A client of mine is running a series of blogs documenting an academic seminar series that they’ve funded looking at how to begin research and writing the history of Britain in the 1990s.
The blogs are written by postgraduate students and other early career academics and focus primarily upon synthesising and recording what the participants in each of the roundtable events have said. To break up the text and add a splash of visual interest and connotation to the text (the 1990s having been a pivotal moment in the development of contemporary visual culture and communication, after all) I have been requesting that each of the bloggers submit, or at least suggest, some photographs or other media to accompany their words. It was through the suggestion, which came nearly as an aside, of one of these writers that I first encountered the work of the German documentary photographer Peter Bialobrzeski.
Over the course of many years Bialobrzeski has developed an impressive reputation as a landscape photographer documenting cityscapes all across the industrialised world in particular. However, in the early 1990s as a student at the Folkwangschule Essen he spent a year on a DAAD scholarship at the London College of Communications. It was here that he produced a body of work which became the basis for his final undergraduate portfolio, and which now has been published by Dwei Lewis as Give My Regards to Elizabeth.
Made between 1991 and 1992 the work collated and presented in the book shares a clear kinship and affinity with the 1980s colour work of British documentary photographers such as Barry Lewis, Martin Parr and Shirley Baker. It is a record of the student Bialobrzeski’s progress around England during his exchange year, with pictures made in both the north and the south of the country. In common with the documentary tradition which it draws upon, many of the images have a surreal, even uncanny element, which reflects the sense that the photographer is an outsider getting to grips with a new society and it’s alien mores and mythologies.
Two short texts accompany the photographs, an endnote by Bialobrzeski and an introductory essay by the journalist Mick Brown. Both pieces provide personal reflections upon the sense of relative decline, and that the country’s best days were behind it, that was a keynote in British culture and public discourse in the final decades of the 20th Century.
Something of this can be discerned in the images contained in the book. It is present in the pictures of the inhabitants of pothole marked streets of terraces in northern England, as well as those of their children playing in the shadow of hulking, but tired seeming industrial plants. You can also catch it in the images of tired commuters on partially modernised tube trains, on holiday makers and day trippers sheltering beneath paint peeling and graffiti scared seaside shelters. But the sense of decline, of purposelessness, of traditions being enacted for reasons which are barely remembered is perhaps best represented by the photographs in the book which capture wealthy, or at least status possessing, British people at the races, in a central London pub, or otherwise at leisure. These are some of the most surreal and bizarre seeming pictures in the book, and document a section of a society that is very well turned out, but for purposes which seem obscure, or perhaps defensive.
Indeed, underneath the general malaise and ennui, and the Nike and Reebok tracksuits and jackets which speak to late 20th Century modernity, there is something militaristic, violent and warlike detectable underneath the shabbiness of the public realm and the tweed jackets.
Sometimes Bialobrzeski suggests this in a manner that is abstract and impressionistic. At its most visceral, this takes the form of the grim spectacle of slaughtered pheasants strung up on a hedgerow, or the eye catching, but unnerving, sight of blazing wooden pallets piled up for a 5th November bonfire. The latter of course gesturing amidst the late autumnal mirth to a past of religiously inspired persecution and exclusion. In other pictures the war likeness and militaristic nostalgia is much more explicit. A close-up of a patch on the back of a biker’s jacket showing Eddy the mascot of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden dressed up as a soldier from the Duke of Wellington’s day’s leading a charge across a corpse strewn battle field, a huge modernist painting in what’s possibly a Royal British Legion building gesturing at a vividly imagined mid-20th Century conflict, even a classic to the point of cliched shot of a white plated meal in a formica topped cafe manages to capture two dramatically painted pictures of bomb attacks at sea during the Second World War. Combined with more straightforward documentation of Armistice Day commemoration by cadets and veteran’s gatherings the overall impression created in the mind of the viewer is of a country marked by a complicated relationship with it’s own past and inclined, both consciously and subconsciously, towards nostalgia (or perhaps desire) for brutal conflict.
The book’s clear depiction of class divides from the upper middle class workers in the city of London and racegoers, to the blue collar inhabitants of County Durham and Merseyside, the book captures how dress codes, leisure pursuits, and spatial stratification contributed to a society immensely and highly visual stratified in terms of access to wealth, power, personal autonomy and access to the cultural sphere. Of course the pre-mobile, pre-internet, immediately post-Thatcher world which Bialobrzeski captured is now as far away from our time as the early 1960s pre-Beatles, Cold War world of decolonisation and judicial hanging was from the moment that he documented. However, whilst Britain has got somewhat keener to invest in it’s public realm in the intervening decades, looking at the photos taken in 1991-92 from the vantage point of early 2021, in any substantial sense it is not clear what else has fundamentally has changed in most British people’s lives, at least for the better.
In his reflections on the project at the end of the book Bialobrzeski poses some interesting reflections on how travel and the experience of living abroad changes our perceptions of home, especially once we return there. He writes that coming from the Federal Republic of Germany to the UK he was struck by how class bound, clapped out and economically becalmed he found it compared to his homeland. However, upon returning to Germany and curating his images into the selection presented in the book in 1993, and found that post-reunification his own country, was now itself experiencing economic slowdown, whilst struggling to digest the five former lander of state socialist East Germany, where in Möllin and Rostock neo-Nazis perpetuated acts of extreme and horrific violence against immigrant communities. A horrific reality which suggests that – whilst they might take on particular local forms – for as long as they continue to exist the injuries of class, inequality, and racist chauvinistic prejudice are far from confined to one nationality.
Give My Regards to Elizabeth is out now and is avaliable to purchase direct from Dewi Lewis. It is 96 pp. long, costs £30.00 per copy