Simon Roberts’ new book uses landscape photographs to consider the past decade of British political and cultural history. As the sardonic title, Merrie Albion, suggests, all is not well on the “small island” in Roberts’ images. His tableaux of political campaigns, parades, protests, festivals, celebrations, public markets and the like are drawn from previous projects. He uses extended captions to relate the images to both recent and historic events.
Roberts tells us, for instance, that a 2011 image of a riot-damaged block in Croydon, an area of greater London, is a small representation of the aftermath of four days of rioting that broke out countrywide after police shot a young, black man in North London. With his 2012 image of the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, Roberts describes the economic anxiety in the country at the time, and how the tens of thousands of people who volunteered to work at the Games were from one of London’s poorest and most diverse areas. About his 2016 image of Prime Minister Theresa May standing at a podium in the middle of 10 Downing Street, giving her first public speech to a phalanx of reporters, he writes that May and her conservative party have struggled since her election. And he uses his 2017 photograph of a burned out Grenfell Tower, the working-class apartment block where 80 people died in a fire, to note that the neighborhood around the building has the widest gap between rich and poor in the country.
To create his 2009 book, We English, Roberts traveled around England photographing the leisure pursuits of his fellow countrymen. He set up a website and solicited public suggestions for where he should photograph, which positioned him as “a citizen, not just an onlooker,” he has said. In his introduction to Merrie Albion, David Chandler, a writer, curator and academic, notes that this book also reflects Roberts’ role as “part of the society and history he represents.” The book offers an insiders’ critique, and can be seen as an effort to contribute by illuminating the psychological landscape of Britain by looking at its physical landscape.