Familiar Faces

In recent years, Britain has been gripped by a clichéd image of the country’s working class: socially conservative, almost entirely white and based in small, depressed towns in the Midlands and the North – the ‘left behind’ voters of Labour’s post-industrial ‘heartlands’ who supported Brexit in 2016 and then the Conservatives three years later, and have apparently returned en masse in 2024 (at least if you ignore the enormous votes in the North and Midlands for both Reform UK and pro-Palestine independents). This outdated caricature, drawn from grainy images of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike and propagated by pollsters, think-tank reports and vox-popping journalists, has blocked reflection on the lived realities and culture of Britain’s actual working class: who composes it, what they look like, where and how they live.

These are the sorts of questions addressed by After the End of History, a travelling exhibition of photographs taken between 1989 and the present, curated by the writer and photographer Johny Pitts. The show has just arrived at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea from Coventry’s Herbert Gallery, the appropriate municipal modernist space where I saw it. The effect – of seeing contemporary working-class life, represented in its real complexity and variety, on gallery walls – is startling. The first thing you see is a hyper-realist image by Trevor Smith of Prince Naseem Hamed, an Anglo-Yemeni boxer from Pitts’ native Sheffield. Prince Naseem was a charismatic cult figure in the 1990s, his persona equal parts gangsta rap-inspired, devoutly Muslim and extremely Yorkshire. Smith, who ran a photography studio in Chesterfield, represents Prince Naseem in a heroic pose, the bright colours slathered in gloss; this is not how coalfield towns are supposed to look, at least as imagined from London.

Pitts’ selection is extremely broad, including work by 26 photographers, ranging from local jobbing professionals like Smith to artists like Khadija Saye. There are frenetic photographs of youth at UK Garage parties in Ayia Napa, and quieter ones: a white plastic chair outside a corner shop the height of summer; a West Midlands council estate falling into desuetude. There are sketches and photographs made by a waitress in a Soho strip club depicting her leering clients, there are rural labourers in tracksuits, there’s a gentrifying street in Hackney, its barber shops and greasy spoon cafes in the midst of being replaced by artisanal emporia with their unmistakeable white-on-black shop signs.

The visual unity of the exhibition, however, is impressive – in part the result of its 1990s presentation, designed by Sheffield’s once-famous record sleeve artists The Designers Republic.If you grew up in the British urban or suburban working class in the 1990s, these photographs will produce a shock of recognition. Spaces you dimly remember or had wanted to forget, familiar faces or people you crossed the street to avoid, bygone shop signs and ephemera: all are on show for what feels like the first time. The Hoggart-inspired popular imaginary of a working-class past of cosy collectivity is totally absent; so too are images of poverty, misery and deindustrialisation, at least explicitly, as well as the sneering ‘chav towns’ caricatures of post-Blair TV shows like Little Britain. There’s a strange, saturated brightness to it all, recalling the sometimes tawdry, sometimes glamorous sheen of a late 1990s style magazine.

Installation View ‘After The End of History’ 
Photograph: Anna Lukala, Courtesy the Artist, Focal Point Gallery and Hayward Gallery Touring 

After the End of History is the most recent instalment in a curious project of cultural entryism. It follows Afropean, a dazzling travelogue through ‘Black Europe’ Pitts published in 2019. The book’s deadpan monochrome photographs and dense text detail a kaleidoscopic journey from Sheffield to Lisbon – via the Stockholm suburbs, the Paris Banlieue, Claude Mackay’s Marseille, the old Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, among other places. Since then Pitts has become one of the most interesting artist-intellectuals in Britain, seemingly on a mission to free discussions of art, class and race from social media clout-chasing and academic reputation-building.

Yet, perhaps in part due to the lack of jargon and posturing in his writing, the radicalism of Pitts’ work is seldom appreciated. His subjects tend to be people on buses or trains, loitering outside shops, wandering the streets, doing nothing in particular. He is attracted to what hides in plain sight. Visibility (2022) was his subversive contribution to Tate Britain’s ‘Look Again’ pamphlet series of politicised, often decolonial ‘responses’ to its collection. Pitts sidestepped the brief, filling his booklet with photographs of and interviews with the museum’s predominantly Black security staff (the ‘proletariat beneath the paintings’), as they observe the gallery-goers, look at the artworks and articulate their own highly sophisticated responses to them. Home Is Not a Place (2023), an exhibition at Soho’s Photographers’ Gallery and a book with the poet Roger Robinson, showcased Pitts’ matter-of-fact colour photographs of Black Britons; nearly everyone looks straight at the camera, evoking an intimate complicity between subject and photographer.

