Although Britain had come through Second World War more or less intact – at least compared to its European neighbours – there was also a widely expressed desire that, after the years of upheaval and privation, what was needed above all was a return to normality. In fact, there was apparently no doubt that familiar values would triumph and all would effortlessly return to as it was before. But the seismic changes that had occurred went far deeper than any damage done to the fabric of the cities; the very terms by which British society had been structured were then undergoing a deep and irreversible shift.
Fundamental assumptions would soon be undermined and a new, if not wholly unforeseen, social order would begin to take shape. That break, though more a gradual erosion of certainties than a single decisive event, would be played out in a myriad of forms across the following decades. Iain McKell would come to photograph what was arguably the most traumatic moment of that post-war transformation, when its energies – and the inevitable reaction to them – had gathered pace to such an extent that they seemed to be pulling the country apart. Beginning as a photographer at a seaside resort, McKell would gradually amass a remarkable survey of British life and leisure, which spans not only a lengthy period of time, but also a significant cultural distance.
That a selection of this work should bear the title ‘Beautiful Britain’ gives some idea of the ambiguities at stake here, at once scornful and stubbornly sincere, while the pictures themselves testify to a deep-seated confusion as to what might actually constitute British national identity at the very point when traditional hierarchies were undergoing their final, convulsive decline. But given that the pictures cover several decades – from the tumultuous 1970s right up until the present – McKell obviously does not offer us a clear-cut historical narrative, even assuming that such would be possible. In fact, most of the social transformation they so deftly imply is hardly seen at all – their orbit is purposefully narrow.
Not coincidentally, however, the peak years of this post-war transition were defined by a new understanding of how personal and national identities might intersect, just as both were being conclusively redefined. The realm in which these changes were most apparent must surely have been everyday life and that is what McKell gives most of his attention to: there are no over-arching views. Instead, what we see is a far more intimate scrabble to perform the sort of roles that had previously not existed – and to cling onto those that were fast disappearing. As seen here, such ‘traditions’ are made only at the expense of what has gone before.
Given that nothing in a society can exist solely for itself, all of our experiences are shaped by the assumptions that surround them, so whether McKell turns his attention to street-scenes, punks or the members of his own family, he does so implicitly with an eye for the enclosed, but interdependent spaces within a culture that ultimately constitute it. These pictures are a testament to the notion that private lives are the arena in which larger social forces come to rest; they function as a virtual laboratory for potential new ways of understanding how we relate to one another and, as such, are also a microcosm of those tensions that define public life.
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