Since late 2018, I have been providing Shutter Hub, a photography organisation providing opportunities, support and networking for creative photographers worldwide, with photo book reviews.
Below is the first.
One photo in particular stood out to me and seemed to encompass all that Paul Reas’ 30-year retrospective is about. The baby yells, the infant’s expression summing up the aura of the whole; frustration, anger, futility. Or, perhaps, the child is stifling a yawn of indifference to the world the woman who holds him on her hip blocks out while engrossed in the noise and graphics of a late 80s arcade game.
Fables of Faubus shares Reas’ response to working-class life and documentary photography from the early 80s right up to the 2010s. His images are interspersed with his own comments on the work, while four friends and associates provide their views in short essays. Before I read the words, I want to view the photographs – to give myself an unbiased interpretation of this array of Reas’ work. It begins with images from his student days in South Wales when he wanted to emulate August Sander with his portraits of men still at work in the mines and manual labour.
Industry mixes their direct stares with glimpses of mining life. The black and white full face portraits making you wonder what these men were thinking in those moments. This is followed by his Penrhys Estate body of work. Some people seem to be longing for something else as they peer into the distance. Others, such as the man who stands next to a lamp whose shade is reminiscent of a Victorian ladies corset, confront the camera directly. But an image that Reas has said most change his perception of social documentary photography is one which Martin Parr, Reas’ then tutor, had chosen from his contact sheet of ballroom dancing partners. As a couple step gently forward they appear to be followed by a ghostly mirage or a porcelain statue. The sunlight at that moment catching this lone dancer, incongruous in his solitude and one shaded shoe.
Through the Valleys Project, Reas is still working in black and white and I can’t get away from a feeling of melancholy, of unfulfilled lives, but this seems grossly unfair. Being working class most definitely does not automatically strip you of humour, talent or drive. But this book, with its socio-political outlook and title that comes from a 50s jazz song written in response to an Arkansas governor’s refusal to permit integration at Little Rock Central High School, shows how social mobility is not so mobile for many.
As you turn over the page to I Can Help (Reas’ first book), you are bombarded by his first colour works. Following on from times of strikes, job losses and de-industrialisation, these images deal with consumerism. The turn from a ‘we’ to a ‘me’ attitude encouraged by the government at the time. In each picture it seems you can find the colour red. As if it’s garish gaiety is trying to fool you that by buying things life will be better. Is it coincidence or is there more to it?
These saturated colours continue through Flogging a Dead Horse (Reas’ second book), which ponders the homogenised celebration of our industrial heritage at a time of economic uncertainty. Many of the individuals look slightly perplexed in these pictures as if they are not quite sure what they are doing there. The order of this look back ends with From a Distance. Chronicling the ‘regeneration’ of the Elephant and Castle in London, it marks how people were to be “decanted” from their council homes in favour of luxury development. The beautiful blue cover with is metallic crimson belies the gritty, provocative and sometimes unsettling images inside. Not so much because looking at others who appear to have less than perhaps you do or are struggling against a system that does not seem to want to allow them to prosper, but more so as the social situations they depict are alive and well today.
Bradford-born Reas came to photography through his love of Northern Soul music, with its lyrics grounded in black America and civil rights reflecting his own experience in Britain around class discrimination. And perhaps that’s why for me the photograph of the baby from I Can Help symbolises the power of Reas’ images. Like the infant, the book roars with working-class life while recognising that this is often all there is. But amongst it all, there are moments of humour.
Fables of Faubus by Paul Reas
Essays by Stuart Cosgrove, David Chandler, Ken Grant, Val Williams
Published by GOST
300 x 230 mm
240 pp, 140 duotone and full-colour illustrations