In 1971 Daniel Meadows, a photography student at Manchester Art College, formulated a plan to compile what he termed “a photographic cross section of the English people” by traversing the country in a double-decker bus made over into a studio. It was a plan long on ambition and short on practicalities. And shorter still on funding.

After two years of inaction a breakthrough came in the form of a grant from the Arts Council’s recently-formed Committee of Photography. He got the cash in April and was on the road by September. The same committee was instrumental in supporting many of Meadows’ contemporaries who undertook similarly themed documentary projects, amongst them Ian Berry, Patrick Ward and Homer Sykes.

© Daniel Meadows
Daniel Meadows
Portsmouth: John Payne, aged 12, with two friends and his pigeon, Chequer, 26 April 1974
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre
Copyright the artist, 1974

No Such Thing as Society
, a touring exhibition of photographs taken from the late sixties to the mid eighties, provides a history of Arts Council (and, later, British Council) support for British independent photography. Besides those already mentioned it includes work by Victor Burgin, Brian Griffin, Peter Mitchell, Tish Murtha and Chris Killip from the 1970’s. Paul Graham, Peter Fraser and Keith Arnatt are amongst those included for their use of colour photography in the 1980’s. 

When the Council first made it known that it would be funding new work the vast majority of applications it received were for documentary projects. At one level or another, photographers such as Meadows, Homer Sykes and Ian Berry were all responding to current anxieties about the status and nature of Englishness. As The Times of the day put it – in an article headlined Why the English Should be a little more English – “What is so conspicuously lacking today is an overiding sense of purpose…England’s nationality has disappeared or rather been submerged for too long…England has no sense of national identity today.”

By the later seventies, though, the factors that had (however problematically) buttressed the vision of a recoverable national identity were subject to increasing levels of ideological contestation. The work of Chris Killip or Tish Murtha, for example, suggested that identity was more firmly indexed to socio-economic conditions (in their cases, the de-industrialised North East) than it was to unsustainable notions of Englishness. Similarly, Christine Voge’s photographs of the victims of domestic violence – or Victor Burgin’s trenchant combinations of image and text – explored themes of social division rather than national unity.

Throughout the period, British photographers working on home-grown projects often did so with recourse to pictorial styles that had originated overseas. Tony Ray Jones’ debt to Garry Winogrand is well-documented; Diane Arbus’ work was made familiar through the Sunday Times Magazine; John Davies’ industrial landscapes shared thematic concerns with the work of the American “New Topographics” photographers (exhibited in the UK in 1981). But the transatlantic development that bore most heavily, though belatedly, on British practice in the 1980’s was the legitimisation of the use of colour for ambitious documentary work.

Refuting opinion that colour lacked gravitas, work such as Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring from 1984 or Martin Parr’s notorious The Last Resort from 1986 confirmed that the deposition of black and white as the lingua franca of serious photography did not entail the diminution of documentary’s critical potential.

No Such Thing as Society
constitutes a much-needed appraisal of how independent photography, once it was the recipient of institutional support, could be the source of a vivid and incisive commentary on Britain of the seventies and eighties.

© Paul Graham
Paul Graham
Crouched Man, DHSS waiting room, 1984
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre
Copyright the artist, 2007

No Such Thing as Society: Photography in Britain 1967-87.
A Hayward Touring Exhibition

Aberystwyth Aberystwyth Arts Centre: March 15 – April 27 2008
Carlisle Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery: 10 May – 13 July 2008   
Warsaw (Poland) Centre for Contemporary Art: 14 November– 4 January 2009

No Such Thing as Society: Photography in Britain 1967-1987
(from the Arts Council Collection and the British Council Collection) (Paperback) – David Alan Mellor. (Hayward Publishing)