When colour began to alter the course and character of what had become known as 'independent photography’ in Britain during the 1980s, it was widely seen as a move away from the forms of political engagement and social concern enshrined in the British documentary tradition towards a less committed aestheticism.
In reality it was far more complex than that. The reductionist view that it was simply a matter of documentary vs art was blinkered to the broader picture of photography’s growing sophistication and Britain’s new social landscape, including the shifting patterns of class being redrawn under Thatcherism.
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However American its antecedents may have been, the new colour photography was emphatically a response to its time and place, a new social realism, one that was unsentimental and sometimes scathing and grotesque in its implied criticism of what kind of society Britain was becoming. This was the colour of new social struggles, new defeats, new humiliations; it was the colour of the supermarket, the glare of the high street, the red and yellow glow of a McDonald’s on every corner.
Paul Reas became one of the key proponents of this new photography. His projects I Can Help (1988) and Flogging A Dead Horse (1993), both touring exhibitions and influential books, were unflinching in their examination of consumerism and the heritage industry, respectively, two of the defining parade grounds of Thatcher’s new market economy. Essentially, whereas previous documentary forms had highlighted the experiences of ordinary people enduring the privations imposed on them by an uncaring and unfair social system, Reas’s work pictured them as active participants, trying but failing miserably to get something out of life, prey to forces beyond their control. Whereas the preservation of dignity had been paramount to the credo of the ‘concerned’ photographer, now there was none: people were lost, they looked stupid. But, their experiences, their awkwardness and bewilderment had a familiar ring. The correspondence between destitution and comfort, between marginal and mainstream places, so central to the subject/audience exchange of the former social documentary model, had evaporated. Here was a world everyone could understand, here were feelings that prompted a collective wince of recognition: this was the banal face of the everyday as a bizarre pantomime in which we all played a part. It was a different form of impoverishment and a different form of endurance, for this was a life endured, full of boredom, confusion and hapless conformity.
Looking back, Reas’s work of that period was momentous, but to an extent, like much of the other photography of its kind, it bore the weight of the nihilistic condition it so vividly reflected. And, over the next ten years or so, Reas moved on into more editorial and advertising work, very successfully using the colour techniques and strategies that had become his staple form to new commercial ends. This work also taught him a great deal, not just extending his repertoire of skills, as a photographer and director, but as a planner and a mobilizer of resources. Despite his success in this field, however, this aspect of Reas’s career ultimately proved unsatisfying and gave him little space to make his own work, or to crystallise a new direction for it.
More recently Reas has returned to teaching, at the University of Wales: Newport, where he was originally a student, and is immersed once again in the daily flow of photography and ideas to which he has always been so committed. And, he has begun to make new work of his own, taking some first steps towards formulating a new practice that, to an extent for him, revives some of the pure excitement of making pictures, and that sense (first imagined by Tony Ray Jones), of stepping through the looking glass into a world unique to the photograph, that originally motivated him to take up the camera. The pictures reproduced here are examples of this revived spirit. They may bear the traces of techniques honed in advertising but they also have the breathless immediacy of the photographer on the street, responding to a world as it churns around him, forming and re-forming into possible images.
Some of these photographs were taken for a specific purpose, as part of a commission Reas has been awarded by Southwark Council and the London College of Communication, who are collaborating on a project to document the regeneration of the Elephant & Castle area of south east London. A commendable initiative which continues in the tradition of public commissioning of photography that gathered so much momentum in the 1970s and 80s, and that for Reas is a reminder of his first commission as part of Ffotogallery Cardiff’s landmark The Valley’s Project that he contributed to in 1985.
The Elephant and Castle project will move into a new phase each year until its planned completion in 2016, and a number of photographers will be commissioned during the course of the work. Reas is the first, responding to the area prior to the changes which, inevitably, will have a profoundly disruptive impact on the local community. Part of Reas’s interest in the project stems from his own family’s experience of a similar re-development programme in which they were subjected to the trauma of re-housing and displacement. But Reas has chosen to avoid any sense of ‘immersion’ in the community, particularly that suggested by photographs of families in their homes, which has become such a commonplace trope of documentary practice, but which for Reas only serves to stereotype the very people it sets out to sensitively and sympathetically represent. Eschewing that particular form of faux intimacy, he has opted to engage with the more transient and unpredictable atmospheres of public space.
As might befit impending upheaval, Reas’s Southwark streets are inhabited by people and things that betray a form of collective anxiety. Instead of inferring a place of ingrained adaptability, makeshift arrangements of objects and goods, for example, or the battered, part-camouflaged body of a Peugeot 205, seem to be inadequate preparations for some inevitable end game. Similarly, and in all of Reas’s new pictures, people are unsure and apprehensive, watching the skies or grabbing desperately for some unseen palliative spontaneously dispensed on the street; elsewhere figures scurry by, seemingly oppressed by their surroundings. It is as though people and places have lost, or are about to lose their connection; nothing in this oddly angled, deeply shadowed and out-of-kilter world seems to fit. This is, of course, part seen and part dramatised by Reas, again he is conjuring that sense of a world unique to the photograph, and he appears bent on telling a particular story. In fact in the Elephant & Castle commission there are two stories converging: one is conditioned by his understanding and his interest in this place and in what is about to happen there, the other is part of a wider narrative in Reas’s work that surveys the shifting ground of working class life.
Reas has said that all his photographs, essentially, stem from his own experience, from the people and places he has known, and from the working class culture he grew up in. And, informing all his recent work, is the debate about the changing fortunes of white working class people, partly stimulated by The Likes Of Us a celebrated and controversial book by Michael Collins (himself ‘raised within a stone’s throw of Elephant & Castle’) about this social group’s forgotten and marginalised status. Reas’s new work does not amount to a polemic on this issue, but there is an insistent chord in his Southwark project and beyond that plays on the identity of white, and mostly male, working class people. It is something that can be traced back throughout his work (the insistent gravitational pull of identity), and was central to his rarely seen video installation, Portrait of an Invisible Man (1993-2003), about his father, one of the few personal projects Reas completed while working commercially.
Now faced with a more diffuse political landscape, Reas’s new work has left behind much of the primary coloured, flash-world glare so characteristic of his photography of late-80s and early-90s. The sitting-duck absurdities sustained at a fever pitch throughout I Can Help and Flogging A Dead Horse have also given way to a calmer more discursive approach, attuned to a place where meaning cannot be so easily gleaned from the bright surface of things. ‘Sun’, as Philip Larkin noticed, gazing out of his train window in The Whitsun Weddings, ‘destroys the interest of what’s happening in the shade…’ and for much of the time in his new work it’s the interesting shade that now holds Reas’s attention. More than simply providing a frame or backdrop for his illuminated details, it is partly obscured recesses and dark space that draws his eye, either down a murky tube platform or into a noir-ish scene through the grilled window of Elephant Car Service’s (sic). The presence of such opacity suggests an altogether more speculative attitude: the act of looking to see what looking might bring, to see what something might mean. At times in Reas’s photographs, that seems to involve an almost absent-minded wondering – at passers-by and at those objects and goods and their chance formations. At others, out there in the rush hour, the pace is quicker and involves the photographer once again enjoying thinking on his feet. In this much grimier world, there may be storm clouds brewing but, ironically, in 2008 the future does not seem so foreclosed. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next.
Published in Photoworks Issue 10
Commissioned by Photoworks