Bridge House Hotel, Canning Town, 1958 by Lord Snowden
Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
I guess it would be a good time to talk about Tony Ray-Jones, what with his excellent joint exhibition with Martin Parr currently taking place at the Media Space of the Science Museum. Like many British photographers I have been a big admirer of Ray-Jones’ work for some time, but nothing beats actually seeing great prints in the flesh. His work seems fresh and exciting even now, despite most of it being made nearly 50 years ago. For me, his work is successful because of two key elements - balance and theme. By balance I mean in two respects; firstly the actual physical make up of the content of his pictures - the spacial lay-out, the foregrounds and backgrounds, the interaction of subjects and the gaps between them. Secondly I mean the balance of mood, often simultaneously working both humour and melancholy into a single frame, provoking different interpretations and feelings in the viewer. These two examples of balance which can be found in his best images, are key to their success and impact and most importantly make them very interesting to look at. And that is proof of why he is so highly revered; remember you only have a split second to take a photograph, and to include so much, so perfectly requires a special gift. The second element, that of theme, is his decision to photograph what had not really been consiously done before, at least in England. Transporting that American street photography sensibility (pioneered by Gary Winogrand) to the beaches and cafes of little Britain was an inspired and rewarding decision. And Ray-Jones was not in the business of re-enforcing cliche. This was stuff he could see all around him, in fact that was so commonplace and familiar it hadn’t been deemed worthy of capturing before. Utilising the fresh eyes he had gained from some years abroad (America) he was able to import this style and give it this fresh twist - England and what England is, in and of itself and how it is itself and not America or anywhere else. That tea-drinking, flat-cap wearing beach culture can only be found here. I doubt at that point he would have had the foresight to think it was going to die out either. For all the talk of the swinging 60s and modernization, any seaside town (or ordinary town for that matter) would have been littered with these old-fashioned flat-cap wearing men and quaint local traditions. History tells us that the 60s were swinging, but really it is was certain parts of central London that were - Carnaby St, the King’s Rd and David Bailey’s studio for example. I’m sure if you went to Deptford or Hastings or Morecambe or Blackburn at the height of Beatle-mania you would have seen little evidence of this sexually liberated, mop-top madness. It would have been the real world of Ray-Jones, and although things have undeniably changed, albeit in a gradual way, the essence is the same. The capital city is another world and another country to the rest of England. I’m sure these kinds of images can still be found if one ventures from the centres of big cities. Ray-Jones succeeds because he recognises value and beauty in the ordinary. He searches for something he believes to exist and because he believes in it, he finds it. ‘You have seen because you have believed’ Charles de Gaulle once said to Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think there is a lesson there for any young photographer. You can always find and create the world you want, the matter is all out there, you just have to go and find it.
Meudon, 1928 by Andre Kertesz
A very famous image that has been written and talked about in depth, I recently encountered this photo again at a small show at Chris Beetles Gallery which reminded me of it’s beauty. It’s a photo you could look at for eternity, it’s satisfaction lying in the coming together of many elements of chance, the beauty of photography summed up in a single image. Everything in it looks so simple and natural though of course it is produced through a complex game of vision, timing, hard work and luck. Different components interacting : a split second before or after Kertesz hits the shutter and the photo is gone, or a much less successful version of it would have been made. It is hard to get one element perfectly on cue, but several co-operating simultaneously is poetry. The man matches up with the pillar of the bridge; he is holding a large sealed package (presumably a framed painting), making him more interesting, the street is picturesque in a run-down kind of way, and curiously the photo makes us look both up and down at once - down the street to the construction site below and immediately back up at the force and drama of the on-rushing steam train, rushing into shot at precisely the correct moment. Here, art, industry, history and humanity collide gloriously, and it is easy on the eye.
Young girl in circus wagon, 1929 by August Sander
A photo I know nothing about, other than it’s title and how it looks. It is mysterious and gripping, the young girl’s glare fixed directly on yours as if to say ‘what do you want?’. She seems to be caught in the act of something, scribbling or vandalising the wagon out of boredom perhaps, mid-way between towns. You cannot see what she is using to make the rounded shape on the side of the carriage, too consistent to be chalk, the object in her hand too small to be paint, too watery to be lipstick. The framing is close and denies a wider context, adding to the mystique - we cannot see the full wagon, it’s scale or surroundings. Yet it is pulled back enough to give some context, and two frames - that of the window she is leaning out of and the wider wooden door. We do not know what is inside the wagon, or outside of it. Our curiosity is heightened by the fact it is a circus vehicle - for all the ugliness, beauty, oddness and insanity of the circus, we are given a subdued and minimalist photo, denying us any titilation or excitement. It is an elegant picture - there is nothing brash or loud in the frame. The girl’s clothes and hair are quiet and tasteful in their simplicity. What role does she play in this circus? Has she a hidden talent or deformity? Or does she just take tickets and charge for entrance? Is she expolited or valued, has she run away from home? A photograph with more questions than answers then, yet one that is visually appealing and compositionally original.
