On the Omnibus
National Portraits: Now & Then by Daniel Meadows was at the Gallery of Photography, April 6th - 29th 2000
Review by Nicholas Allen
Daniel Meadows' exhibition at the Gallery of Photography is titled National Portraits: Now and Then. The show has two components. The first is a series of photographs Meadows made between 1973 and 1974 in the English regions. Meadows travelled to Barrow in Furness, Hartlepool and Southampton on a double-decker bus that served as his darkroom and accommodation. He named this experiment the Free Photographic Omnibus. The second is Meadows' attempt to photograph his subjects again two decades later. Where successfully located, these individuals' portraits are mounted beside those of their earlier selves.
Meadows' first project was to photograph people in their own environment and on their own terms. For each pose given, the subject received a copy of the photograph taken. Many of these are superb. All in black and white, these are pictures of English provincial life in all its ordinary variety. Transcending the documentary, Meadows' practice allowed his subjects to express themselves as individual members of a wider culture. Teenage boot-boys and hairy Deep Purple fans grin into the camera while the less confident smirk shyly at the lens. Grandmothers and difficult adolescents share common ground in a touch of hands as they mark a family bond before the camera. These images of personal association are also of great historical moment as social groups outside the London metropolis identify themselves before their decimation by Thatcher in the following decade. Meadows' project may have been conceived as a liberal exercise in free expression but its strength is its ability to see the exotic in everyday life. All this too without reference to the stereotypes promoted by official culture; these images are, in part, of 'Up North' but they have a life entirely their own.
It is hard not to feel a sentimental tug to the characters standing before you in the gallery. The images that are matched with their present day counterparts are moving as a record of the effect of time on individual perspective. Groups of friends are reunited with members missing, some dead, some unable to be traced and some simply unwilling to pose a second time. Other characters have not lost their confidence, each as brash before the camera as they were two decades previously. Like detectives, we are left to puzzle the significance of each absence and fit the pieces of what is still before us back together.
This later aspect of the show has a very different focus to that of the first. When Meadows took his original photographs they were intended to be no more than an introduction to a great reportage project of contemporary Britain, published as Living Like This. A near complete commercial failure, the book was forgotten until its chance discovery by the broadcaster Alan Dein in London. Dein's enthusiasm combined with Val Williams' (now curator at the Hasselblad Foundation) interest, to promote National Portraits, so called ironically because the National Portrait Gallery in London refused to show them. Meadows in the meantime wondered what had happened to his original subjects. He found them by advertisement in local papers and the results of this contemporary work supplement National Portraits in the Gallery of Photography exhibition.
The modern pictures differ from their predecessors in one fundamental way. The 1970's images were taken without prior plan, the photographer unable to predict what he might encounter in his day. The 1990's images are the product of a conscious search to find Meadows' earlier subjects, people who were, when contacted, aware that they were to be photographed. There is a accordingly a lack of spontaneity in some of the later images. We lose the sense of individual presence that makes the early photographs a rare joy in a world of pre-packaged meaning.
What we gain from the time lapse between Now and Then is however precious. The awareness that time is its own dictator gives the modern images a perspective that the early, temporal, images do not possess. Here we have people after twenty further years of life, their faces changed, their bodies lapsed before a camera whose monochrome encourages direct contrast between past and present, now and then. If this sounds unforgiving, I mislead you. We return to the early images with a new eye, keen to the sight of scuffed shoes and missing teeth, the worn details of life as we might all experience it. Keenly aware of the chance encounters and rare blessings of urban modernity you are left with a quiet sense of appreciation, the smiles and shyness of previous decades treasures to be hoarded as you depart the Gallery to take your own place on the Omnibus.