Gerry Badger on redefining British documentary photography

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Page 216, ‘Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside’, 1976 © Chris Killip. All Rights Reserved.

In his new book, author, critic and curator Gerry Badger, explores how documentary photographers have depicted Britain’s social and cultural history since the Second World War

“I’ve tried to create a new definition of documentary photography,” explains curator, photographer and recipient of International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award, Gerry Badger. “One which is not about making black and white pictures on the street; more about attitudes, as opposed to being a kind of form.”

This rejection of documentary’s traditional forms is reflected in the photographers and works selected, by Badger, to appear in Another Country: Documentary Photography Since 1945. The classically presented photobook journeys from the end of the British empire, through the swinging sixties, right into the 2010s, via the work of 170 photographers – some of whom would not traditionally be associated with the documentary style.

Page 288, 'Southend, 3.30pm', fromThames Log, 2013. © Chloe Dewe Mathews
Page 197, 'Tea Dance', 2001 © Elaine Constantine.

Across 312 pages, Badger explores Jo Spence’s self-referencial portraits and development of phototherapy, Karen Knorr’s photo-text critiques of the upper-classes in Thatcherite Britain and the scrapbook-style collages of Eduardo Paollozi – usually best known as a sculptor. “Jo Spence was very, very important,” Badger says. “And under the old definition of documentary photography, she would not really belong in the book, so I’ve tried to change that.”

Though he may be striving for change, Badger has not strayed entirely from more conventional – and perhaps recognisable – examples of the documentary style. Olivia Arthur’s portraits of women in Saudi Arabia, from her celebrated series Jeddah, are poignant as ever, while Martin Parr’s image of a chip supper enjoyed by the sea continues to typify a holiday in 1980s Britain. 

Some of these images are in fact so ubiquitous, that over time they have come to influence how we remember – or imagine – 20th and 21st century Britain. “The more time goes by, the more authoritative the work becomes in documenting that period,” Badger says. “And that’s good, but it’s also possibly dangerous.” 

Page 296, from East London Up Close, 2021 © Mimi Mollica.
Page 85, 'Rene Upton and Child', 1959 © Bryn Campbell.

This danger lies not in the familiar images of post-war Britain themselves, but in the idea that such images represent the universal experience of the time. In an effort to address this, Another Country: Documentary Photography Since 1945 also explores the points of view of forgotten or previously ignored photographers, focusing particularly on the contribution that immigrants have made to British photography.

“Going all the way back to the 30s, Jewish photographers fleeing Nazi Germany made up most of the roster at Picture Post,” Badger explains, referring to the pioneering photojournalism magazine which, from 1938 to 1957, was considered the UK’s answer to Life. “It’s these and other immigrants talking about the society that they found themselves in – that’s the book’s other big theme.”

However, the book’s key theme – and the thread which holds together the work of photographers from Nadav Kander to Nigel Henderson – is the closing of the space between ‘documentary’ and ‘art’ photography. The genres are, Badger says, one in the same – both are simultaneously the fiction and the truth of each photographer.

“The best quotation I’ve ever heard about photography,” says Badger, “was Lewis Baltz, who said: ‘It is possibly useful to think of creative photography as a narrow but deep area, lying between the cinema and the novel’” .

Another Country: Documentary Photography Since 1945, is written by Gerry Badger, with contributions by Lydia Caston, Ekow Eshun, Clare Grafik, Hana Kaluznick, J. A. Mortram, Rianna Jade Parker, Simon Roberts, Lou Stoppard, Bindi Vora and Val Williams.

Published by Thames & Hudson In collaboration with the Martin Parr Foundation on 19 May 2022