The Photographers’ Gallery has just opened a luminous retrospective of the images of the pioneering, autodidact British photographer Roger Mayne (1929-2014), an artist who immersed himself in the quotidian details of the streets of inner, post-war Britain and moulded a deeply humanistic, poetic and entrancing vision of community life that in turn influenced a generation of social realists.
Fired by the work of such luminaries as Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Cartier Bresson and Hugo van Wadenoyen, Mayne’s street photography took him to Sheffield, Nottingham, Glasgow, Leeds and Edinburgh but his true stamping ground was London: his evocative photographs of North Kensington slums in the Southam Street area in the 1950’s and early 1960’s (the milieu so acutely documented by Alan Johnson in his ‘This Boy’ memoir) capture the unguarded vibrancy of children at play, the stark squalor and austerity of living conditions and a bittersweet, haunting mix of optimism and innocence that radiates from within each frame. Poignantly, the estate was demolished by 1969, declared unfit for human habitation, which gives the photographer’s work an extra layer of “decaying splendour”, to use his own phrase.
Between 1956 and 1961, Mayne was a regular visitor to the district, producing around 1400 negatives from his time there and offering 88 prints to the V&A which became the collection entitled ‘The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne’. The monochrome photographs from the ‘Southam Street’ series are windows on a disappearing and now impossibly distant world; his keen eye taking in studies of boys and girls exploring bomb sites and playing games of cricket and football, Teddy Boys, West Indian youths, gangs of men smoking and gambling and the first wave of teenagers.The writer Colin MacInnes was drawn to these portraits and his ‘Absolute Beginners’ featured one of Mayne’s iconic shots on its dust jacket.
The show also takes in exuberant, painterly works from the snapper’s gallivanting around the UK, including studies of the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, the Raleigh cycle factory in Nottingham and the teeming life of the streets of Leeds. The revival of his 1964 colour slide installation, ‘The British at Leisure’, a selection of 310 photos of Brits liberated from their factories and offices, set to a cool 1960’s jazz soundtrack by Johnny Scott that sounds like the sort of rare gem Jonny Trunk at Trunk Records should reissue, is a joy.
This is a delightful documentation of a bygone age, a display that demonstrates Mayne’s innovative spirit and seminal contribution to the recognition of photography as an art form and not a mechanical, throwaway exercise. These revered images are nostalgic and melancholy but they thrum with solidarity, intimacy, pathos and a rare power.
Written by Michael Sumsion