In the cold autumn of 1960, acclaimed American photographer Bruce Davidson travelled to the UK on commission for The Queen magazine. He was given free rein to create a personal portrait of the British Isles and toured for over two months, spending time in London before visiting the South Coast and then heading north to Scotland.
He found a country that, in parts, appeared untouched since the 1930s, and a society that was driven by difference while still emerging from post-war traumas and years of austerity. "It all had a kind of mood… this was the last remnant of an England that was vanishing into other things like The Beatles or modernisation of some kind," Davidson remarked.
Davidson focused on the extremes of city and country life, and on the shifting social attitudes to class and custom. He was particularly drawn to documenting a new brand of teenager emerging in London, representing a new era and with it, a growing disparity between youth and age. The photographs were published on 12 April 1961 under the title 'Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us: A Picture Essay on Britain'.
You can see these fascinating images in an exhibition at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London, launching on 17 January until 14 March 2020.
Also on display are works from a further photo essay made by Davidson in Wales in the mid-1960s. While serving in the US military Davidson had asked a Welsh sergeant where he would send his worst enemy, and the man replied "Cwmcarm". In 1965, when he was on assignment to photograph Caernarfon Castle, Davidson felt compelled to visit the Welsh mining town.
Now known for its extensive forests and greenery, Cwmcarm in the Ebbw valley in South Wales had a reputation for social deprivation, and for the scars left on the landscape by years of heavy industry. This reputation was countered by Davidson's photographs that focussed on the communities – the mining families and the children at play – which sought to convey hope amongst the hardships.
The photographs in this exhibition, some widely seen and others lesser-known, reveal a photographer attuned to traditions and social cues, perhaps overlooked by the British themselves. With his perspective as an outsider, he looked to formal dress rituals and idiosyncratic customs, also capturing a sense of British stoicism and sense of humour. Collectively these photographs reveal the complexities of both the people and the country he encountered.