This is the first exhibition ever staged in Brazil to chart a course through British photography in modern times. It spans almost a century - from the new photographic directions of the 20s and 30s that developed alongside the emergence of mass media, to the diverse practice of today’s image-laden world – and features the work of many of Britain’s most significant, celebrated and influential photographers.

The exhibition takes Britain itself as subject - its society and culture, places and people - presenting the work of those photographers who, rather than looking at the world beyond or at inner worlds, focused their attention on their own country – on the customs, character and conditions of those around them . As such, it explores a fertile and dominant strand of subject matter and a broad tradition of documentary practice which has always been at the core of British photography.

It explores the ways in which humanist and social documentary modes emerged as a dominant force, the motivations and conditions that sustained these modes – professional, artistic and political - and the ways in which they have been challenged, changed and superseded. The photographs on display draw on, or work against, a variety of visual codes, clichés and conventions. They cross genres from the urban street scene to landscape and the portrait, and touch on an extraordinary range of subjects, from celebrity and high society to gritty realism and subversive street culture. Photographers adopt varied positions from detached voyeur to committed participant; the photographs portray attitudes of nostalgia or rebellion, moods of elation and despair. Throughout, the exhibition questions its own premises, asking what, if anything, can be portrayed in images of the essential character of a people over time; and it asks questions of the nature of the photographic medium itself, and the uses to which it has been put.

The exhibition presents works by over thirty photographers, including: Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, Humphrey Spender, George Rodger, Paul Nash, Madame Yevonde, Nigel Henderson, Roger Mayne, Ida Kar, Norman Parkinson, Terence Donovan, Ian Berry, Shirley Baker, Tony Ray-Jones, Raymond Moore, Paul Trevor, Tish Murtha, Daniel Meadows, Chris Killip, Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Keith Arnatt, Anna Fox, Derek Ridgers, Peter Fraser, Jem Southam, Karen Knorr, Richard Billingham, Paul Seawright, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jason Evans, Simon Roberts, Nigel Shafran, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Sarah Jones, John Duncan, Gareth McConnell.

Curated by Joao Kulcsar in Sao Paulo and Martin Caiger-Smith in London

Observers is also part of Transform, a four year programme developing artistic and creative dialogue between the UK and Brazil




Glossary (3)

  • Documentary

    The term ‘Documentary’ was not coined until the 1920s, and then used by the British film-maker, John Grierson, to refer to moving pictures. It has a long and continuous history in British photography, reaching back to the invention of the medium. Many critics claimed that the documentary impulse, which can perhaps be best defined as the systematic recording of visual reality for the purpose of providing information and encouraging understanding of the world, is inherent in the medium itself. It was this view which came to be known as the realist paradigm - the belief that a photograph represents a ‘slice of reality’ easily understood by the viewer. This belief governed understanding of photography from the moment of its invention in the era of positivism in the 19th Century, until it was itself subject to interrogation in the 1980s.

    Early British practitioners included John Thomson whose visual essay Street Life in London (1876) documented the life of the London poor, and Hill and Adamson who portrayed, in the mid 1840s, the customs and way of life of the fisher folk of Newhaven near Edinburgh. In the early 20th century, following the emergence of documentary film-making and Mass Observation (a study undertaken in the North of England by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson), this new aesthetic found its most persuasive outlet in the mass circulation weekly magazines, such as Picture Post and Life. In time, however, pressure from advertisers combined with the restrictions of group journalism and curtailed the independence of creative photographers, with only exceptional individuals such as Bill Brandt able to survive as both a photojournalist and an independent photographer. His images of Britain’s class-ridden society along with his more experimental nudes, portraits and landscapes had a profound influence on a younger generation and established Brant as a major creative force in the development of modernism in Britain.

    Mass Observation was designed to emulate the radical achievements of the worker-photography movement which had arisen in Germany during the 1920s. It proved influential on the evolution of British documentary, especially on those photographers associated with the Side Gallery in Newcastle. The gallery fostered a regional, community-oriented form of documentary practice. Its philosophy was rooted firmly in the notion that an authentic document can only be generated by those familiar with the local community. Photographers associated with Side Gallery included Sirkka Konttinen, Isabella Jedrecyck, Graham Smith, Peter Fryer, Chris Killip and Julian Germain.

    It was, however, across the Atlantic that the more enduring legacy concerning the ethics and status of documentary was to be found in the work of the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration to document the plight of the American rural poor during the Depression. One of its outstanding photographers was Walker Evans whose use of signs and symbols (such as billboards and advertising hoardings) as images of desire created a text or narrative to accompany the careful sequencing of images. The direct inheritors of the photograph as social sign were the American photographers of the ‘social landscape’, namely Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus whose unsympathetic vision of the American landscape reflected the anxieties of urban life during the booming consumer decade - store fronts, billboards, graffiti and advertising. They chose to portray people, situations and artefacts in a casual and objective way that allowed the viewer to interpret the work freely; a strategy that became known as the ‘snapshot aesthetic’. One of those who experienced many of these developments first hand was the British photographer Tony Ray-Jones. His work was widely reproduced in the 1960s and his book A Day Off (1974) proved a particular inspiration for the generation of documentary photographers who developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    Relevant websites:
    The work of early documentary photographs can be found in the collections of the Royal Photographic Society www.rps.org)
    The Mass Observation archive is held by the University of Sussex www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/
    The work of the Side Gallery can be seen at
    The archive for the Farm Security Administration is now in the Print and Reading Room Collections of the Library of Congress in Washington www.loc.gov/rr/print

  • Landscape

    Landscape is one of the principle genres of Western art. In early paintings the landscape was a backdrop for the composition, but in the late 17th Century the appreciation of nature for its own sake began with the French and Dutch painters (from whom the term derived). Their treatment of the landscape differed: the French tried to evoke the classical landscape of ancient Greece and Rome in a highly stylised and artificial manner; the Dutch tried to paint the surrounding fields, woods and plains in a more realistic way. As a genre, landscape grew increasing popular, and by the 19th Century had moved away from a classical rendition to a more realistic view of the natural world. Two of the greatest British landscape artists of that time were John Constable and JMW Turner, whose works can be seen in the Tate collection (www.tate.org.uk). There can be no doubt that the evolution of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of Modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . Since then its demise has often been predicted and with the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, landscape persisted in some form into high abstraction, and has been a recurrent a theme in most of the significant tendencies of the 20th Century. Now manifest in many media, landscape no longer addresses solely the depiction of topography, but encompasses issues of social, environmental and political concern.

  • Medium

    Refers to either the material used to create a work of art, craft or design, i.e. oil, bronze, earthenware, silk; or the technique employed i.e. collage, etching, carving. In painting the medium refers to the binder for the pigment, e.g. oil, egg, acrylic dispersion. The plural form is media.

Past venue

  • Brazil, Sao Paulo, SESI
    • 24 September 2012 − 25 November 2012
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