Although part of what makes Pitts’ work interesting is its refusal of the standpoint epistemology of the 2020s, it is often strongly autobiographical. He grew up in Firth Park, a Victorian multicultural interzone in Sheffield, between the city centre and the low-density interwar council estate of Parson’s Cross. He is the son of a White English mother and a Black American father who played in a cult Temptations tribute act, and Pitts himself has mainly made a living as a voice actor, continuity announcer and presenter (in the early 2000s he presented a kids’ pop music show on Saturday morning television). He is steeped in the history of photography but his lack of formal academic training gives his work an effortless originality – he has little interest in the clichés of radical chic – and this absence of pretension confers a kind of directness. He’s here to communicate, if not necessarily to tell people what they want to hear. At the Herbert Gallery, people responded to the photographs in a similar spirit. As we were looking at the British Indian photographer Kavi Pujara’s images of the interiors of South Asian family homes in Leicester, a stranger turned to us and pointed out the polystyrene tiles on the ceiling in one photograph – an aesthetically questionable fire hazard ubiquitous in working-class houses between the 80s and 2000s.

But if this is working-class photography – of and by working-class people – it is a long way from the overtly politically engaged and programmatic ‘Worker Photography’ movements of 1920s Berlin or 1970s Hackney. There’s a class in itself here, not a class for itself. Describing the nightlife photographs of Ewen Spencer – off-the-cuff snapshots of dancing youth with six-packs and pressed shirts, showing off at raves in Ayia Napa or the Old Kent Road – Pitts’ wall-text reads: ‘Spencer is not interested in what people want the working class to look like, but what actually goes on: brand names, VIP areas, aspirational drinks and cocktails’. Explicit politics occasionally strays into Pitts’ work, from the nostalgia for Communist Internationalism that is a surprising thread running through Afropean, to the more consciously iconic photographs in Home Is Not a Place. One of these, titled ‘The Black Activist’, depicts a young woman in a puffa jacket standing in front of a long block of sixties council flats, holding a home-made cardboard placard emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and the words ‘THERE IS NO CLIMATE JUSTICE UNDER CAPITALISM’. But the story told by Pitts’ pictures is not of an always resistant, always resilient proletariat. There are no strikes or brass bands. The defeat happened some time ago, and life goes on.

Some of the most exciting photographs in After the End of History are of revolutionary cultural moments, especially musical ones – from Eddie Otchere’s thrilling, kinetic images of the Jungle scene in mid-1990s London, to Barbara Wasiak’s Neue Sachlichkeit-style photograph of Sheffield techno producers Parrot and Winston staring out from the streets-in-the-sky of the long-demolished Hyde Park Flats. There’s little outward sign of the possibility of change through collective action, but change happens nonetheless. One large-format photograph by Hannah Starkey shows a young woman walking past some UDA murals in Belfast wearing the sort of outré garb that emerged in Harajuku, Tokyo, in the 1990s and was for a time described as the ‘Gothic Lolita’ look: wild pink hair, short skirt, thigh-high socks and cartoonish platform boots.

This juxtaposition – Japanese dreaming in a working-class neighbourhood overpowered by a particularly grim history – runs through Pitts’ new project. Visit his Instagram account and you’ll find image after image of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. Outrageous futurism and lurid kitsch rub up against each other; there is no trace of the ‘healing’, folksy Japan sold to middle-class readers via Marie Kondo or books on ‘Old Kyoto’. This series is once again rooted in Pitts’ autobiography. His father toured Japan with an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in the late 80s, which meant Pitts was as a child whisked out of depressive, post-Miners’-Strike Sheffield into the giddy futurism of the bubble economy at its delirious height. In the last few years, Pitts has been working on Sequel to a Dream, a piece about the experience of moving from Sheffield to Japan and back. So far there have been photographs, some from the family archive, others freshly taken on the bright, distorted film stock of the era, in an effort to evoke some of its atmosphere, to ‘bend time in the present’. Some of the project’s themes were summarised in a Radio 4 documentary, The Failure of the Future, though it remains to be seen what final form it will take. What is clear is that these images of a semi-real, semi-imaginary Japan completely scramble received ideas about race and modernity. Pitts seems to regard this as a redemptive project – one in which the ‘end of history’ can mean something other than the hegemony of neoliberalism, the death of solidarity and the crushing of working-class resistance, but can instead point toward something else: a future of leisure and technological abundance, and a future that is neither European nor American.

Read on: Rebecca Lossin, ‘The Multiple Gaze’, NLR 147.