Pictures From The Real World is a wonderful book of 18 color photographs made between 1987 and 1988 on a council estate in Derby, a town towards the north of England.
In England, they say that it's grim up north; grim because of the weather, the cities, the houses and (sometimes) the people. And when the economic climate is grim, as it still was for many in the late 1980s, then the grimness is amplified.
Pictures From The Real World is a visual exploration of the grimness of people's homes; it's the World of Grimteriors if you like. David Moore's prowling of the council estates of Derby, knocking on doors to get a picture of what lies behind, paid off with a particular vision of the (still) depressed Britain of the late 1980s.
Stains, slime moulds and damp are the particular markers of this grimness. The most depressing picture shows a heavily overweight woman watching television as a wall rises with the mould showing through. Her legs are swollen and she's wearing white 'plimsolls,' the cheap running shoe of the time. To one side is a table with her tea-making equipment. In front of her, under the table are her condiments. It seems as though she's living alone in a bedsit, but then to one side we see children's toys which hints at some other kind of living arrangement. If she is the mother of the house, then she is the one who is cared for. The picture is full of detail, but dominating the picture, sitting in judgement and marking the woman's status is that mould-stained wall.
A picture of a man feeding a baby also has multiple possible narratives. We see him feeding the baby, caring and solicitous, but then a touch of sadness seems to come across his face. He's in a crowded kitchen, by a table that is surrounded by a high chair, a kitchen chair and two old armchairs. The mother is absent and we are left wondering why. In the left hand corner is the cooker (there are lots of cookers in this book) and a door with mould stains and a recently smashed window. What has happened here we are only left to imagine.
More stains come in the first picture in the book; a kitchen cabinet with a half-eaten jam (jelly) sandwich and three and a half bottles of sterilised milk. The sterilised milk shows that this is a house without a fridge, a marker of deprivation and inconvenience in 1980s Britain. Again, it's the wall that dominates, holding up a double level of stains that might come from the smoke from a cooking-ring or fingers stained with newsprint, all rising up from a woodchip wallpaper that was cheap but unwashable.
The pictures were made when David Moore was still a student with Paul Graham and Martin Parr among his tutors. In that sense, as David Chandler explains in the introduction, the work is part of a second wave of British color, work that critiqued the Conservative regime of Margaret Thatcher and had at least some kind of affinity with what was then a distant punk ethic.
With their combination of chaos and inertia, Chandler links Moore's pictures to those of Richard Billingham and Nick Waplington. But they also have historical precedents in Bill Brandt's images of working class homes in the 1930s and Jacob Riis' pictures of the living conditions of New York's poor. With their harsh lighting, they also resemble of Jacob Holdt's pictures of African-American homes of the 1970s.
Chandler also points out that the pictures were made shortly after the first IKEA was opened in Britain. It's this point that gives the pictures their historical edge. The interiors look old because they don't look like houses that you get now. Though the curtains look as though they are from the 1980s, the rooms have furniture that comes from the 1960s and wallpaper patterns that come from the 1970s.
In that sense, despite the apparent overcrowding and the maelstroms of kids, the pictures don't all make grim reading. Instead they are a visual commentary on interiors that don't conform to a norm, interiors that are grubby, worn and lived in; interiors that, in the UK at least, more people have lived in than some care to imagine, from a time when attitudes to poverty and living on benefits were far less prejudicial and conservative than they are now.
A case in point in point is the picture of a woman cooking in the kitchen. Behind her we see four children of various ages. They are all there either to see who the photographer is who has come to visit or to wait for the fish fingers that the woman is cooking in her standard-issue British stained frying pan on her standard-issue (and remarkably clean) British gas cooker. The d�cor's not great, the floor is not finished and the clothing leave something to be desired. Is it overcrowded? Probably. But ultimately we don't really know. Who are we to judge. It's a great picture for which any judgement would be speculative at best. And that goes for the whole book.
Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com