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What gets us fixated on certain places? Why did a young photographer called Roger Mayne spend five years repeatedly photographing a single street in west London, visiting it 27 times and taking 1,400 photos?
Maybe it was the shock of the new: born in strait-laced Cambridge, Mayne was thrilled by the working-class kids of Southam Street in Ladbroke Grove. Maybe it was a sense of foreboding: as concrete estates wiped out the old terraces, Southam Street seemed like a place that would soon vanish. (It did, obliterated by the Trellick Tower in 1969.) Or was it something bigger and more transcendent? That’s the kind of question you’ll find yourself asking after stepping back in time at this new Mayne retrospective with Southam Street at its centre.
The Photographers’ Gallery exhibition charts Mayne’s travels across Britain, from bicycle factories in Nottingham and council estates in Sheffield to Brick Lane and Bermondsey. It also includes the first ever recreation of his photo installation ‘The British at Leisure’, commissioned for the Milan Triennale in 1964: five screens, 310 photo slides and a cool jazz soundtrack (nice).
‘These scenes from a lost city radiate history and absence’
But it was in the slums of North Kensington between 1956 and 1961 that Mayne (who died in 2014) 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.
Mayne was a brainy guy: he got in to photography while studying chemistry at Oxford, and wrote extensively on the theory behind his and other people’s pictures. He was determined to make photography the stuff of art, not just documentary, and (unlike one of his biggest influences, Paul Strand) he wasn’t political: his pictures of Southam Street were never intended as some social-realist plea on behalf of the post-war London poor.
But seen today, these scenes from a lost city radiate history and absence. The boys playing street football and the sharp-dressed kids hanging out on a corner aren’t just photographic subjects – they were living Londoners whose paths happened to cross the artist’s at some decisive moment long ago. Which raises one last question: where are they now?
'Roger Mayne' is at Photographer's Gallery from Friday March 3 until Sunday June 11.