Britons, by Neal Slavin. New York: Aperture Books. 110 pp. $45, cloth. NEAL SLAVIN has called the British ``the most seriously humorous people on Earth.'' That is exactly the impression one gets when looking at his large color photographs, collected in ``Britons.''
Like the Escher drawing of the stairs that seem to be viewed from above left, then viewed from below right, these pictures can be seen two ways: One can either take them very, very seriously, or consider that either the photographer or the photographed, or both, are well aware that tongue-in-cheek is still alive and well in conservative England.
The title of this book is misleading. One is tempted right away to say that this isn't a book about Britons at all, but about groups of Britons, and very special and select groups at that!
It was only natural, I suppose, that having photographed smaller groups of Americans in his previous work, which had the deadpan title of ``When Two or More are Gathered Together,'' Slavin would expand to entire companies of servants, nuns, night-clubbers, bowlers, and bridge painters.
The introduction is given as an interview with the author/artist of the book -- a cunning way of having the artist describe his works and methods without sounding too self-centered. (``Well, you did ask me. . . .'')
Although there are a couple of pictures about everyday people, nearly all the groups look as though they are making their last stand against an encroaching world bent on destroying their club, association, or clan. Despite the posed smiles and carefully placed positions of confidence, the pictures have an air of desperation about them. The sitters, it seems, are thinking that if they can present their optimistically grouped picture to the world, the world will grant them one more chance to survive.
The author contends that he is a ``voyeur of sorts,'' but one definitely does not feel he is actually peeping in on these people. The poses are so obvious and structured that one feels more like a guest. How do you ``pose'' a magic act?
Many of the pictures could be taken anywhere. The British motor-cycle messengers and tavern types are fairly international.
But a photograph of ballroom dancers exudes the temperament of the English so well that one feels obliged to visit, if there is one, the English ``Ballroom Dancing Hall of Fame.''
Then there is the remarkable picture of the ``Sandy Row District Loyal Orange Lodge No. 5,'' showing proud Orangemen from Northern Ireland in their bright tangerine sashes. This group seems to contrast with the others, which show the steady, conservative Britons -- upper and lower class -- secure in their institutions and confident in their customs. In this picture, the desperation is even more poignant. There is a kind of lower-class aristocracy here, one that probably ends in the tormented streets of Northern Ireland.
Other shots, such as the one of ``The Distressed Gentlefolks Aid Association,'' are so English as to convince even the most anti-Anglophile into becoming an addict for crumpets and cricket.
Professional and amateur photographers alike will be interested to learn that the camera used for ``Britons'' is an oversize 20-by-24-inch Polaroid, and not the type that snaps shut to put in your carry-all. Because of this, the groups were posed around a fixed position for the camera. The need to pose the groups this way shows in the final product.
This book will appeal not only to photographers but to anyone who likes to wonder what goes on in the minds of people as they pose (and aren't people posing practically all the time?). You don't have to be British to be touched by these photographs. Indeed, the reader -- the looker? -- of ``Britons'' will discover what those who travel in the United Kingdom have discovered:
Having met the British, we all eventually discover to our embarrassed delight that they are us.