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This selection of photographs of England by Chris Steele-Perkins stems from 1969 up to 2008, most of his lifetime. It's an impressive collection of work, highlighting themes of class and race with pictures that evoke considerable empathy for the disenfranchised and more mixed feelings for the ruling classes. One might compare it with the work of Martin Parr, whose photographs of England are often deeply conscious of class. There's an obvious difference in the styles of the two photographers: while Parr's work nearly always has a sense of mockery of its subjects, no matter who the subject is, Steele-Perkins shows minorities in ways that makes them very human and sympathetic to the viewer. His stance to the white working class is a little more ambivalent, while his pictures of the middle and upper classes has more obvious judgment and hostility. Steele-Perkins himself was born in Rangoon (Yangon) in Myanmar, moving to England when he was a child, and his heritage marked as him as different, which helps to explain his interest in areas of English life that otherwise tend to go undocumented.
One can get a sense of how distinctive the work of Chris Steel-Perkins is by browsing the blog of "We English" by Simon Roberts, a project he ran from April 2008 to March 2010, creating a book of photographs on English life and also referring to many other photographic records of England. In addition to Parr, Roberts refers to the work of, among others, Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, Tom Wood, Homer Sykes, and Jane Brown. They record English traditions and eccentricities, and some document the mundane and dreary parts of life, with some humor. Many have a strong class consciousness, but they present a side of England that will be familiar to most people who have spend any significant time in the UK. Steel-Perkins gives us a record of the less familiar side.
Consider just the first 4 years of the collection, all in black and white: there are pictures of a black woman and her three daughters in Brixton from 1973, the Brixton Reggae Festival from 1974 showing a sea of black faces, a black man wearing a British Rail jacket in a darkly lit pub looking at a slot machine in a Brixton bar from 1974, various street festivals in London from 1974 and 1975, two mothers and children having tea at a battered women's home in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1975, a line of women dancing at a community center party in Middlesborough from 1975, Teddy Boys in London pubs in 1976, and two girls fighting in a London pub car park with men smiling looking on. These pictures are full of curiosity and care, showing an England that is both more modern and more primitive than one expects. Private life looks grim and isolated, with self-satisfied middle and upper classes oblivious of the lives of others struggling with poverty and oppression. These set the stage for the later 1970s and early 1980s, with the rise of the skinhead movement, punk music, the Queen's silver jubilee, and white working class clubs and leisure pursuits.
It is in the late 1980s that Steel-Perkins starts using color with his book The Pleasure Principle. Some of his best known images are from this time: the rich at play, conservative politicians and the white middle and lower classes are all made to look ridiculous. These images have power, and they give an initial thrill if you share their sentiments, but ultimately they are the weakest in the book.
The work from the last two decades steer away from obvious politicizing, and are more subtle. He includes pictures of his own family, some of which are striking and moving, and some which seem somewhat irrelevant and out of place in the larger body of work. There's a move towards whimsy -- especially in a picture of men ready for a run in London in 2008 standing in a line at a fence. They are peeing, but the humor comes from the fact that one is wearing a silly animal costume with a large tail behind him, and one seems to be looking over at another man's penis. It is a nice diversion, but the really strong pictures are still of people who are disadvantaged or suffering. There's a very moving image from 2009 of a 15 year old girl standing in her kitchen, looking completely exhausted; the caption explains that she helps to look after her ill mother. Another of a little girl with Cerebral Palsy is delightful: she is laughing because there are some lcd fairy lights dangled over her face. We are not led to feel pity for her at all; rather we are inspired by the joy she experiences.
This collection shows that Steele-Perkins is one of the major documenters of English life in the last forty years. His work from the 1970s may be his most enduring contribution, but his much of his recent work is also very impressive. This well-produced book will be of great interest to readers who follow photography of modern social life.
Link: Chris Steele-Perkins website
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York