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Photography Against the End of History

A new exhibition examines working-class photography in the UK in the years since 1989 — and demonstrates art’s potential to expose political failure and social division.

Lion Farm estate, Oldbury, 1991. Photo taken' by Robert Clayton.

Social realism is about more than misery. Work centred on effects, rather than causes, runs the risk of suggesting that poverty is a tragic yet somewhat unavoidable reality. What makes artists like Ken Loach, Ronan Bennett, Lynn Ramsay and David Peace so valuable is their ability to tell stories of policy failure through the close lens of people’s lives — in their work, we are always acutely aware of who or what is driving the social deterioration depicted on screen.

It is for all these reasons that I approach the subject of working-class photography with some caution — too many fashion magazines and art galleries have been guilty of celebrating hardship, appropriating images of working people, and mistaking their struggles for ‘grit’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘cool’. This became a wholesale phenomenon during the Cool Britannia years and the emergence of the YBAs, but we see it routinely in campaigns by streetwear brands marketing high-value items against the backdrop of deprivation: Palace, Stüssy and Supreme are all guilty, not to mention legacy brands such as Adidas and Nike. Perhaps the most egregious example was a Christmas campaign by the luxury retail brand Burberry a few years ago, set within what some journalists described as the ‘grey’ and ‘gritty’ environment of London’s poorer streets.

A recent show at The Herbert Gallery and Museum in Coventry, however, helped to reclaim the tradition, and allowed me to understand how class consciousness and art can co-exist in a positive way that supports the communities in question.

The End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989-2024 is hosted by Hayward Gallery Touring — the UK’s largest contemporary art organisation for exhibitions that travel around Britain — and recontextualises social realism as a collective riposte to the denial of class difference that had been engineered by successive right and centre-right governments. If the political atmosphere of the past thirty-five years had been one of technocrats feverishly trying to convince us that we were all ‘middle-class now’, then the works contained in the exhibition all formed a body of evidence directly to the contrary.

Highlights include a series captured by the photographer Chris Shaw while working as a night porter in London hotels. The scenes of men passed out on sofas are voyeuristic but revelatory. We witness the reality behind the performance of stiff formality and good manners required of these men who were nevertheless being paid little more than minimum wage: their cheap but smart suits crumpled and creased, their large, formidable bodies made soft and vulnerable as they lay sprawled and lifeless on velour couches. Shaw had described the work artless. A more affluent peer might have described them as being ‘process driven’. Here lies one of the problems in discovering working-class art: that endemic low-confidence and ostracising from the more formal avenues of high culture leads to the denunciation of the artistic in oneself, even when it is plain and self-evident.

Trevor Smith’s portraits of world featherweight champion Prince Naseem Hamed tell a story of resourcefulness and ingenuity. Smith, a local portrait photographer from Sheffield who most often captured school portraits and business avatars, had met Naseem when he was a young man. The two collaborated on a style that retained some of that kitsch, with an artificial, gradient photographer’s backdrop and three-quarter posing — in what seems the perfect rendering of a global superstar who refused to ever renounce his heritage as a Yemeni man via the working-class North.

What’s important is that the work is generated from within. Curator Johny Pitts has carefully selected images whose gaze is one of intimate familiarity rather than dour observation. Joanne Coates’ photographs of low-paid agricultural workers in the North of England are a dialogue between the artist and subjects and their refusal of the labels and various categorisations society has imposed on them. Rob Clayton’s photographs of Lion Farm Estate in Birmingham show the various, resourceful forms of humanity that flourish in abject circumstances: moments of hospitality, collaboration, decoration, and affection are all to be found against a backdrop of financial neglect.

Pitts has recognised that the project of working-class photography is most effective when it is collectivised. By bringing these works together, he and the participants have built a counter-narrative to the official one. History never did come to an end, contrary to those adherents of what Francis Fukuyama claimed in 1992, following the termination of the Cold War. In fact, as these observers working against odds can attest through their work, it is just that vested interest was working much harder to conceal the social divisions that persisted and, in many ways, were only becoming more pronounced.

One body of work serves to demonstrate this more than any other. The ghostly self-portraits of Khadija Saye are a thesis on the difficulty of trying to trace one’s lineage within a state-supported campaign of cultural erasure and decolonial propaganda. Saye died in the Grenfell Tower fire, an event that proved beyond doubt the invisibility of millions of people living in modern Britain. Empire continues, both in terms of distorting history, and through the poverty that is imposed on the descendants of those who built and defended it.

After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024 runs at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry until 16 June. See the full touring schedule here.

About the Author

Nathalie Olah is a freelance journalist and editor. Her writing focuses on the intersection between politics and contemporary culture, and she is the author of Bad Taste and Steal as Much as You Can.