Leaders of Britain, 1944

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I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.

After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.

In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.

And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery  for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.

Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor  Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.

Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.

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The Last Resort, Martin Parr

No single photoproject in the last 30 years appalled more people nor revealed more about the sensibilities of that bygone era than Martin Parr’s The Last Resort

A casual visitor admiring Martin Parr’s colorful photos of fat, lethargic, and relaxed British vacationers on New Brighton would never understand the controversy and critical derision that surrounded them when they were first displayed in 1986. Even today, one might be tempted to dismiss the controversy as a peculiar and parochial moment rather than a defining watershed for British photography.

In Parr’s eyes, England is not just a nation of surly shopkeepers …

The shock it delivered registered on many different levels. Fans of black-and-white social documentary photography disliked the bright beach scenes shot with medium-format color film. The images of overweight and sunburnt people surrounded by screaming and shooting children on cluttered beaches, eating repulsive looking food, and wearing mismatched clothes held up an ugly mirror to class-conscious Britain. Art critic David Lee criticized Parr for his patronizing and exploitative view of the working class:

[Parr] has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food and discarding containers and wrappers with an abandon likely to send a liberal conscience into paroxysms of sanctimony. Our historic working class, normally dealt with generously by documentary photographers, becomes a sitting duck for a more sophisticated audience. They appear fat, simple, styleless, tediously conformist and unable to assert any individual identity. They wear cheap flashy clothes and in true conservative fashion are resigned to their meager lot. Only babies and children survive ridicule and it is their inclusion in many pictures which gives Parr’s acerbic vision of hopelessness its poetic touch.

… but that of white trash, dilapidation, and rampant babies.

Robert Morris wrote in the British Journal of Photography, “This is a clammy, claustrophobic nightmare world where people lie knee-deep in chip papers, swim in polluted black pools, and stare at a bleak horizon of urban dereliction.” Now, some 26 years later, to this author at least, the controversy said as much about sensitivities of the time as about Parr’s style. The photographer himself would agreed; Parr said, “I was rather surprised there was a controversy. It didn’t seem to me to be a controversial subject. It was a rundown seaside resort in Britain. What’s the surprise in that?”

Three years after The Last Resort, Parr moved to Bristol and began the project that would later be published as The Cost of Living. There he poked fun at that other extreme of Thatcherite Britain – the yuppie hell of consumer-crazy, horribly perfect, starched-shirt and floral-dress brigades.

Maurice Broomfield (1916-2010)

Maurice Broomfield started his career documenting the devastated cities of Europe. When he returned, Imperial Chemical Industries asked him to photograph one of their factories, and this led to a new career for Broomfield. For the next three decades, he took pictures of factory workers across Britain for annual corporate reports, exhibitions and trade fairs as well as for syndicated newspaper columns documenting the progress of industrial Britain.

All his photographs of industrial life were epic and intriguing, resembling art installations more than dirty workplaces. An inverted and disembodied mannequin’s leg is set against a room of darkening shadows as the lab technician posed behind in Broomfield’s famous ‘The Nylon Stocking Test, Pontypool’ (1957). This picture was highly reminiscent of Man Ray’s avant-garde photography. Also inspired by Vermeer, Joseph Wright (18th century painter who similarly documented the advent of the Industrial Revolution), Bauhaus and choreographed theatre, Broomfield set out to create masterly compositions, sometimes surreal, sometimes terrifying, but always glamourous. A school drop-out who worked in a factory and attended art school at night, Broomfield conferred poise, humanity and dignity to industrial workers and technicians whether they were making nylon, insulation, ballbearings or ships.

By the time he retired in 1982, following the death of his wife, the industrial Britain he so adoringly depicted was slowly disappearing too. With the new millennium came a nostalgia for the promised sci-fi future and thus resurgence of interest in Broomfield’s works, which indeed looked like stills from a Fritz Lang or Stanley Kubrick movie. His works were rediscovered, and retrospective after retrospective surrounded the last years of Maurice Broomfield, who died last week at the age of 94.

See his most famous photos here.

Tony Banks swears the Oath

The late Baron Stratford was one of the most colorful characters to grace the British politics in the recent years. As plain the Rt. Hon. Tony Banks, he and his acidic wit served with distinction in the House of Commons. It was Banks who christened Tory leader William Hague as a “foetus”, adding that Conservative MPs might be rethinking their views on abortion.

His most controversial moment came when he was seen crossing his fingers when he took the oath of allegiance to the Queen. Since Banks was a fervent republican, there were much controversy, although Banks always insisted he was wishing himself luck in his new job as Minister for Sport.

The 500-year old oath has never been without controversy. At one point in 1998, even 15 dukes (including three royals) refused to swear it. At the start of each new parliament, all MPs take the oath, swearing on a bible or an equivalent sacred text: “I [name] swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.” The wording varied from parliament to parliament (it used to be so much longer). Non-believers and those like Quakers whose religion makes oaths objectionable, affirm: “”I [name] do swear that I will be faithful…” Many MPs think it should be scrapped; on the other hand a similar oath was proposed to be enacted in schools.

And there were those like Banks who brought humor to the occasion. John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, mumbled the words. Dennis Skinner, ad-libbed “and all who sail on her” after the words Queen Elizabeth. But this is nothing new. There were many MPs and Lords throughout history who pledged their allegiances to the constituents and the “common people” before swearing the oath. Tony Benn prefaced it with, “As a dedicated republican” in 1992, and atheist Charles Bradluagh refused to swear it in 1880, thus beginning first of his four ejection from the House.

Why Five More Years of Labour Scare Me

That Glad Confident Morning of May 1997

It is election time in Great Britain again. I may still have a little bit of soft spot for Tony, but five more years of Labour genuinely scares me. I foresee one leadership challenge after another if Gordon Brown wins, and neither Lord Mandelson nor the Millibands are cut for the leadership position. On the other hand, voting Lib-Dem will just lead to a hung parliament, which will just delay the government, bog down the Civil Service and send Britain back to the 70s.

That’s why I urge those in Britain (those who are eligible anyway) to vote Conservative. I don’t necessarily support all of their policies (with new Labour, all candidates seem Mr. Potato Head anyway) but at this point, it is the lesser of two evils. I think this opinion in The Independent pretty much summed the mood:

“We’re a sorry, bruised, dazed, bankrupt, querulous, knackered army, tired of seeing our soldiers come home in coffins, contemptuous of politicians, hostile to foreigners, disgusted with bankers, frustrated by the stagnant economy and uninspired by the choice before us, between the airbrushed Etonian opportunist and the moth-eaten grizzly bear of Fife, goaded beyond endurance by a million enemies but somehow hanging onto power. It’s a long way, psychically as well as temporally, from the glad, confident morning of May 1997 to the glum, dark evening of the soul that is pre-election Britannia in March 2010.”

Important: I know this blog is not supposed to be about politics, but since some people do read this blog and this election is close; since the basic idea behind blogs and tweets is to inform and persuade people anyway and since a lot of other blogs are doing it anyway, I decided to post some information about the British election here. I will probably continue to do so, but if you are bothered by the blog’s this political turn, just comment down below. I will try to be as impartial as possible in my posts regardless of my party political affiliations whatever they maybe. But for now:

Vote Conservative. They don’t have all the best ideas all the time, but it is still better than having no ideas like dearest Gordon.