There are too many photographers. Far, far too many. As the truism goes, these days everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Not only that, but everyone who’s been photographed is a celebrity. Current devalued concepts of achievement in the public sphere mean that the ever-increasing number of portrait photographers are faced with a chronic shortage of real, vital personalities worth photographing. (Celebrity chefs, boy bands, soap stars and their ilk – really?)
Major cultural figures are in short supply. Perhaps more to the point, the ones we’ve got don’t occupy the same space that they might have done 30 or even 20 years ago. Artists, writers, and thinkers used to be listened to as public figures; we’ve got no time for that now. For an ambitious portrait photographer, there are forums for the dissemination of photographic portraits as art, but such well-meaning, prize-giving endeavours seem culturally marginal and a more than little academic, when you compare them to the oracular power of a photograph that everyone was going to be looking at, of a person everyone was listening to.
Enter: a portfolio of limpidly beautiful portraits by Dmitri Kasterine, derived from his career as an editorial photographer in London and New York from 1960 to the 1990s. Looking at these pictures now, it is hard not to think, a little bitterly, that Dmitri was fortunate to be working before the internet, the population explosion, and a thousand TV channels splintered our attention forever; but it is also clear that he has the rare ability – it is genuinely rare – to photograph any human being with sovereign insight. His portrayal of everyday English life may be seen in this series of posts we ran in 2011; today, we are showing a selection from his chronicle of London’s intellectual life during the 70s-90s.
Part of Dmitri’s shtick (it almost looks like a shtick, these days) is an unassuming method: unobtrusive lighting, plain backgrounds, tones in the middle register … With simple means and an instinct for the essential, he penetrates his subjects’ defences far beyond the remit of a magazine portrait. Take the portraits of the actors on this page. There is genuine pain in his study of David Niven; Dirk Bogarde was reportedly unhappy with Kasterine’s portrait, its piercing honesty too much for the old matinee idol; and Michael Caine, denied his usual opportunity for Bermondsey charm or gangster menace, is revealed as a shrewd tycoon in ‘70s eyewear. Roald Dahl poses jauntily enough in summer gear, but his reptilian stare flatly contradicts his clothes’ carefree attitude, and forbids the viewer to find anything amusing. Paul Theroux, on the other hand, appears as if playing the part of a novelist: dominated by his accessories, he seems uncomfortable with the costume that wardrobe has assigned him.
Michael Caine, London, 1973. © Dmitri Kasterine.
Dmitri’s portrait of Kingsley and Martin Amis is a forensic document of English letters’ most awkward dynastic double act – Kingsley in his proto-Thatcherite pomp, the broken arm a possible souvenir of a drunken bender, and Martin exhausted by the sheer effort of trying to write better novels than his father. Anthony Powell determinedly maintains his aristocratic poise in the face of encroaching age, but the price is a whiff of camp – by contrast, Francis Bacon defiantly shows us the youthful hustler he once was.
Dmitri moved to America in 1985 and continued his career in New York: his Stateside subjects range from Saul Bellow to Cindy Sherman, Johnny Cash to Jean-Paul Basquiat, Steve Martin to Mick Jagger. Like Irving Penn, he captures his sitters by stealth. Now 80, he lives in Newburgh, New York, where he has been photographing the city and its inhabitants since 1992.
So many photographers are called to the profession with the burning desire to document the world, and that’s a noble thing. The gift is actually to be able to see it.
… for The London Column.
Before a concert, Level 3 terrace, Royal Festival Hall. Photo © David Secombe 1988.
