Photography has long served the rich, the famous and the infamous. It has also had many practitioners who have championed the lives of those whose names history will never remember. The social documentary tradition, focusing on the lives of ordinary people – usually those powerless to tell their story – has been a driving force in British photography. This is hardly a surprise in a society traditionally marked by class divisions and prejudices.
Many photographers, eager to tell their stories to as many people as possible, found wide audiences in the pages of newspapers and magazines or published them as books. During the Second World War and through the fifties, the hugely popular picture magazines served as fundamental tools in stabilising the nation. They also promoted a concept of what it was to be British: primarily the gift of getting on with things in the face of adversity.
The intentions behind the work vary greatly. Often there was a desire to bring awareness, to show how ‘the other half’ lives; some photographers coupled this with a passionate yearning to bring change. Others have sought to amuse and entertain, from Arthurian legends made ‘real’ to the delights of children at play.