Sunday 12 March 2017

Britain is a country which finally honours its late artist-photographer, once 'Laureate of Teenage London', Roger Mayne

Roger, who died at the age of 85 in 2014, is having his photos are being exhibited for the first time in nearly 20 years in The Photographers Gallery in London. 

In addition to his pioneering photographs of the 1950s and early 60s of community life in West London’s Southam Street, the Exhibition also features examples of his less well known work from outside the Capital, including early work in Leeds and between 1961-65, he was also commissioned to photograph the newly developed estate of Park Hill in Sheffield. At the Raleigh Cycles Factory in Nottingham in 1964, where he used the low lighting to produce a series of dignified portraits of the in his distinctive black and white.

Also restaged, for the first time since 1964, is Roger's pioneering installation, 'The British at Leisure', commissioned by architect Theo Crosby for the Milan Triennale it features three-hundred and ten colour images projected on five screens to a commissioned jazz score by Johnny Scott.

He is, however, best remembered for his black and white scenes of working class life in Southam Street in West London in the late 1950s where he often focused on teenagers and the vitality of children living the playful childhood he hadn't experienced in his own stern, 'academic' upbringing without comic books and doubtless, any joy.

Roger was born 1929 in Cambridge, the son of a ex-Headmistress mother and father, the Headmaster of Cambridge and County High School for Boys who, frustrated by financial constraint, in his ambition for a legal career, pushed his children hard. After leaving the prestigious boys' public school, Rugby, Roger became a Chemistry undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford with a hobby in photography and later said "I can’t really say how I first began to be interested in photography. I think photography probably found me."

He came under the influence of Hugo van
Wadenoyen who became his mentor and whose 'Wayside Snapshots' in 1947 marked a decisive British break with pictorialism in photography and was an early attempt to use the book format as a means of showing a photographer's personal pictures. Hugo helped Roger to show his work at 'Combined Society' Exhibitions, a progressive group of local photographic societies which, in 1945, had broken away from the moribund 'Royal Photographic Society.'

After graduating, Roger began to build a career as a professional photographer and in 1954, moved to West London, stayed with photographer and artist, Nigel Henderson who was working on the streets of Bethnal Green (right) and was partly financed in these years by royalties from his late father's series of school textbooks, including 'The Essentials of School Algebra'.

He made his public debut in 'Picture Post' Magazine at the age of 22 in 1951 with a photo essay in colour of the making of the abstract ballet film, 'Between Two Worlds', directed by Sam Kaner and also took the stills for the film.

In 1952, he acquired a copy of Cartier-Bresson's new book, 'The Decisive Moment' and saw its photographs as a series of exclamation marks and 'visual explosives' which informed his own street photography at a time when prevailing ideas were those of the Director of the V & A Museum, who told him in 1954 that 'photography is a purely mechanical process into which the artist does not enter.'

Working as a freelance, Roger documented the streets and activities of the East End of London and, in 1956, in an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts established his photographic reputation for social realism and illustrated his style of street work when he said : I went to South London and I saw, in the distance, a bombed building with a lot of children playing in it, so I thought that might be an interesting subject. So I walked towards this building and when the children saw somebody with a camera they immediately stopped this fascinating thing, whatever they were doing which intrigued me, so they all came out and wanted their photograph. You used to get this cry, "please take my photo Mister".

He became interested in one street close to where he lived in North Kensington : " I remember my excitement when I turned a corner into Southam Street, a street I have returned to again and again… I think an artist must work intuitively, and let his attitudes be reflected by the kinds of things he likes or finds pictorial. Attitudes will be reflected because an artist is a kind of person who is deeply interested in people and the forces that work in our society."

Southam Street with its large decaying terraced houses and shared lavatories, was crammed with people living in crowded rooms who spent much time outside in the street. With his 'Zeiss Super Ikonta' camera around his neck, he befriended the residents who became accustomed to his presence and oblivious to his snapping and the documentation of their lives in 1,400 negatives over 27 occasions.

Roger would later say that his Southam Street Album of photographs became a noose which, "In a sense I put it round my own neck” and he didn't like to be labelled as a 'photojournalist' saying : "I’m not happy about this. I had to earn my living, so I do think of myself as earning my living on the fringes of photojournalism, but I do think of myself as a fine artist. My intention is to be a fine artist, but I think that it is the nature of the medium of photography that one has to start with what photography does, which is to take records of things. So I think you take a record and if, for various reasons, everything comes together, then the record will raise itself to a work of art."

At the age of 29 in 1958, he met playwright, theatre director and future wife, Ann Jellicoe, whilst photographing a production of her play, 'The Sport of My Mad Mother'.

The novelist Colin McInnes, the author of  'Absolute Beginners', based his 1959 book on the story of a teenage photographer on the verge of making it and said of Roger : "He is one of the few English photographers I know of who have disclosed to me a world of modern fact : a portrait of sub-life of which, without him, I would have been unaware."  Colin commissioned him to take the cover image of his book and on seeing it for the first time said : "We all gawped at it and slapped it on the cover there and then."

Roger continued to freelance, producing photographs of youth culture and architecture and featured in 'Vogue' magazine with 'The Teenage Thing' in 1959 and saw his 'Southam Street Project' inspire Ann's best known play, 'The Knack', first performed at the Royal Court in 1962 and later adapted into a film directed by Dick Lester starring Michael Crawford and Rita Tushingham and filmed in the Southam Street area which was transposed to 'Northam Street'.

He gained recognition and by 1964, the V & A had bought and exhibited his work, before he left London and between 1966 and 69 taught at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham. He collaborated with Ann to produce, in 1972, 'The Shell Guide to Devon' and in 1975, moved to Lyme Regis and undertook landscape photography in Southwest England and Europe, much of it in colour, with Mediterranean work in Dubrovnik, Rhodes and Corfu and in 1980 diversified into etching, drawing, and painting.
The Southam Street community was swept way as part of a slum clearance programme and replaced in 1969 by Erno Goldfinger's brutalist experiment in high rise tower block living, Trellick Tower.

In 1986, at the age of 57, he helped the V & A stage a major retrospective of his work and revive interest in his 'Southam Street Series' which he re-edited, but he lamented that : "by doing that I drew all this attention and I just saddled myself since with Southam Street."

1989 saw the BBC 'Timewatch' team make a programme on Southam Street and the 1990s brought him a new audience with concert back drops, record sleeves and press adverts for singer Morrissey.

Throughout the 1990s Roger photographed in Paris, Iceland, Spain, Tuscany, the Canary Islands and Aswan in Upper Egypt at the age of 75 in 2004. From 2001 onwards he had his photos exhibited at Tate St.Ives, Tate Britain  and Tate Liverpool and in 2007 saw one of his photos of Southam Street girls chosen for Tate Britain's 'How We Are Photographing Britain'.

He gave Alan Johnson MP, former Southam Street kid and Labour Government Home Secretary, permission to use some of his photos in his childhood memoir and who said of him that : "He captured the squalor of those awful slums but ensured that the people who lived in them were shown in all their humanity, which was important given that the houses we lived in were declared unfit for human habitation in the 1930s."

Ann, his wife, said of him :
"His upbringing had left Roger shy, inarticulate, socially isolated. But through photography he was able to share in the teeming life of the streets without having to enter into it. He photographed children and mean streets because he found them beautiful but also perhaps because they didn't demand that he play a middle class social or professional role. Photography became the means, motive, point of Roger's life."

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