In the years since The Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951, people have sat in this foyer waiting to hear:
Claudio Abbado, Laurie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Burt Bacharach, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Barbirolli, Daniel Barenboim, Count Basie, The Bee Gees, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Sir Adrian Boult, David Bowie, Alfred Brendel, John Cale, Maria Callas, Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, Sir Colin Davis, Miles Davis, Neil Diamond, Christophe von Dohnanyi, Nick Drake, Jacqueline Du Pre, Bob Dylan, Electric Prunes, Duke Ellington, Fairport Convention, Marianne Faithfull, The Fall, Ella Fitzgerald, John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Carlo Maria Giulini, Goldfrapp, Benny Goodman, Bernard Haitink, Herbie Hancock, Tony Hancock, Jimi Hendrix, Vladimir Horowitz, Keith Jarrett, Jethro Tull, Elton John, Tom Jones, Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Kempe, B.B. King, Carlos Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Radu Lupu, Humphrey Lyttleton, Lorin Maazel, Wayne Marshall, Steve Martin, John Martyn, Johnny Mathis, John McLaughlin, George Melly, Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonius Monk, Pierre Monteux, Motorhead, Riccardo Muti, Evgeny Mvravinsky, Randy Newman, New York Dolls, The Nice, Jessye Norman, Murray Perahia, Pere Ubu, Oscar Peterson, Pink Floyd, Maurizio Pollini, Lucia Popp, Simon Rattle, Lou Reed, Buddy Rich, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Artur Rubinstein, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Saint Etienne, Andras Schiff, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Ronnie Scott, George Shearing, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Soft Machine, Georg Solti, Patti Smith, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, Jack Teagarden, Klaus Tennstedt, T-Rex, Richard Thompson, Arturo Toscanini, Stan Tracey, Tricky, McCoy Tyner, William Walton, Brian Wilson, Yes, Frank Zappa, Krystian Zimmerman . . . amongst others.
This entry is the 200th post on The London Column. Thanks to all our contributors and readers … D.S., K.E.B.
National Theatre. © David Secombe 2010.
Brutalist architecture has never been popular in Britain. The garden, the milk float, the net curtain, all work to alienate the British sensibility from the modernist, and especially the Brutalist, vision. We don’t care how pure its aesthetic is. We like things Nice.
Maybe the one exception is the good old South Bank. For some reason, despite decades of controversy, two murders, and several refits and remodellings, this complex of buildings is that genuine thing, beloved of the people. Unpromising as one may think it looks (though it is now dotted all over with bright structures, a giant yellow stairway, a turquoise Mexican place in shipping containers, pink things, green bits; they do certainly brighten it up). This is by accident as much as design. Maybe familiarity. Maybe proximity to Tate Modern. Maybe the development of Gabriel’s Wharf and that whole stretch of the river into something a little more friendly. Partly the skateboarders, who just seem to exist alongside everything else, whose thwack thwacks have followed us along that path by the river since the seventies. Certainly the restaurants: people always want something to eat, and the current proposed redevelopment is essentially an opportunity to expand on this.
At just that point, it stops being accident and becomes something more sinister. The space, rejuvenated as it is, has felt increasingly managed (that is, filled with things to be bought) for the past span of years. This is in keeping with a trend, as civic space becomes more and more tied to retail; we are forgetting how to occupy a city without buying, without being told what to look at. If this plan goes ahead, the stretch of river we love most will end up like the renovated Brunswick Centre, with added Thames.
But the Brunswick doesn’t incorporate two of Britain’s most important cultural venues – or the Thames. There is a debate that Londoners (particularly; but also the whole country) need to have about what kind of shared space this complex is supposed to be – who is it for? what is it for? what do we value about it? what do we want it to be like? And, if nothing else, we appear now to be beginning to have that debate (this link is the most informative article we’ve seen on the subject).
The South Bank is important on a personal level. Many of us – most of us, in London – have played out our lives with it as a backdrop. Much as it pains us to admit it, Richard Curtis got that much right; every new relationship seems to have a South Bank moment, and serendipity multiplies there. You meet people, you see things, you get some space to contemplate the sky, you feel the proximity of the physical river, suddenly London feels open and mysterious. But serendipity only happens if you’re left alone to find it. The existing Southbank Centre has more than enough cafés, about 2000% more than ten years ago, and we liked it even then. (Very fond memories of the unassuming old canteen, going back further.) It has been that rare thing: a public space where one can feel private.
These shop-heavy proposals – necessitated by the desperate need for funding to maintain ever-growing levels of activity – will transform the area into yet another crowdfuelled, corporatised zone (art needs people; corporations need crowds). They will gut the Festival Hall embankment in the way that the Royal Opera House extension (also paid for by shiny shops) eviscerated Russell Street. No one can argue that the Royal Opera extension didn’t effectively kill the life (as distinguished from the shopping and eating) of the eastern end of Covent Garden Piazza; and you only have to look at what has been done to Spitalfields and Borough markets in the past few years to be afraid for the South Bank.
Aside from which, everyone seems to have forgotten a principle that was voiced by the influential architect Cedric Price (who designed a radical overhaul for the South Bank in 1983, complete with giant ferris wheel). He said that cities and buildings should never be empty, but nor should they ever be full. For all the recently-added ‘lifestyle opportunities’, this stretch of embankment has been one of the few areas left in London that retains some of this balance; and it’s going.
