Spirit Transcends Time

Does the world really need another book of photographs of London? Perhaps not. Yet when the book in question is the recent Thames and Hudson publication of Sergio Larrain’s ‘London 1959’ the answer is certainly, yes. Made in the wake of his extraordinarily gritty yet compassionate photographs of Santiago Street Children of 1957, these London photographs were shot thanks to a British Council grant, Larrain taking advantage of the opportunity to also visit Paris, meet with Cartier-Bresson and become a member of the then-fledgling Magnum organisation.

It could easily be argued that any photographs of cities will capture to a greater or lesser extent a state of flux, for what are cities if not endlessly shifting canvases of change? Yet much like Robert Frank’s London work of ’51 to ’53, or Gerard Depardon’s photographs of Glasgow in 1980, Larrain’s pictures capture London at a particularly poignant moment, where old ways shift into new on the fulcrum of generational shifts. From a personal perspective Larrain’s pictures have a special resonance too, for 1959 is the year my parents met in London and I wonder if  they might be captured in any of these shots. Perhaps a blurred face on the Underground escalator or a distant figure walking in the park? Perhaps not.

These pictures remind me that one of the essential paradoxes of photography is that it presents the illusion of freezing moments, yet simultaneously spans time. Photographs shift meaning and purpose according to context. We read them differently each time they are unearthed and perused. Even family albums packed with memory and fading recollection are subject to this state of flux. Stories are re-told with a subtly different slant each time, meaning forgotten and reinvented with the passing of lives until eventually they become lost entirely to house clearings or, if fortunate, the contents of charity shops to perhaps become inspirations of flimsy historical fiction for art students at a loose end.

Sergio Larrain – London 1959

I’m sure there are art students in Larrain’s photographs of London in 1959. Certainly there are beatniks populating the later pages of the book as we delve into the black of night, down in the bars with jazz and sex swirling around us in grainy deep and seductive shadows. In a series of shots we see wire-frame figures floating ghostlike above the smoke-shrouded floor of a haunted dancehall. It could be a scene from ‘Absolute Beginners’. There’s Blitz Baby and The Fabulous Hoplite. Maybe even Crepe Suzette escaping into the light. And is that Big Jill with with her shirt knotted around her mid-riff and an unlit cigarette between her lips, staring us down with a look of ‘who the fuck are you?’ In another shot we are lost in the thrumming crowd, hands up high, reaching for the stars (or at least the festoon lights). Close your eyes, lock the time circuits for 1988 and this could be Shoom. Specifics may root us to years but spirit transcends time.

There are echoes of course of the aforementioned Robert Frank photographs, and back, back, further back to Bill Brandt’s documentation of London in the nineteen thirties. Now I admit that I have never explored Brandt’s work in much detail, perhaps because some of this images have always felt so familiar. This may be time playing tricks of the light on memory of course, but I seem to recall seeing his images reproduced in stark, rudimentary black and white in so many school poetry anthologies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Did they appeal? They must have done on some level for the memory, real or not, to have formed. I’m sure it must have been something to do with the harsh contrast of positive and negative space, the almost abstract composition of black and white. The same ingredients, in short, that led me later to be enthralled by Robert Motherwell’s paintings.

Brandt captured the London bus. Of course he did. There it goes, peeking above the strong black arch of the bridge, Heinz advertising resplendent on its flanks as the towers of Battersea power station loom ghostly in the distance. It’s not a photograph about a bus at all of course. Nor is it a photograph about the bridge, the river or the power station. All are just compositional elements as Brandt enjoys the interplay of the deep shadowed forms of the arch and the Thames mud. No more, and certainly no less. Or rather, that’s certainly my feeling on reading the photograph from my faded 1983 edition of ‘London In The Thirties’. However, on recently seeing a sharply printed reproduction of his 1933 ‘Parlourmaid and underparlourmaid’ photograph in David Campany’s wonderful ‘On Photographs’, my interest in Brandt’s work has been refreshed. The print in Campany’s book brings out so much more subtlety in tone and detail and I’m left wondering what more depths of pleasure I might find in looking at better quality reproductions of his other work, including the bus on the bridge.

Frank photographs buses too. In one picture we see a Routemaster’s backside in the middle distance  as the black form of a city gent strides purposefully forward, looking for all the world as if he owns the street (he probably does), newspaper and walking stick clutched firmly behind his back. Then there are the blurred phantoms bookending Eros with what for all the world looks like a bloke pissing in the fountain. Or an upper deck with hats and overcoats illuminated by the blast of interior lighting, framed by an advert for the Co-operative Wholesale Society below and the brooding black of a soot stained building above. Frank would revisit the bus a few years later for The Americans, this time with the more starkly confrontational gazes of passengers meeting the camera’s eye. A reflection of the difference between the national psyches, or of Frank’s growing strength as photographer. Both, perhaps.

