
Commissioned by Photoworks


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