At the Lucy Bell Gallery: Ian Berry “The English”

Click on image to go to Magnum Photos Ian Berry page
Ian Berry England. Whitby. A sunny Sunday afternoon brings tourists and residents on to the hill overlooking Whitby harbour to relax and dream. 1974

“They don’t really teach this any more …” so said the eponymous gallery owner as I meandered round this well-formed exhibition.  It was grey and damp outside and in St Leonards you have an ideal locale for anyone wanting to continue the British documentary tradition – the ‘this’ that Lucy Bell was referring to – of which Ian Berry, now in his 80s but still an active photographer, is a part.  But nobody was obviously patrolling the streets with a camera loaded with black and white film so we’ll have to make do with this survey of images taken in 1974-75 when Berry received an Arts Council grant to document the natives of this country.

Berry’s survey is vast, covering virtually all walks of life – although possibly not in an ethnic sense, virtually everyone is white – in both work and leisure: a man walks his daughter and a kitten through the East End looking fatigued, meanwhile over there two chaps are having the time of their lives on the croquet lawn.  My favourite photo is of an elderly woman having a swing at an absent ball in a beach game of cricket whilst out to sea a boat sails by.  This is Berry’s cleverness and where he is perhaps distinct from some others: there is as much attention to the small details elsewhere in the frame as there is to the people in the foreground.  He also doesn’t seem to mind when people react to the camera.  The man and child in the East End, for example, are clearly aware that is there and reacting accordingly.

There’s over fifty images in this exhibition.  They are obviously in beautiful black and white and the majority are worth a lingering look.  This is a timely and well chosen exhibition, one that will hopefully promote the name Ian Berry to more people, and possibly ensure that ‘this’ is taught again.  One terrifying thing to contemplate as you look is in those shots where privilege rubs up against poverty is how startlingly of our own time it feels. Hopefully there are people out there recording us all in the same detail now.

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