This is a big thing to say, and it is the crux of the debate the nation needs to have about the South Bank. (And indeed London.) The Southbank Centre has apparently got all kinds of educational remits to fulfil, and outreach, and developing the audiences of tomorrow, and family-friendly holiday activities to lay on, and tourists to first attract and then cater for, and the developments are partly to enable all of this. They’re also, to create badly-needed space for existing facilities: the Poetry Library, for one. Billy Bragg wrote compellingly the other day about the needs of performers, and the projects he describes that are going on at the Southbank Centre are inspiring. Itislovely to go there and have a roof garden. Both of your correspondents here love the South Bank: we use the centre constantly and depend on it hugely. But none of that means the developments in their current form – new shops and restaurants, an obstructive building in the middle, an even more ruined skyline over the river, a giant glass box squatting on top of everything, put through at speed and not consulted on – look like improvements to the actual city. (Sir Nicholas Hytner may have a point.) It’s time to stop, take a breath, have the conversation. This has been as good as said by architects who could have pitched for the contract, but didn’t. As the Architect’s Journal reported:
Bennetts Associates had already withdrawn from the competition, claiming that it had too much work and that it had ‘reservations about the brief’ (see AJ 20.09.2012). Rowan Moore, writing in the Observer, also raised concerns about the ‘commercially-led’ plans which he said could ‘make the Southbank Centre resemble Terminal 5 or Canary Wharf or any moderately upmarket shopping mall.’
After the Tories won the 1951 election, they prioritised the destruction of the Festival of Britain site, for ideological reasons. The current government’s attitudes both to the arts and to public space, similarly ideological, have put institutions large and small under pressure to prove they have a right to exist (you earn the right by making money). The current proposed Southbank scheme is thus about to act out the contemporary version of this philistinism, and the fact that it is presented in the language of ‘inclusivity’ makes it more chilling.
This idea of inclusivity is being underpinned by branding, some of it quite subtle, and the brand seems increasingly personality-driven. Artistic Director Jude Kelly is the driver of these developments, and indeed of the whole ongoing ‘revitalisation’ of the centre. She has made herself admirably available to defend the proposals, and her vision, but the danger is that the whole vision for the South Bank feels like a personal vision. If one wants an ice cream in the interval at the Festival Hall, one even buys a ‘Jude’s Ice Cream’! (The franchise is Minghella.) ‘Southbank Centre’, having already joined up the words South and Bank, has now dropped ‘The’ from its name – turning it from a place into a brand – Southbank Centre – rather as if it were a restaurant or shop. It begins to feel like a sort of Boden or Orla Kiely cultural space, where middle class people (because we are all middle class now) are safe to consume culture en masse along with our pizzas, noodles, and extra-large caramel lattes. But where’s the space for the genuine, austere surprise ? The one no one could plan for you?
We know times have changed – we certainly do know it – but if this blog post is anything, it’s a plea for a deep breath and a deep look at what things really mean. And we’ve barely even mentioned the skateboarders.
We’ll be posting the rest of the week with pictures and impressions – poems, not polemics – of the South Bank and the people who use it.
© Katy Evans-Bush
Hoarding opposite National Theatre. © David Secombe 1982.
Sweet Toof artwork, Regents Canal, Haggerston. © David Secombe 2010.
From Wikipedia entry ‘Sweet Toof’:
Sweet Toof is the pseudonymous name of well-known United Kingdom graffiti and street artist.
Meaning of Mouth, Teeth and Gum imagery
According to an account by Olly Beck, Sweet Toof looked at himself in a looking glass “in crisis after a messy break-up”, with the enlarged and distorted imagery of the “crescents of teeth”, the “visible part of our skeletal frame” as a reminder of mortality. Beck relates Sweet Toof’s concerns and imagery with the 16th Century Northern European “Vanitas” tradition of reminding of the transience and vanity of life, and to the Mexican celebration of skull imagery to accepting, honouring and celebrating death as part of the life trip.
Sweet Toof’s own comments seem to uphold this interpretation, in which the artist comments, “To get one’s teeth into things, before it’s too late.” Elsewhere he notes, “Teeth can be really sexy, or aggressive, but they’re also constant reminders of death. They’re how we get recognised by police when there’s nothing else left.”