Photos Show the Transformation of Great Britain

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art displays how the U.K. changed in the 1970s and '80s.

Photo Credit: Getty

Not so long ago, Great Britain was deemed “the sick man of Europe.” The 1970s were plagued by inflation, labor union strikes, and a rise in government spending as a percent of GDP. Now, a new photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) invites an American audience to consider snapshots of life as it was for everyday Britons from the 1970s to the 1980s and how the nation transformed from an ailing, deindustrializing country to greater economic prosperity starting in the 1980s. It’s a hard story to tell, because to this day people have feelings about the upheaval that came with that change. 

The exhibition, “This Is Britain: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s,” features 45 images taken by a diverse set of around 19 documentary photographers who wanted to convey the circumstances and/or hardships of a particular community. The late photographer Chris Killip (1946–2020), for example, lived in a caravan (trailer park) in northeast England for more than a year, photographing a community of people who subsisted off unemployment benefits and selling waste coal that washed up on the beach (see: Margaret, Rosie, and Val, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumberland). 

Photographer Vanley Burke, raised in Jamaica until he moved to Birmingham as a teenager in 1965, chronicled black British life, such as a smiling boy posing in 1970 with his bicycle, flying the British flag in a way that conveys the significance of immigrants’ self-identification as British (see: Boy with Flag). Graham Smith photographed his economically depressed community in northeast England. His 1981 poignant image Clay Lane Furnaces, South Bank, Middlesbrough seems to tell a story of a receding industry.  

An American curator, Kara Felt, spurred this NGA exhibition. Her photo selections and accompanying text make this, in a real sense, a British story told by an American to an American audience. Felt was initially inspired by a similar 2015 exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The 1970s and ’80s represented a “real renaissance in British photography,” Felt said in an interview. It was an era in which museums began supporting photography, and schools for the profession grew less vocational and more focused on the medium’s artistic aspects, she explained. She also discovered it had been 30-some years since the last major presentation of such photographs to an American audience, a 1991 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called “British Photography from the Thatcher Years.”  

Read the full article and see the images on Reason.