The English, Seen

I’ve been sneaking a peek at photographer Simon Roberts’ work-in-progress We English. He and his family have hit the road in a campervan; he’s documenting scenes from English life to produce a photographic journal of life in England in 2008. You can follow his progress on his blog here.

After a stint in Russia – which produced the startling monograph Motherland – Roberts is turning his lens homeward. In impulse and in method, his English journey reprises the Anglocentric turn of culture in the mid twentieth century moment, when the British Empire’s sun finally set and ravaged by German bombers, English culture began the anxious work of reevaluating, reinterpretating and reconstructing in pursuit of a national identity it seemed to have mislaid.

What’s interesting about Simon Roberts’ work is that his English journey seems so anachronistic. Taking in Cromer Fair, Midhurst Carnival and lawn bowls at Weston-Super-Mare, Roberts’ aesthetic is squarely rooted in the mid century moment. Roberts cites scenes from English life first seen in the work of Bill Brandt, Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. And this is no criticism of Roberts’ endeavour; what his shooting itinerary highlights is how these elements have become a visual grammar of Englishness. On the present, what these archaisms reveal is the pervasive nostalgic feedback loop at the heart of the English cultural imagination.

The same was true of the mid century period during which this photographic lexicon first emerged. As now, these depictions of English life were already old photographs of the present day. Ray-Jones’s knowing archaism, his black and white pathos, was, in his words, the attempt ‘to record the “English way of life” before it becomes more Americanised’. Again, there’s this sense of shoring up a frail culture against its immiment demise.

Ray-Jones needn’t have worried. In Roberts’ (and others’) representations of Englishness, we see that Americanisation is no match for good old English nostalgia, indeed, these archaisms are England – at least in our imagination.

Beachy Head and Beauty Contest, Southport by Tony Ray-Jones

Author: jenniferhodgson

Writer, editor, researcher

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