A Portrait of 1990s England, Captured by an ‘Outsider’

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Peter Bialobrzeski _Give my regards to Elizabeth_P
Salford, 1992© Peter Bialobrzeski, Courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing

Give My Regards to Elizabeth is a new book by German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski, comprising photographs of his year spent in England in the early 90s

In the early 1990s, Peter Bialobrzeski spent a year studying at the London College of Communication, having just completed his photography degree in Essen. For the German photographer, England proved fertile ground for his burgeoning image-making practice, and he found himself documenting his days spent in his new country. Nearly 30 years later, the photographs Bialobrzeski took during his year in England are presented in Give My Regards to Elizabeth, a new book published by Dewi Lewis.

“I always thought of publishing the work one day, Brexit felt like the right time to do it,” says Bialobrzeski. The photographer had put together a version of the book in 1993, and the layout, text and edit of Give My Regards to Elizabeth is an exact copy of his original compilation. “Now, 27 years later, things have changed,” he writes in the book. “Nevertheless, Dewi Lewis, Hartmann Books and myself have decided to leave the edit, texts and design unchanged, in order to give an idea of my thoughts about things then.” 

In Give My Regards to Elizabeth, Bialobrzeski’s rich, colourful photographs form a relic of a unique time in the UK, seen from the point of view of someone new to the country and its idiosyncrasies. He travelled England, creating street photography in cities like London, Liverpool and Manchester and going to quintessentially British events on large and small scales, from Glastonbury and the Epsom Derby to university parties in Oxford and summer days spent on the beach in Blackpool. “Taking the photographs and going through a tough selection process was really a way of trying to understand,” says Bialobrzeski of his time spent in England.

While there are all the trappings of English holidays – friends gathered in bright green fields and pints in busy pubs (especially poignant in the midst of lockdown) – Bialobrzeski’s photographs also depict class divides in 1990s England, as he immersed himself in societies recovering from economic downturns and damaged by Thatcherism. “This clear division within a society clearly did not exist in Germany in the early 90s, so I guess that was an obvious fact to look at,” the photographer says of his interest in the UK’s class system as a subject. “There is an England, of dreaming spires and scones for tea and jolly huntsmen dressed in red tunics, of pomp, ceremony, the changing of the guard and everyone knowing their place,” writes journalist Mick Brown in Give My Regards to Elizabeth, his text originally written in 1993 after he and Bialobrzeski worked together. “This is not solely the England of tourist brochures, yet it exists as a shadow of an England of industrial prosperity and global influence. Britain’s decline has become something of a cliché to the British, a backcloth against which we have lived out the smaller drama of our daily lives.” 

There is wit and candour in the photographs of Give My Regards to Elizabeth, and Bialobrzeski cites English photographers like Martin Parr, Paul Graham and Tony Ray-Jones as influential during these early years of shooting, as well as American greats like Mitch Epstein, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. Give My Regards to Elizabeth is a broad survey of England as Bialobrzeski encountered it, and a record of the beginnings of a prolific photographic career. As Brown writes in the vibrant monograph: “An outsider can often see us more honestly than we see ourselves.”