The work of Paul Reas, photographing British working-class life over the last thirty years, mirrors social and occupational changes of a dispiriting kind. “Fables of Faubus”, a retrospective of his oeuvre, is eloquent testimony to the singular quality of his achievement.
His early work in black and white takes a documentary approach to people engaged in industrial work and the material shortcomings of their home environments. He records how, pushed to the margins, working people felt the shock of living in Thatcher’s Britain.
Traditional occupations like coal-mining were under threat and his camera chronicles the dignity of miners while also responding to changes in the workforce. Factories were employing women at low wages in emerging technology-related industries like the manufacture of televisions.
The formality of his portraiture shots gave way to photographs like the one of women whose outstretched limbs become entreating signifiers: no time must be lost in clocking off, a more fulfilling existence exists outside the factory floor.
Taking pictures in a housing estate in South Wales, Reas shows the people who work in mines or factories in domestic settings. The tone is respectful but there is a rawness that betokens deprivation. Reas knows about working-class life from the inside. Born in the northern city of Bradford, he left school at 15 and became a bricklayer before taking up a course in photography at a college.
His colour photography is at its most engaging when the baleful influence of Martin Parr is at its lowest ebb. Reas is never supercilious like Parr and most of the time avoids ridiculing the desire of working- and lower middle-class families for a better quality of life.
It might seem that shoppers are being depicted as soulless bodies afflicted by a fever of consumerism but Reas is interested in the way supermarkets and retail parks are impacting on people’s lives.
“I photograph people”, he told Bradford’s local newspaper, “but I think the pictures are more about systems people find themselves in.”
At their best, his pictures of the new landscape of consumerism that was spreading across Britain are as pungent as they are punctual. Garish colours and the Brechtian angles of his camera work cast a visual dissonance on everyday scenes. The sense of dislocation, that something is wrong, finds expression in the saddening faces of the shoppers. Their trolleys may be full but an emptiness of another kind induces anxiety.
In “Flogging a dead horse” (1993), Reas returns to his early concern with manual work but not with critical intent. Heritage centres, supposedly celebrating historical traditions, merge into the leisure industry. Manual work, the bedrock of labour in the past, becomes prettified and heritage centres become purveyors of putative re-enactments that are merely twee. This comes across strongly in “Flogging a dead horse”, despite a note of satirical mockery that can be traced back to the perfidious influence of Martin Parr.
“Fables of Faubus”, by Paul Reas, is published by GOST
(Photos supplied by the publisher)