A United Kingdom by Bruce Davidson
On commission for The Queen magazine, American photographer Bruce Davidson travelled to the UK in the autumn of 1960. Given free rein to create his personal portrait of the country, he toured for just over two months, spending a number of weeks in London before moving on to the south coast, then heading north to Scotland.
His travels showed him a country that, in parts, appeared untouched since the 1930s, alongside a society that was driven by difference while still emerging from post-war trauma and several years of cuts and austerity.
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He pointed his lens towards the extremes of city and country life, as well as shifting social and cultural attitudes. Particularly drawn towards the teenager, he was keen to show the growing disparity between youth and age. Eventually published in April 1961 under the title Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us: A Picture Essay on Britain the results show arguably what was the last remnant of a nation vanishing into modern things and ways of thinking yet to come.
Also on display are photographs shot by Davidson in Wales during the mid-1960s. The story goes that the photographer, while serving in the army, asked a Welsh sergeant where he would send his worst enemy. The answer: Cwmcarn.
Years later, while on assignment photographing Caernarfon Castle in the north of the country, he decided to finally pay a visit to the town in the Ebbw Valley in the south. A mining town, it was known for its social deprivation, along with the scars left on the landscape from many years of heavy industry.
Davidson’s photographs show a different, more hopeful side. Focusing on the communities – for example the mining families and children at play – the images are a countenance to the hardships those in the frame undoubtedly faced.
As an American, Davidson is perhaps able to see things about us and our society that a British photographer might not even notice. The images were shot with kindness, compassion and respect.
Free exhibitions of this calibre don’t come along that often, so if you can get to London to catch it, it’s a must-see.
A United Kingdom by Bruce Davidson, Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 3-5 Swallow Street, London, W1B 4DE until 14 March. Monday-Saturday 10am-5.30pm. Admission free.