The How We Are: Photographing Britain exhibition currently showing at London’s Tate Britain gallery certainly can’t be faulted on grounds of scale or ambition.
It is a huge show that aims to comprehensively document the history of photography in Britain, from the birth of the art in the 1840s all the way to the present digital age.
Almost every form of photography imaginable – landscapes, fashion, architecture, cookery – is represented somewhere in the exhibition.
But the emphasis is tipped towards social documentary and observation, as suggested by the exhibition’s subtitle – “photographing Britain” rather than “British photography”.
The exhibition includes some wonderful pictures that capture working class life in Britain over the years, like Shirley Baker’s shots of Hulme, Manchester, in 1965 just prior to the demolition of the slums there.
Many of these documentary photographs focus on life for ethnic minorities in Britain, such as Tony Walker’s portraits of the Asian community in Bradford during the 1950s, or Charlie Phillips’s scenes of Notting Hill in the 1960s.
But as the exhibition makes clear, right from the start there were two distinct and contrasting approaches to these photographs of ordinary people.
One is the radical documentary tradition of photographers that side and identify with the subjects of their work and their struggles.
Examples of this include Camerawork, a 1970s photography magazine devoted to images of the working class movement. A 1977 issue documenting the police attacking anti-fascist protesters in Lewisham is on display at the exhibition.
But the other tradition is more problematic. Almost as soon as the camera was invented, rich Victorians were using it to shoot voyeuristic and patronising pictures of the poor that reduce people to objects rather than bring them to life.
Striking examples of this are the “before” and “after” postcards produced by Barnardo’s featuring the children in the charity’s care. The creepy moralising tone of these pictures can’t fail to send shivers down your spine.
Even more disturbing are the photographs of women in psychiatric asylums taken at the end of the 19th century – a time when “scientists” thought they could measure intelligence and criminality from facial characteristics.
The exhibition includes pictures of the suffragette movement of the early 20th century that neatly showcase the two contrasting approaches side by side.
Pictures by suffragette photographers such as Lena Connell and Norah Smyth show women demonstrating for the right to vote and depict leading figures of the movement.
But right next to them are very different pictures of the same women – surveillance photographs of “known militants” that were distributed to police forces in order to hound and harass them.
Other images in the exhibition are more ambiguous and harder to categorise. Martin Parr’s luridly colourful shots of Tories at a garden party in the 1980s are clearly satirical, designed to poke fun at the pomposity of the powerful.
But when Parr uses the same techniques to record ordinary people, the effects are more uneasy. Is he creating a valuable social documentary of everyday life, or is he parodying and caricaturing the working class?
Part of the complications of this question lie in the fact that boundary between “realist” and “stylised” photography is more blurred than we’d imagine. The Tate’s exhibition brings this out well.
Many photographs in the exhibition are of working class youth cultures such as punk and mod. Are these authentic depictions of real life, or are they fashion photographs?
In fact these contradictions and questions encompass the exhibition itself. On the one hand it works as an extraordinary history and cultural record of life in Britain.
But on the other hand, it has an underhand ideological agenda of trying to define and celebrate “Britishness” in a rather New Labourish way.
“The unique story of British photography exposes a strong social conscience, a love of the ordinary, an intense curiosity and the constant need to record,” reads the Tate’s programme. One wonders what, if anything, is “uniquely” British about these traits.
Even the exhibition’s title is complicit here. It is named after a book produced in the late 1960 by radical photographer Euan Duff and Marxist art critic John Berger. But the “We” in Duff’s “How We Are” refers to the working class, not the British people.
These ideological subtleties should not put anyone off from visiting this exhibition, however. Its scale and scope are breathtaking and there are all sorts of thought provoking and fascinating images.
But ultimately it says a lot more about photography and the differing political uses to which the art has been put than it does about “British identity” – and this is a good thing.
How We Are: Photographing Britain runs at the Tate Britain gallery on Millbank, London SW1, until 2 September. For more information or to book tickets go to » www.tate.org.uk