As a graduate student during the mid to late 1990s, I used to travel to Britain quite a lot to attend meetings of the collaboration of scientists I was a member of (for a while, I was the only German member, which made things interesting and fun). Most of those trips brought me to Durham, a small town in the north of England. I had not followed what was going on in England that closely, but I ended up getting immersed in the country’s recent history quite quickly.
Taking a taxi from the airport to the university would inevitably result in a mini education of some aspect of local history, courtesy of the driver (as a side effect, I had to figure out the local dialect rather quickly). Almost inevitably, the effects of Thatcherism would end up dominating the drivers’ narrations, which often enough would deteriorate into rants about how England’s North had been hit badly, with many jobs gone and widespread unemployment and poverty.
Mind you, not all taxi drivers would talk about Thatcherism. I remember one who insisted giving me a tour of Newcastle on my way to the airport there. He said it wasn’t going to take any longer than the direct route to the airport, and he really wanted to show me how beautiful the city was. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that given it was very early in the morning I was probably way too tired to follow much. He was right; and it was one of the best taxi rides I’ve ever had.
But it seemed Thatcherism and its consequences were all around. I wouldn’t have to do much to hear about it, whether it was at the university or just going to a pub to have a beer (I had acquired a real taste for English bitters), about how jobs were gone, about how greed had taken over, about how the social fabric was being destroyed.
It was just a coincidence that I was in Durham the day Tony Blair was elected. I knew nothing about the man. As it turned out everybody I asked didn’t know much, either. “We’re just glad the Tories are gone,” was the main sentiment. I went to a colleague’s house to watch the election results – I had been promised quite the show, and it was a show indeed. When Blair came on (if I remember this correctly, his constituency was right near Durham) there didn’t to be seem much beyond a smile entirely too wide and fake. As it turned out, that was my last trip to Durham, so I never came back to listen to the taxi drivers talk about Tony Blair. I have an inkling, though, what they might have said.
A fair amount of photography was created around (or as a response to) Thatcherism, large – and very influential – parts of it connected to colour photography and the idea of the documentary. David Moore‘s Pictures From The Real World is a body of work I hadn’t seen before. Moore photographed the series in his home city of Derby, documenting the lives of families in council estates (public housing of the sort constructed in large parts of Europe and now suffering from the same problems everywhere).
The book only has 18 photographs, but there is no fat whatsoever that would have benefited from some trimming. Instead, there’s one killer image after another. It’s quite amazing. When I started looking through the book, I expected things to fall off eventually, but it never did. I don’t know whether there exist other photographs or who made this edit. But if there ever was a case for having a relatively small set of very, very strong images (without any fillers, or maybes, or the photo that doesn’t really fit but that the photographer can’t let go), here it is.
My favourite photograph follows the excellent essay by David Chandler, halfway through the book: It shows a woman slouched in an armchair, staring at a TV set that is switched off, next to a table on top of which remnants of the last meal(s) linger. Turned away from the camera, the woman doesn’t acknowledge its presence. The viewer is left to look, to have a peek into this person’s life.There just is this room, and this woman, and there isn’t much. The world is left outside, beyond the drawn curtains, and the woman appears to have little interest in whatever version of the world the TV might offer her. I was reminded of the way Chauncey Hare photographed his subjects in Interior America (if you don’t know that body of work, you might want to consider buying the amazing Protest Photographs – even though, like many Steidl books, it suffers from a bloated edit).
Pictures from the Real World; photographs by David Moore; essay by David Chandler; 32 pages; Dewi Lewis/Here Press; 2013