At the beginning of his book, The Road to Little Dribbling (2015), the American author Bill Bryson prepares to take a British citizenship test. Composed of questions about values, history, and traditions, the test is designed to assess if an adoptee has a sufficient understanding of Britain’s identity to be equipped for life in the UK. Over the last four years, Britons have faced two major challenges to their contemporary identity. In September 2014 the Scottish independence referendum threatened to cleave part of the United Kingdom from the rest, yet the union stood firm and, consequently, the Scots remain part of a whole. Nearly two years later the United Kingdom voted whether or not to continue a partnership with the European Union. The result of this poll was more fractious. The people of Scotland are still wedded to their closest neighbours but the nature of citizenship has been changed for all. As a Scot living in London, Niall McDiarmid’s survey of citizens in a redefined land takes on a personal significance.
Niall McDiarmid (b.1967) studied Photojournalism at the London College of Printing (1992-1993). Since 2011, he has been building an extensive record of the people of Britain, inviting those he approaches on the street to have their portraits taken. A limited budget has set parameters, restricting him to day trips on cheap rail tickets with no additional option of staying in a town overnight. McDiarmid’s project, appearing at the close of our current relationship with the European community, ends a story that another photographer began. In 1973, the year the UK joined the European Economic Community, Daniel Meadows started a fourteen-month journey around England in his Free Photographic Omnibus. Travelling from town to town in a converted double-decker bus that included a darkroom as well as living quarters, Meadows made portrait photographs of the people he met. The differences between McDiarmid’s project and that of his predecessor are modes of transport and time spent with his subjects, yet there are many continuous and acknowledged links.
McDiarmid’s pictures are simply posed portraits, front-facing, with subjects looking directly at the camera; the complexity of these images is their range as a typology of characters and, more startlingly, the vivid play of pattern and colour. The viewer is presented with very little information about each person, only where and when they were photographed. These are visual documents that require direct engagement.
A small portion of McDiarmid’s collected portraits has been published in Town to Town by the Bristol-based RRB Photobooks. Dating from May 2011, in Brighton on England’s south coast, to August 2017, in Dingwall, Highland of Scotland, McDiarmid’s survey weaves across countries; this is reflected in the layout of the book that is arranged neither by geography nor chronology.
The opening photograph, nestled between title pages, shows two youngsters in school uniform: a white boy holds hands with a black girl. Taken in Derby in 2014, the image makes a clear visual statement regarding integration. McDiarmid is familiar with both Daniel Meadows and his work, acknowledging the similarities in their approaches. Following his tour of towns in the early 1970s, Meadows published his own book Living Like This: Around Britain in the Seventies. These pictures are in the established black and white documentary photography of the period. On the cover is a portrait of two young white women, Lyn and Stella Brasher, whom Meadows met in Southampton in 1974. Forty years later, McDiarmid visits the city, making his own double portrait of two young black men. McDiarmid’s colour image reflects the change that has taken place for the practice of the documentarian: the grit of monochrome replaced by chromatic splendour. Meadows has also updated his early work by revisiting his subjects to produce ‘digital stories’—short video pieces that include spoken commentary and re-photographed portraits. Discussion between these photographers, their subjects and their photographs is continually evolving.
In the introduction to Living Like This, Meadows describes his early collaboration with his friend Martin Parr. The connections between Meadows, Parr and McDiarmid are affirmed through McDiarmid’s exhibition Town to Town at the Martin Parr Foundation (from 31 January to 12 May 2018). The stated aim of Bristol’s newly launched Foundation is to support important photographic work that focuses upon the British Isles; a clear attempt to explore people and place at a juncture in time when there is a movement to assert national identity and separateness. McDiarmid’s project is sparing with its written evidence, leaving viewers to wonder about these British citizens. Perhaps the test of citizenship is not so easy to pin down, and like Bill Bryson who now holds dual nationality, it is something that is in constant flux.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Stephen Carke
Below, views of Niall McDiarmid’s Town to Town: