The work of Bruce Gilden understandably dominates the Strange and Familiar exhibition, currently adorning the walls of the Manchester Art Gallery after a successful show at London’s Barbican last year. Gilden is best known as the American street photographer with an distinctive technique that produces distinctive photographs. Carrying a Leica and flash gun, Gilden walks the streets of New York, waiting for unwary members of the public to step into his frame. That’s when he lurches towards them like some snapping eel, his long body contorting low so he can fire the camera from somewhere beneath his subject’s chin. It’s an aggressive style that has produced some memorable photos but also a great deal of debate about the ethics of his art. Is he out to photograph the world as it really is or is he merely hunting for oddities among the population?

How you answer depends, largely, on how you view the role of photography and the nature of photographic objectivity. Strange and Familiar sees photographers from around the world turn their subjective lenses on Britain and what it means to be British. Gilden’s answer, here, amounts to a selection of just five pictures, four of which dominate the exhibition space. The pictures can be hard on the unwary and I witnessed one visitor glance at them once before turning on her heels and fleeing from that section of the gallery. It’s an understandable reaction. Gilden’s portraits are shot in extreme close up, an effect further magnified by printing them on large canvases that reveal every pore of their subject’s broken or battered skin. These are faces that visibly carry the damage of hard lives and bad decisions. The noses are bent or broken and lips raw and puffy. Teeth are missing. One of the magnified faces (Sherry, Romford (2013)) is of a woman with long black eyelashes that are visibly congealed with lumps of something that resembles black tar.

There is an unwholesomeness about Gilden’s obsession that is also his strength. It is also the tension that Strange and Familiar makes very evident with its mixture of the formal and informal. The result engages that long standing debate about the role of photography as social documentary. That visitors can emerge asking these questions underlines the significance of this exhibition. It negotiates a difficult territory between the satisfactions of the easy stereotype and the more pressing difficulties of serious photography. When is the photographer’s gaze justified? When does social documentary become exploitative? Many street photographers refuse to take pictures of the homeless but others argue that the reality of the street dictate the subject.

Rarely are those criticisms levelled at Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the grandfather of street photography and where this exhibition begins. Yet from the first image, we might feel like we’re dealing with the deeply familiar that borders on all-too-easy cultural stereotypes. The face of the woman being held aloft during the coronation of King George VI resembles so many of Ronald Searle’s English matriarchs; long jawed with tiny spectacles perched on elongated beaks. Cartier-Bresson returned to them again when covering the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 and it might well be the same woman some forty years later dancing before the scrawled graffiti “Gawd bless yer”. These are the kind of stereotypes seen again in Hype Park (1953) by Cas Oothuys, or stare from the photographs of Candida Höfer. Frank Habicht’s Time, Gentleman, Please! (1960) features a long limbed bowler hat wearing city gent and two tiny children of the Flower Generation.

Crossing Guard, by Evelyn Hofer

It’s the collection’s great virtue that such stereotypes are always kept in check by the other part of the exhibitions title: those parts that are strange. It’s perhaps to expected given that the exhibition has been curated by Martin Parr that so much on show is tinged with Parr’s own aesthetic, informed as it is by English picture postcards. Stereotypes are fun but it’s the strangeness that intrigues and, in many senses, produce the best parts of the show. Edith Tudor-Hart captures moments of deprivation in the 1930s. A family cramped inside a small brick yard in a picture produces a picture that is hard to untangle: it’s a dark, claustrophobic deprivation yet look deeper and see the smiles on their faces. Evelyn Hofer’s Stray Dogs (1962) seems at first glance to be an easy approach to a sentimental subject but there’s more to it with the attention grabbed by the mangled features of its subject. Where Gilden attacks the strangeness head one, quite literally, Hofer allows us to find it in the pictures, such as in Crossing Guard (1962), a portrait of a school traffic warden. Slightly off centre, the woman stands in the stark white uniform which distracts the eye. It takes a little time to find the reality in the bandages around her ankles that hint about a hard life spent standing. Meanwhile, Raymond Depardon’s photographs of Glasgow during the 1970s are, for me, the standout. They are bleak visions of hell’s backstreets, where children play amid the rubble and blackened brickwork. A child stands crying/shivering against the metal shutters of a store. Another blows pink bubblegum against the desolate backdrop. They are initially familiar but worth exploring for the strangenesses that abound.

Where lies the reality in all of this is, of course, the difficulty not just with this exhibition but with the nature of photography itself. It is, arguably, the one art form that holds a justified claim to objectivity: presenting reality as seen through the impartial lens of the camera rather than interpreted through the actions of a writer or artist. Photographers might claim to paint reality but there is always subjectivity in all photographs. It’s simply a matter of how well it’s disguised. How real are Bruce Davidson’s pictures of Wales in the 1960s? It’s hard to tell where the pose ends and the reality begins. That is one of the questions that the exhibition poses: that art – and photographic art in particular – is found in this tension between the snapshot and the posed portrait, the emotional and the dispassionate, the real and the imaginary.

Cas Oorthuys, Trafalgar Square, Anti-Polaris / Anti Nuclear Weapons Demonstration, London
18 February 1961.
© Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

The current Manchester show clearly doesn’t include all the photographs seen in the London show. We only have four of Gilden’s large portraits and the claim of “over 250 compelling photographs” might be a bit disingenuous given that there’s a display case containing somewhere around one hundred Polaroid snaps by Shinro Ohtake. What we do have, however, is a strong question posed with some creditable answers. The exhibition runs until the end of May and is worth catching if you’re in Manchester or wherever it goes from here. I’ve already seen it twice and I plan to see it at least one more time, which, given the high price of train fares to Manchester, is the highest recommendation I can possibly give.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is on at the Manchester Art Gallery until the 29th of May. 

David Waywell is a writer and cartoonist whose new book, The Secret Life of Monks, is now available.