The 1960s and 1970s were a time of incredible change and movement across the world, and with this show the Barbican celebrates the zeitgeist of these two decades. Everything seems to be covered, from minority rebellion in Bruce Davidson's Civil Rights images, majority subjugation in the Apartheid photography of David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole, to Raghubir Singh's optimistic and vivid 'Ganges modernism' and Malick Sidibé's vibrant portraits from Mali's underground pop culture. Everything Was Moving is a touching exhibition that perfectly encapsulates the political revolution and dynamic cultural changes of the period.

David Goldblatt's 'The Maid's Room' Northern Suburbs, Johannesburg, 24 July 1969 epitomises the paradoxes of the time – in this case, within the context of South African Apartheid. On the one hand, a headline screams out from a neatly placed newspaper about 'MOON MEN ON THE WAY BACK', showing that this was a time of groundbreaking advances; yet, the maid's room itself is a small and grubby, although very neatly kept, hovel with a large piece of discarded cardboard acting as a floor mat. The differences between the world outside this room and the life of its inhabitant is the perfect analogy for the stark disparity between the white suburban areas and black townships that Goldblatt goes on to explore in his images of Boksburg and Soweto. This divide is perhaps most explicitly shown later in the exhibition, however, in Ernest Cole's untitled image of the platform at Doornfontein railway station; two-thirds of the platform is bustling with all black passengers, squashed together, waiting to board the lower class carriages of the train, whilst a few white passengers wait comfortably for the first class carriage at the end of the platform. Further, it really is impossible to remain unmoved when confronted with a quote such as this one, from a nursemaid with a young girl, taken from Cole's book House of Bondage (1967): "I love this child, though she'll grow up to treat me just like her mother does. Now she is innocent."

Then, in a brief detour from political subjugation to compositional revolution, William Eggleston's portraits and dye-transfer prints show a shift in how colour and form were perceived. The vividness of colour in his images of Tennessee and Mississippi are especially interesting when compared to Bruce Davidson's black and white Civil Rights photography in the next room. Eggleston's bright, vivacious depiction of often very specific individuals, singled out and centred in traditional portrait style, in the American south is somewhat at odds with Davidson's crowds of people, either gathered together in protest or listening to great leaders, as with A crowd listens to Malcolm X in Harlem (1963); the onus is placed on the people themselves, the masses. Indeed, when he does single out an individual it is with consideration of their impact on the greater cause, such as with his photographs of Martin Luther King Jr.

Also exhibited is Boris Mikhailov's first series, Yesterday's Sandwich/Superimpositions, which – as the name suggests – consists of images superimposed upon others, usually close-ups of nudes and genitalia imposed onto general scenes of tedium. Mikhailov, who worked in Kharkov (now in Ukraine, but then part of the Soviet Union) quite explicitly flouted the Soviet law which forbade the photographic representation of nudes, or indeed any image which depicted ugliness or negativity in Soviet life. At that time, only a very specific type of beauty was permitted, but Mikhailov portrayed a different kind of beauty within ugliness and imperfection. Similarly, Shomei Tomatsu documented life after Hiroshima – both literally, with works such as Steel helmet with skull bone fused by atomic bomb, Nagasaki (1963), and less directly by portraying the Americanisation of Japan in the years that followed the disaster, in the series Chewing Gum and Chocolate: "We were starving, and they threw us chocolate and chewing gum," wrote Tomatsu in 1975. Indeed, without being provided with context it would be difficult at first not to confuse some of these images with America itself. Conflated subtly within each photograph are the tragedy of the disaster and the rapid rise of American pop culture.

Perhaps most arresting in the exhibition, however, are Li Zhensheng's depictions of the harrowing realities of life during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China – some of which have never been shown in public before. One particularly intense image is the large photo of mourners in Harbin's People's Stadium, mourning the death of Mao. The photograph stands imposing, towering over a collection of much smaller photographs showing atrocities from the revolution, and the tension between this large panorama and the collection of individual horror stories is palpable.

It would be impossible to describe the full extent of the work on display, as the exhibition seems to literally cover all grounds – progressing geographically across all of the continents, rather than chronologically. However, suffice to say that it is a simultaneously disturbing and beautiful collection, documenting the vibrant, and yet also distressing nature of change and revolution in the twentieth century. 

Everything was Moving, at Barbican Art GalleryAshitha Nagesh reviews Everything was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s at the Barbican Art Gallery.4