The ’60s were a widely political era for Britain, during which the role of the state and conditions for quality of life were continuously questioned. Photography had a significant role in displaying these socio-economic conditions. The creation of new estates such as Thamesmead were contrasted photographically with images of harsh living in other urban areas. These ideas linking socially-aware photography to architecture are at the very heart of the Manplan project: an insightful introductory exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery (set to have an extended display later this year). Manplan shines a light on revolutionary street photographers of the ’60s, who used the power of 35mm to situate society within the blocky enclosures of Britain’s housing estates and public places.
Manplan was first and foremost an architectural magazine, spanning 1969–1970. The magazine started to commission a series of photographers to display the impact of Britain’s slab-like slums on everyday folk. Taking to the streets, young and hungry photo-realists like Tony Ray Jones wanted to show that photography was more than just a technical skill. Images of architecture beforehand were mainly large-format images, lauding buildings in all their grandeur. But like the pioneering film director Truffaut was doing in France at the time with films like Jules and Jim (1962), Ray Jones and others used the roughness of their grainy, small-format black-and-whites to join in a wider political and social discussion at the time. The series of photographs on display in this exhibition is exquisitely done, presenting daily life in old environments with a creative twist. Ray Jones’ images stand out in the collection, caricaturing urban life with stills of children and dogs bounding in the foreground whilst bricked buildings loom over them in the background. As a result of this, the viewer takes in the full presence of people surrounded by their environment.
The person behind the blueprints of the Manplan exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery is Clare Grafik, Head of Exhibitions at the gallery. Upon my visit she gave a short introduction to this slice of architectural history, detailing how Manplan magazine was a commentary on the frustrations of a modernised society in the ’60s. Grafik’s words are cemented in the images of this collection. Works from the likes of Ian Berry explore these frustrations as his use of wide-angle accentuates the harsh oblique angles of the interior of buildings such as Abbotsinch Airport in Glasgow. We can see how Berry highlights frustration in his images by drawing upon the sharp, angular interior of his pictured airport as a stressed mother drags her children along the tiled floor.
As the exhibition is set to expand later this year, I highly recommend you go and give it a look. If not for the picture-perfect creations, then simply just for an insight into ’60s Britain — some of that swinging goodness. Manplan underlines a period of revolutionary British photography when architecture started to relate more to the personal, bound together through the wonders of small-format photography.
Edited by Quince Pan, Photography Editor