Exhibition: Brian Griffin

Steven Kasher Gallery hosts the first US exhibition of Brian Griffin’s Thatcher-era photography

New York’s Steven Kasher gallery is to mount the first US solo show of British photographer Brian Griffin. Titled Capitalist Realism, the exhibition focuses on Griffin's work during the Thatcher years, 1979-1990.

Born in 1948 and raised in the Black Country, West Midlands, Griffin was a first-hand witness to the slow decline of British industry. After leaving school he spent five years working in local factories and offices. While training as an engineering estimator, Griffin was taken to a local photography club. He didn’t look back, and soon enrolled on a photography course at the Manchester School of Art and Design.

Griffin made his name as a deeply unconventional portraitist with an ironic tint. Inspired by the infernal bureaucracies from the stories of Franz Kafka, the spiritually void modernist cities of Jacques Tati, and the jagged angles of German Expressionist cinema, he shot surreal scenes of men in suits. Some emerge out of doors in unison like vampires from coffins; others ritualistically dance around potted plants. His image of Thames TV chief George Cooper has its subject stand with his back to the camera, while his face appears on the TV set below.

Counterpoised with these sharp suits, Griffin portrayed workers as strong but embattled survivors, fixed into position like stone monuments or figures from religious iconography. The subject is transformed into an archetype rather than a single individual. In reference to socialist realism of the USSR, Griffin called his style "capitalist realism".

He also had an idiosyncratic sense of storytelling. The London by Night series from 1989 follows a fictitious nuclear attack. Building sites become post-apocalyptic wreckages. Images from the real world are morphed into an alternate one; London becomes akin to a stage or a film set.

Griffin’s off-kilter aesthetic carried into highly successful editorial, commercial and music work. He provided album covers for Iggy Pop, Siouxsie Sioux, Elvis Costello, Devo, Depeche Mode and Echo and the Bunnymen, and depicted celebrities like Douglas Adams and Donald Sutherland. He was the cast photographer for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and In 1989 the Guardian declared him photographer of the decade.

Although Griffin temporarily retired from photography in 1991 – the year of Thatcher’s downfall – his reputation continued to grow. When he returned to the discipline in 2002, he did so as an acknowledged master. Since the turn of the 21st century, there have been 15 solo shows and four retrospectives of his work.

Despite his international fame, Griffin is candid about the stresses of being a photographer. In a 2013 interview with IdeasTap, he explained, "you have to be happy to suffer. It’s an extremely difficult life. You just have to live, eat, breath, love it 24/7 and you have to be like that for the rest of your life. If you’re willing to make that sort of sacrifice that’s fine but, if not, you’re never going to make it."