Frank also has buses on a bridge, but unlike Brandt he positions himself looking across the bridge that diagonals to the centre line of the picture. The buses and the lines of composition all lead us away to the hazy distant shore, in contrast to the direction of the stream of pedestrians crossing towards us. Intriguingly, Larrain makes almost the exact same photograph of London Bridge in 1959, choosing instead to shoot in portrait orientation and thereby omitting the dark presence of buildings to his left. This directional opposition in both photographs lends a dynamic to the picture, but Larrain takes this to a whole different level with his closely cropped shot showing the side of a Routemaster. Here, the form of two windows are positioned as a blurred diagonal bookended by bowler-hatted fellows, the dual thin light lines of the wheel arch and the edges of letters completing the composition. It is a daring and modern photograph. Elsewhere, Larrain again utilises the diagonal, this time with the interior of a bus as a stark framing device and perspective platform as the artist looks down on milling shoppers. The bus turns the corner, literally and metaphorically. The 1960s are coming. Swinging, and Swingeing, London are just over the horizon, and intriguingly Larrain will have a hand too in the defining cinematic moment of those times. For whilst ‘Blow Up’ is inspired by a Julio Cortázar short story, this story itself was inspired by a story told by Sergio Larrain. Antonioni, Cortázar, Larrain: Outsiders all.

Insider Colin O’Brien also captures London around this time, and continues to do so for the rest of his lifetime, but unlike Brandt, Frank and Larrain, one gets the sense that O’Brien uses photography more as a means of exploring London, as opposed to using London to explore photography. As a London insider, O’Brien likely always considered the London bus as much too obvious subject matter for a photograph, and it is not until 2005 that we see one appear, and then only because it is an opportunity to record the final day of the iconic Routemaster running the 38 route from Clapton Pond to Victoria. It echoes the shot made in 1952 by the 12 year old O’Brien on the occasion of the last running of the Embankment trams. Both are essentially historical portraits, the driver of the tram posing for the youngster as the passengers queue tidily in the shadow of the trees. Fast forward 53 years and the Routemaster is also captured fully face on, but this time it is the passengers who pose for the camera, the youngsters all eager smiles and full of anticipation. It is a charming photograph, but it is clearly a photograph about the people as much as it is about the bus. Indeed, without the explanatory text explaining the historical context, what kind of photograph is it? One might see a similar kind of picture in any number of family albums, perhaps accompanied by a voice warmly explaining that “Here’s one that dad took of us and the family next door on a trip into the West End for a shopping trip.” And then the page will be quickly flipped.

I do enjoy flipping through the pages of ‘London Life’, the hefty retrospective of O’Brien’s photography, but admit that these days I’m drawn particularly to his early shots from the 1950s period. Certainly these photographs tell a compelling story of a young artist experimenting with their chosen medium. His pictures from this time of the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, documenting car smashes, processions and just occasionally not very much at all are tremendous. The birds-eye perspective may have been borne from the necessity of living four flights up, but they are captivating images precisely because of this unexpected viewpoint. If we might be disappointed that O’Brien’s later work rarely, if ever, utilises these kind of unusual visual perspectives, perhaps it is only because he has made those angles metaphorically in how he approaches his subject matter of the people of London. Still, from a purely aesthetic point of view I’d take Larrain’s shots from the top floor of the bus or from a camera placed on the Underground platform over pretty much anything else by anyone any day.

So as much as I enjoy the sensibilities of the insider that permeate O’Brien’s comprehensive, life-long exploration and documentation of London life, it is the work of outsiders Brandt, Frank and especially Larrain that continue to resonate most strongly with me. These photographers’ forays into London may have been brief (certainly compared to O’Brien’s) but the documents they left behind show artists’ eyes that are finely attuned and yet simultaneously detached. Intensely connected and yet fundamentally apart. A powerful combination.

Sergio Larrain – London 1959

‘Thames 1959’ by Sergio Larrain is published by Thames and Hudson
‘London/Wales’ by Robert Frank is published by Steidl
‘London Life’ by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life

We recommend looking for all of these and other photobooks at the terrific Beyond Words website: https://beyondwords.co.uk/

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