One history of British photography that can be put together from How We Are: Photographing Britain (at Tate Britain until 2 September) traces changes in what people chose or were able to record. From the very beginning, photographers took over the mundane job of representation in portraiture and topography. But they also wanted – or were asked – to capture on film things that were fleeting, strange or dangerous. Animals in motion, for example: a barn owl with a mouse in its beak, caught by Eric Hosking in 1948, a brown rat photographed by Stephen Dalton as it jumped from a bin in 1983. Curiosity about the look of exotic tribes was not limited to pictures from abroad. The four performers of the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance, taken by Benjamin Stone in 1899, stare at the camera as grimly as Papuan warriors. There was a need to face the facts of war. Percy Hennell made records of reconstructive surgery; in the exhibition you can see a soldier who has had the socket of his lost eye patched over with a flap of skin. The police wanted mugshots for their records. A collage of ten ‘known militant suffragettes’, some farouche, some merely formidable, is included. Doctors hoped photographs would give insights into madness. In the pictures of psychiatric patients taken by Hugh Diamond in the 1870s, the girls look less mad than trapped; they could be acting the part of one of Dickens’s wild, angry young women. Forbidden and shocking images proliferated. Pornographers found photography a lucrative medium (although there is nothing of that here), while social reformers made it a persuasive one. In Thomas Annan’s Close No. 118 High Street, from an album produced in the late 1800s for the Glasgow City Improvement Trust, a group of inhabitants pack the end of a narrow alley as though swept down it the way rubbish is swept down a gutter.

Photograph of reconstructive surgery by Percy Hennell

Such uses, established early on, still flourish. As better, cheaper equipment and materials became available, very little territory was left unexplored. People recorded themselves and their surroundings in snapshots: here we have big dogs posing with little dogs and a woman on stilts, both from the Sassoon family album. Colour brought photographs of champion roses (‘Birmingham Post’, a cross between ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Wendy Cussons’, from the National Rose Society’s Annual) and of rather dull canapés (from Good Housekeeping Colour Cookery of 1967). Nothing, it seemed, was so distant, hidden or commonplace that its appearance would be unrecorded for long. Bert Hardy, who was present at the D-Day landings and helped uncover atrocities in Korea, also took pictures of street life at the Elephant and Castle.

There is, of course, another history to be told, one that follows changes in the style of prints and considers them as works of art. Some photographers tried to instil faces with the gravitas of formal painted portraits. Often something stranger and more disturbing than anything painters commonly manage comes through. Sir John Herschel’s stubbly chin and wild white hair as they emerge from draped velvet in Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph do not conform to the painterly canon of images of great men. But many early art photographs do recall paintings. Country people in Peter Henry Emerson’s pictures from the 1880s and 1890s of rural life in East Anglia have a Millet-like quietness. Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photogravures of London at night taken in the early 1900s emulate the inky fogs and soft highlights of contemporary etched plates. So long as art photographs like these could be distinguished by calculated effects – soft focus, careful framing and so on – there was not much doubt about the category a print belonged in. As time passed, however, categories came to depend less on the nature of the photograph than on where and how it was seen. The work of Weegee and Cartier Bresson had a first life as news, in papers and magazines, and a second in books, as art.

In classic photographic monographs, a form established in the mid-20th century, most images have a page to themselves. Captions are reduced to a list at the end. If there is a text it will be more about the pictures than the people or places they show. Like silent movies, these books, primary documents in the history of photography, know no language barriers, and no account of British photography can ignore their influence. Looking at them – many are devoted to the work of photographers represented in the Tate exhibition – confirms the thought that a photographic style only emerges from a group of images, unlike the style of a painter, which is often established by a single picture.

One-man shows do the same job, but books do it better. Photographs lose little or nothing in good reproductions, and in a gallery the intimacy of the page is lost. In Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank (Thames and Hudson, £15.95), the American photographer Duane Michals warns us not to ‘trust any photograph so large that it can only fit in a museum’. In its short history photography has had several booms and busts. The high-street studio was made less viable by the snapshot, and television compromised photojournalism’s claim to immediacy. Michals’s collage portrait of the Sterling Black and Whiters – Ansel Adams, Sally Mann, Robert Frank, Salgado and so on – shows us which reputations were overshadowed by the new high-art photography. At the Tate there are photographs from both camps.

One odd effect of the high art/common craft division is that while magazines and newspapers are still filled with painting-like compositions – Degas-like racing pictures, Lautrec-like fashion photographs, Winterhalter-like royal portraits (Annie Leibovitz’s recent picture of the queen taken for her American tour is a good example) – photographs that claim art status generally avoid such references. Some of the views photographic artists clip out of the visual continuum use the flat framing of postcards to record unpicturesque non-postcard Britain – often in prints of exquisite quality taken with large-format cameras. Examples in How We Are include Jonathan Olley’s photograph of an oil storage depot and caravan site on Canvey Island from his book Sea Walls, and one of a scrap of fatty meat from Keith Arnatt’s Pictures from a Rubbish Tip. The get-it-all-in banality of crime-scene photographs is another way of killing art-historical echoes (Nigel Shafran’s charity-shop interior does that), as is the paparazzi in-your-face flash snapshooting used by Paul Reas and Martin Parr. Photography now builds on its own history. In the exhibition you see the influence on later pictures of William Eggleston’s prints of penetratingly ordinary American things and places, which released art photography from puritanical black and white in the mid-1970s.

The idea behind the Tate exhibition is simple enough: show pictures that cover the whole range of British photography, commercial as well as art, amateur as well as professional. Show Fox Talbot’s The Open Door of 1844 and Zed Nelson’s Miss Lincolnshire, taken last year. Include very small cartes-de-visite portraits and Alastair Thain’s huge close-up colour photographs of exhausted marines. Set an amateur snapshot by Vanessa Bell, a glamour portrait by David Bailey, and a picture of a nurse in uniform from Belle View Studio in Bradford against one another. One aim the curators had when they settled on this melange – a multi-layered picture of the nation in photographs – is summed up in the title: How We Are. But the exhibition is also intended to be ‘an opportunity to revise the history of British photography’.

The result, despite the high quality of much of the material, is uncomfortable and unsuccessful. The two themes – how we were and are and how photography was and is – defy conflation. Although the curators are interested in the way photographs slip across the border between art and evidence, there is confusion when it isn’t clear which side a picture belongs to. As attention shifts from small prints to big ones, from images that are too delicate to expose to bright light to others which demand it, from the ironical to the un-ironical, you wonder whether all this might have been done better in a book.

But there is a book of the show (Tate, £19.99), and it has analogous problems. One picture per photographer is often not enough. A single photograph from Tony Ray Jones’s A Day Off: An English Journal, an amused, slightly melancholy visual essay on Englishness, gives no idea of the journal’s cumulative brilliance. Single pictures may undermine each other. Chris Steele-Perkins’s slice-of-life reportage, showing girls fighting on the ground beside a parked car with men looking on, is printed opposite a photograph by Chris Killip of two young men and two cars by the sea – an image as finely and firmly composed as a Degas drawing. While, on the face of it, these two black and white pictures of ordinary people belong to a single genre, each cancels the virtues of the other.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences