No Such Thing As Society

No Such Thing as Society: Photography in Britain 1967-1987
Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Star rating: 3/5

Deriving its title from a quotation commonly attributed to Margaret Thatcher, this exhibition draws from the collections of the Arts Council and the British Council to give a social history of two turbulent decades – spanning much of the milk-snatching prime minister’s tenure, writes Mark Drinkwater.

I took various members of my family to this exhibition curated by art historian David Alan Mellor (the smart addition of a middle name avoids confusion with his namesake, the one-time Thatcher Cabinet lapdog). And while I failed to get my three-year-old daughter interested, my parents – who are usually disparaging on the occasions I dare to take them to a gallery – enthusiastically engaged with these images highlighting contrasting aspects of society.

Organised into chronological themes, the optimism of photographs from the 1960s quickly subsides – replaced by the bleakness of the ’70s. There are some upbeat images from this period – including Daniel Meadow’s picture of three boys with a pigeon [pictured] looking like extras from the retro series Life on Mars – but the majority bear little relation to my hazy boyhood recollection of endless summer days riding a Raleigh Chopper munching Spangles. While scrutinising the images, my parents assured me it was pretty much as portrayed here – a dismal decade of unemployment brought about by the collapse of our nation’s industries.

No documentary photography collection would be complete without the work of Martin Parr, arguably this country’s greatest living photographer. His over-saturated colour images document the excesses of mid-80s Brighton and provide some respite from the black and white austerity of the surrounding pictures. ‘New Brighton’ splendidly captures teenagers scrabbling for hotdogs in a beachside cafe in the once genteel Sussex town – foreshadowing the selfish individualism of Thatcher’s children.

No Such Thing as Society encapsulates what many see as the Iron Lady’s self-centred philosophy (although, in fairness a fuller quotation is:”…society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families.”). Its title here is posed as a rhetorical question – the implication being that the curator thinks there is such a thing. It’s just that while it does a marvellous job of capturing the regional and ethnic diversity of our nation, there is no obvious depiction of disability. The omission of disabled people in the 150 or so photographs echoes their overlooked status in society. On this evidence, one might conclude that there seems to be no such thing as disability.

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in Southwark, south London.
No Such Thing As Society is at Tullie House, Carlisle until 13 July.

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