One history of British photography that can be put together from How We Are: Photographing Britain (at Tate Britain until 2 September) traces changes in what people chose or were able to record. From the very beginning, photographers took over the mundane job of representation in portraiture and topography. But they also wanted - or were asked - to capture on film things that were fleeting, strange or dangerous. Animals in motion, for example: a barn owl with a mouse in its beak, caught by Eric Hosking in 1948, a brown rat photographed by Stephen Dalton as it jumped from a bin in 1983. Curiosity about the look of exotic tribes was not limited to pictures from abroad. The four performers of the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance, taken by Benjamin Stone in 1899, stare at the camera as grimly as Papuan warriors. There was a need to face the facts of war. Percy Hennell made records of reconstructive surgery; in the exhibition you can see a soldier who has had the socket of his lost eye patched over with a flap of skin. The police wanted mugshots for their records. A collage of ten 'known militant suffragettes', some farouche, some merely formidable, is included. Doctors hoped photographs would give insights into madness. In the pictures of psychiatric patients taken by Hugh Diamond in the 1870s, the girls look less mad than trapped; they could be acting the part of one of Dickens's wild, angry young women. Forbidden and shocking images proliferated. Pornographers found photography a lucrative medium (although there is nothing of that here), while social reformers made it a persuasive one. In Thomas Annan's Close No. 118 High Street, from an album produced in the late 1800s for the Glasgow City Improvement Trust, a group of inhabitants pack the end of a narrow alley as though swept down it the way rubbish is swept down a gutter.
LRB 5 July 2007 | PDF Download