Socialist Worker

A Long Exposure: A century of turbulence caught by the camera

Dave Sewell explores a new exhibition of 100 years of photography by the Guardian newspaper

Issue No. 2129

The Irish Civil War in 1922 (Pic: Walter Doughty/Guardian)

The Irish Civil War in 1922 (Pic: Walter Doughty/Guardian)

Once a vital part of the industrial north west of England, then a post-industrial wasteland, the Salford Quays are now the epitome of “regeneration”.

From the Lowry Centre gallery the view across the area is of half-built luxury apartment blocks and the beginnings of a development called media:city.

This controversial project is touted by the council as a solution to Salford’s lack of jobs. But many local residents see it as heralding of privatised gentrification.

The landscape is perhaps the ideal backdrop to the Long Exposure exhibition of Guardian photography, a collection of still images that capture, with surprising gravity, a century of motion.

One photo shows two young Salford boys surveying their homes for the last time before the slum clearances of the 1970s. In another, only the 14th century Shambles pub stands stationary in the foreground as the modern city of Manchester rebuilds itself frantically around it.

We have photos that capture the siege of Strangeways prison in 1991, and riot police being deployed in Moss Side in 1980. We have dramatic scenes of striking miners in the 1980s, Chrysler car workers in the 1970s, and all the way back to photos from the struggles of the 1920s.

There are pictures of some of the figures that shaped their times – from the racist Enoch Powell to the great anti-apartheid fighter Nelson Mandela.


But among my favourites were the playful yet poignant portraits of ordinary people whose lives are normally kept out of the foreground.

The exhibition was conceived by the late Guardian photographer Don McPhee when he was clearing out an old darkroom and found photos by Walter Doughty, the Guardian’s first staff photographer, that were neglected and soon to be discarded.

In Doughty’s time, press photographers were apparently “almost beneath contempt – reporters would not speak to them”. This is perhaps a unique opportunity to judge them on their own, considerable, artistic and technical merit.

This concept is taken to the extreme by the presentation of the photos. Each is framed separately and isolated by an enormous white border.

Minimal captions are provided at the ends of rows, and the only further context comes from overlapping photocopies of the original newspapers on pillars dotted around the gallery.

So we are free from the filters that normally mediate journalistic content, and up to a point it is very refreshing that the photos are able to speak for themselves.

However, before long a certain amount of frustration kicks in. Just as a photo gives us a tantalising glimpse into a story, its presentation prevents us from going any further.

We see pivotal moments in intense human dramas, but are hard-pressed to find any clues about who they are, their motivations, the histories that led to those moments and the outcomes.

Some of the depictions of Ireland in particular are crying out for explanation.

However, in one of the comments in the exhibition guestbook, a mother enthused about how the photographs had helped her introduce her children to the real histories of the 20th century.

As a starting point to such explorations they are ideal.

In A Long Exposure we see a century of turbulence reflected in the faces of ordinary people. We see the moments where those people made their own mark on history, all in a photomosaic of extraordinary resonance.

Slicing the images from the stories that produced them lends a surreal and almost dreamlike quality to the exhibition, but it is a dream that reflects and meditates upon a very real shared experience.

A Long Exposure: 100 years of Guardian photography is on at the Lowry Centre, Salford Quays until 1 March 2009. Go to »

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Tue 25 Nov 2008, 18:29 GMT
Issue No. 2129
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