Unhappy days are here again

As Britain faces up to a new era of austerity, Paul Barker looks back on photographs he commissioned in an earlier age of recession and protest
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The Independent Culture

An out-of-work miner walks along a railway line. He is gathering scraps of wood, fallen from the wagons. The ground is covered with a light dusting of snow. The wavy track of the miner's trolley, which he has been pulling along to hold his wood, wriggles away into the background, through the snow and alongside the rails.

The geometric contrast between the stern parallel of the metal lines and the feeble hopelessness of the trolley track are a metaphor of a man caught up, and then wrecked, by industrial society. He holds a handkerchief to his mouth; you assume it's to cover a fit of coughing.

All this is in needle-sharp black and white. It's a 1973 photograph by Bryn Campbell, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum's exhibition The Other Britain Revisited. At the opening, people were drawn to it, as if by a magnet.

"The past is never dead", William Faulkner said, "it isn't even past." This miner has presumably died now; all the pits he ever worked at are closed. But across Britain there's still pervasive evidence of the years when a post-war campaigning Labour leader, Aneurin Bevan, could describe us as an island "made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish". Britain's former pit villages remain – ghostly and unhappy. Mining settlements are always skimped and ugly. They, too, have been thrown away, as the man in Campbell's photo was thrown away.

The V&A exhibition displays work by 23 photographers. All were contributors to the social-affairs weekly New Society, which ran from 1962 to 1988. Images like Campbell's buttressed the magazine's non-party-political, non-agitprop radicalism: all in Britain's long tradition of dissent.

I edited the magazine from 1968 to 1986; the prints are selected by the V&A from a set I gave to the museum in order to put this photographic achievement on the historical record. We published established names, like Ian Berry, Jürgen Schadeberg and Bryn Campbell. But a succession of art editors also strongly encouraged young photographers such as Martin Parr, Chris Steele-Perkins, Homer Sykes, Euan Duff and Brian Griffin, all on show here.

Many went on to wide acclaim; Parr is now Britain's best-known photographer, shooting in colour. But he began his career (as a tender 1977 portrait of chapel-goers shows) in black and white.

All the photographs are resolutely non-metropolitan, anti-glamour (which makes them look surprisingly contemporary). In my own case, brought up in the Yorkshire Pennines, there were biographical reasons for this social approach. But it was also a point of principle – and of aesthetics.

My first photographer hero was Bill Brandt, greatest of the cameramen at the photo-journalism magazine Picture Post (published 1938-57). I admired Brandt but for his deep-black social photography – of a narrow alley in Halifax, for example, glittering with rain. New Society had a direct link to Picture Post – the magazine's first editor and first publisher had both worked there.

The V&A prints are mostly from the unhappy 1970s. The harsh, strike-ridden years of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and the early days of Margaret Thatcher. First brought together in 1982, to mark New Society's 20th anniversary, the photographs went on show at the National Theatre. Theatre carpenters then built two hefty wooden boxes for them, and the collection toured country-wide.

We called our exhibition The Other Britain; hence the title of the V&A's retrospective show. Walking around the display now, I wondered what, exactly, would count as "otherness" today. In 1976, we asked Ian Berry to illustrate an article on "The happiness of Indian children". Two psychologists had apparently found that "immigrant Indian children in Leicester are less maladjusted than their English counterparts".

Two young Indian boys stand proudly in a cobbled back-street, looking full of pride and energy. Spray-painted on the whitewashed wall behind them are the words : "Whites Rule Okay." Today Leicester is on the verge of being the first British city to have a majority ethnic-minority population. Would the minority white population nowadays count as "the other Britain"? This was one of the many unanswered questions – often unasked, even – in this year's general election.

So many people in these pictures are making the best of a bad job. Peter Boyce, a New Society regular, shows a Cardiff family trapped in their front yard as soccer fans march past, on their way to have a riot. The mother's hair is in curlers. Her arms are folded defensively, as are her young son's. A mill woman in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire – my home village – is photographed by Daniel Meadows reading a paper in her cardigan in front of a sexy pin-up. More to the point: facing the imminent loss of her job. Her blanket factory was about to shut. But social concern doesn't sentence a photographer to glumness. Things can sometimes get better.

These photographs are in the lineage of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founding father of the Magnum photo-agency. His quest was always for "the decisive moment" – the fleeting image in which the lens captures a life. The image should be as objective as possible. And always in black and white.

The exhibition marks a turning point. Already, photographers were beginning to move into colour. (There was better colour-printing, plus the vivid, kitschy example of the American trailblazer William Eggleston.) But colour diffuses; black and white concentrates. The richness of a colour photograph makes your eye roam, going on a promenade through all the little bits of quirkiness. A black-and-white photograph passes an editorial judgement.

I'm neither denigrating colour, nor plunging into nostalgia. But each technique has its own qualities. The V&A show is a black-and-white symphony.

At the opening, I found Colin Cuthbert looking wryly at a photograph he took in 1978 to accompany an article which praised Burnley – of all unlikely places – for banning dogs, for public health reasons, from one of the town's parks.

Like nearly all New Society's photographers, he was given the commission on a Wednesday or Thursday. The art editor needed the prints on Monday, ahead of Tuesday's press-day. Cuthbert spent the entire weekend in Burnley, waiting for some dog to let him tell the story. Here, at last, it was. A bleak view of rough grass. In the far distance a mill chimney, a spire and a row of two-storey terrace houses. In the foreground, under a spindly local-authority sapling, a dog is hunched up, answering the call of nature.

Everyone who sees this picture smiles. Ernest Hemingway wrote that "a serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl". The same goes for photographers. Social concern should never mean forgetting the persuasive power of a good joke.

The entire exhibition, I'd argue, explores the way people are; not the way someone else might wish them to be. The photographers' humane delicacy of touch accompanies, and buttresses, the power of their advocacy.

The Other Britain Revisited: Photographs from New Society, Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000; Vam.ac.uk) to 26 September