Photography involves two main distortions – the simplification into black and white and the seizing of an instant in time. It is this particular mixture of reality and unreality, and the photographer’s power to select, that makes it possible for photography to be an art. Whether it is good art depends on the power and truth of the artist’s statement.
Roger Mayne, Peace News, 1960
Roger Mayne was known for capturing the street markets and slums of inner London including Brick Lane and Bermondsey, and the artists that lived and worked in St Ives, Cornwall. But it was in the slums of North Kensington that Mayne:
…found the perfect setting to produce what he called a ‘cinema of stills’: expressive, narrative, realist shots that helped to drag British documentary photography out of straight photojournalism.
He spent five years repeatedly photographing a single street in west London, visiting it 27 times and taking 1,400 photos.
According to the blurb on the Beetles+Huxley website: ‘1956 was a breakthrough year for Mayne as his portraits were exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and at George Eastman House, New York. That, same year, he began his seminal study of Southam Street…and established his reputation as an influential photojournalist.’
He enjoyed documenting the details of daily life, focusing in particular on children and their outdoor activities, and ‘contrasted the young people’s exuberance with the urban dereliction they inhabited.’ Health and safety definitely didn’t exist then looking at the groups of kids playing on the bomb sites!
Henri Cartier-Bresson inspired Mayne’s work on Southam Street – the original series is now owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum – which has subsequently become a valuable record of London’s urban environment in the 1950’s; large parts of Southam Street were demolished in 1969 as part of a slum clearance programme, with only a small section of the street still remaining.
Self-taught, Mayne counted among his influences Cartier Bresson, Paul Strand (whom he met in Paris) W. Eugene Smith and most notably photographer Hugo van Wadenoyen, who would prove to be an influential mentor throughout his formative years. Moving to London in 1954, Mayne began working for clients including the Observer, Sunday Times, Vogue, Pelican Books and BBC TV. He mixed with diverse artistic circles, corresponding and conversing with a wide range of painters, sculptors, architects, and playwrights. His approach to photography and engagement with the critical discourses of the day were greatly enlivened by these relationships.
It can be argued that Mayne belongs to the style of ‘concerned’ social documentary photography, taking street pictures with ‘human subjects and applying a classical black-and-white composition to them.’ The exhibition at The Photographers Gallery, the first since 1999 to show his work, includes many of these ‘pioneering photographs.’
Mayne’s humanistic approach has influenced subsequent generations of photographers, and made a significant contribution to post war British photography.
Also on display are examples of Mayne’s more obscure work, including early work in Leeds. These pictures of street life around the city portray the beginnings of his interest in photography and ‘chart his development from pictorialism to his characteristic realist style.’ He was actually commissioned to photograph the housing development of Park Hill in Sheffield. ‘His photographs captured both the nuance of daily social interactions and the sharp angles, shades and abstract forms of the urban environment.’
Wandering around the gallery you can also see his body of work from the Raleigh Cycles factory in Nottingham in 1964, where he ’embraced the dynamic setting and low lighting of the factory to produce a series of dignified portraits of the workers in his distinctive black and white tonality.’
Although restaged for the first time since 1964 (which was the year after I was born) Mayne’s installation, The British at Leisure, had many images which resonated with my childhood. It was commissioned by architect Theo Crosby for the Milan Triennale and features 310 colour images projected on five screens accompanied by a commissioned jazz score by Johnny Scott. The original music wasn’t available but Scott, 86, was said to be ‘delighted to offer an alternative.’ The ever-changing scenes show: girls playing hockey, people on bumper cars, a hunt at Tonbridge, hippies at a jazz festival…
His daughter, Katkin Tremayne, holds much of his archive and she collaborated with The Photographers Gallery to produce the exhibition, which is co-curated by Anna Douglas and Karen McQuaid.
She explains how a stroll changed his life: ‘One day, he went for a walk, turned a corner and there was Southam Street. It was a very poor area, with no cars, but a play street: there was hopscotch, swings made out of lamp-posts, boys playing football – exuberance.’
In an interview she revealed two pencilled quotations written by her father:
‘If you know before you look, then you cannot see for knowing.’ TF remains unknown to this day, however the other belonged to Picasso: ‘I do not seek, I find.’
Looking at these pictures you see a vanished world and feel the nostalgia: children playing with marbles – innocent and communal, a girl swinging dangerously high on a swing and young boys playing football, while others clamber amongst the detritus on the streets.
Included in the exhibition in glass vitrines were examples of Mayne’s interest in photographic and graphic layouts including magazine spreads, book covers, photography and poetry books and draft letters and correspondence with The Arts Council, which made for very interesting reading as they seemed to offer Mayne ‘every assistance short of help.’ The selection of correspondence on display:
…testify to his early critically engagement with arguments concerning the contemporary appreciation of photography as an art form and further cement Mayne’s significance in the history of British Photography.
What did I take away from this exhibition?
- the nostalgia and how times have changed
- everyday events eventually become history
- to look for opportunities in the simplest and most accessible of places