Paul Reas, I am ashamed to admit, is a photographer I was unfamiliar with until his new book Fables of Faubus showed up at my doorstep. Reas’s work is right up my alley: awkward and funny; full of characters simultaneously stylish and unstylish; and interwoven with biting social commentary on class and cultural stratification in Northern England in the 1980s and 1990s.
Reas grew up on a council estate in Bradford, near Leeds, at the heart of the Northern soul scene of the late 1960s. As a young man working as a bricklayer, an awareness of class oppression in Margaret Thatcher-era England was likely unavoidable. This awareness infuses all his work. Stuart Cosgrove, in the introduction, writes: “Here is working-class Britain fractured into consumerism, the suburban stores, the industrial theme parks, and the garish invitation to spend money which remains preciously hard to come by.”
Reas’s earlier work is black-and-white. In “Industry” (1982) there are portraits of laborers in mines and factories that immediately recall August Sander—and, of course, when I scan the book, Reas mentions that Sander’s work struck him early on.
A couple years later, with “I Can Help” (1984), color pops. While I find his color and black-and-white work equally engaging, the color work magnetically draws me to it. Perhaps it has more to do with the circumstances. How can grocery shopping and other errands be simultaneously mundane and so hilarious? Those bored faces that just can’t anymore are surrounded by the now-funny styles and radically popping color of the mid-eighties. Paul Reas is a master of using the ridiculous to communicate something serious, all in the same frame: the tragicomedy of humanity.
Fables of Faubus, by Paul Reas, £35.00, published by GOST Books in December 2018.