Child and her mother, FSA Rehabilitation Clients, near Wapato, Yakima Valley, Washington, 1939 by Dorothea Lange
The great photographer Dorothea Lange documented the frontline of America’s Great Depression and the effect it had on ordinary Americans. Employed by the Farm Security Administration to record factually what was happening, Lange’s photography, as well as portraying circumstance, shows agonising humanity. Enduring an existence as bare and bleak as the subjects do, they retain enormous dignity despite their living conditions. As a pose to Walker Evans’ sometimes blunt depictions of similar communities at the time, Lange finds beauty in humanity, beauty against the odds in desperate conditions. She pinpoints faces, poses, compositions, that crystallize the issue at hand and demand sympathy and encourage action. I particularly like this shot of a young girl gripping the wire fence, lost in thought, staring vacantly at the ground in front of her, looking lost and hopeless seemingly oblivious to the photographer in front of her.
Newsies smoking at Skeeter’s Branch, St.Louis, 1910 by Lewis Hine
Lewis Hine believed in the power of documentary photography to bring about change for the good of society. He was the photographer for an organisation campaigning against child labor in America in the early 20th century and travelled America collecting evidence of it. This shot of young newspaper sellers smoking is simultaneously humourous and serious. Superficially, there’s something amusing about the tough guy stance each of them is adopting, yet this is about exploitation : kids growing up before their time and being introduced to an adult world when they should be in the midst of their innocence. This is the troubling issue Hine was attempting to expose through his photographs.
Andrea, Pablo, Marg, Wellfleet, 1962 by Robert Frank
A photograph by the great Robert Frank that is a personal and intimate family shot and at the same time an image that implies a wider social context. The symbolism of the American iconography featured in this shot is not coincidental - straight away, by including a fluttering stars and stripes we begin to think about what it represents in this image, by association with the kids playing on the beach it signifies freedom, youth, hope for their future and the ideal America.
This is contradicted by the second thing we notice, the newspaper headline which indicates a darker undercurrent and the unglossy reality of 60s America. A place with a gleaming and attractive surface masking deep social concerns.
Newspaper headlines are perfect to date an image to a very specific time and place. The other dark subtext to this photograph of Frank’s children is that one of them, Andrea, would die a few years later in a plane crash. Hindsight brings out new perspectives on photographs, meanings can evolve and develop over time.
Elizabeth Eckford attempts to enter Little Rock High School, Arkansas on Sept. 4, 1957 by Will Counts
The background of this astounding image was the decision of nine black teenagers (referred to as the Little Rock 9) to enter Little Rock High School, Arkansas, together for the start of term in 1957 - the first time segregation had been lifted in schools in America’s South. The girl featured here, 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford, ended up entering alone due to a mix up with the other girls - the plan had been altered slightly the night before, but because Eckford’s family did not own a telephone, she wasn’t aware of the change of plan. On arrival, she was confronted by an angry white mob of around 400 people, and photographer Will Counts captured the frightening scene. One woman (Hazel Bryan Massery) is seen in several photographs such as the one here, screaming abuse at Eckford as she continues towards the school. The attempt to enter eventually proved unsuccesful as the National Guard prevented her from doing so. This may have been for the best as the baying mob had become so incensed by this act of (now legal) defiance, they were threatening to lynch her.
This moving photograph highlights the power of press photography to distill the essence of a complicated issue and bring awareness of it to the wider world. The image became iconic, and synonymous with the Civil Rights struggle and vividly portrays the impact of hatred and persecution on individuals. The girl’s elegance and dignity in the face of this tirade of abuse is a testament to her own strength of character. Looking at the photograph you can feel the tension and hostility and are amazed at the lack of intervention by the soldiers standing in the background.
Boys going to school, 1908 by Clarence H. White
I had been led to believe that Pictorialism was a stuffy and fairly po-faced kind of photography that dominated the medium before Kodak came and liberated everyone. Although there is a vast amount of serious and dry work from that time there are some notable exceptions. I recently had the pleasure of looking at the excellent Taschen book ‘Alfred Stieglitz : Camera Work’ which collects a lot of the best examples by the pioneers from this period, and that is where I was introduced to this image which struck me instantly. The composition is slightly unusual here, with the tree dominating the image and the boys faces being obscured by their overly large collars. The symmetry and framing is simple and considered, cropping enough information from the photograph to obscure the wider scene and to intrigue the viewer. Only the title reveals the context.
Rosaria Schifani, 1992 by Letizia Battaglia
This image by the photographer and political activist Letizia Battaglia was taken at the funeral of the widow of a man killed in Palermo’s mafia wars in the early ’90s. This sensitive and beautiful image is full of sorrow, and brings to mind a Pieta image of the Virgin Mary. I first encountered it in a Sunday newspaper supplement and was taken aback by it’s simplicity and beauty.