14 Nov 2019

southam street blues

I've known the powerful images from Roger Mayne's Southam Street series for a long time and was honoured to be shown in his company at the survey of London Street Photography show a few years ago. Made at a time in London's history when my parents had arrived to be confronted by a culture of "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish" his pictures have a social context that give them an added edge for me. I had a real thrill when - oh what's that word? Oh yes - serendipitously, I came across the street sign while out walking beneath Trellick Tower, one of my London icons.
London street image
Southam Street, W10, Roger Mayne
I say sign because the fabric of the street has all but disappeared save two buildings looming like Warner Brothers film lot facades. Those terraces and sounds can now only be experienced in social documentaries of the era. I know I'm in danger of a nostalgia wallow - which could be said of my whole practice -  but it's interesting to read Mayne's own words from 1959,
The reason for photographing poor streets is that I love them. Empty, the streets have their own kind of beauty, a kind of decaying splendor and always great atmosphere - whether romantic on a hazy winter day, or listless when the summer is hot; sometimes it is forbidding; or it may be warm and friendly on a sunny spring weekend when the street is swarming with children playing, or adults walking through or standing gossiping. I remember my excitement when I turned the corner into Southam Street, a street I have since returned to again and again. 
It's hard not to avoid a comparison with Cartier-Bresson's privileged upbringing and subsequent love of photographing everyday life. Granted having the time and money to pursue this way of working for its own sake was - and arguably still is - a characteristic of street photography but should it have any bearing on judging its merit from our perspective? 
I'd go back to my opening point that I take as much from the social context of street images as their own composition. You could say that's not untypical of any photography but for me it's particularly relevant to street which by its nature is a real time reflection of both the location of the photographed and the culture of the photographer.
London street image
So where are the Southam Streets of today? Well there are still plenty of poor streets but people are now documenting their own lives, spending as much time on written narrative as the image. Jim Mottram and Paul Sng are two notable examples and I'd also include James Hopkirk too. 
The images speaks with originality and energy, giving insight into worlds too easily neglected. The photographer here is no longer bystander or daytripper but implicated and yes exposed by the work.
I was on that journey too once upon a time. Time bends.


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