Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.
I have not found a better place than London to comment on the sheer impossibility of human existence. – Marketa Luskacova.
Anyone staggering out of the harrowing Don McCullin show currently entering its final week at Tate Britain might easily overlook another photographic retrospective currently on display in the same venue. This other exhibit is so under-advertised that even a Tate steward standing ten metres from its entrance was unaware of it.
I would urge anyone, whether they’ve put themselves through the McCullin or not, to make the effort to find this room, as it contains images of limpid insight and beauty. The show gathers career highlights from the work of the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova, juxtaposing images of rural Eastern Europe in the late 1960s with work from the early 1970s onwards in Britain. There are overlaps with the McCullin show, notably the way that both photographers covered the street life of London’s East End in the early ‘70s. Their purely visual approaches to this territory are remarkably similar: both shoot on black and white and, apart from being magnificent photographers, both are master printers of their own work. The key difference between them is that Don McCullin’s portraits of Aldgate’s street people are of a piece with his coverage of war and suffering — another brief stop on his international itinerary of pain — whereas Marketa’s pictures are more like pages from a diary, which is essentially what they are.
Marketa went to the markets of Aldgate as a young mother, baby son in tow, Leica in handbag, to buy cheap vegetables whilst exploring the strange city she had made her home. This ongoing engagement with her territory gives Marketa’s pictures their warmth, which allows her subjects to retain their dignity. They knew and trusted her.
Marketa’s photos of the inhabitants of Aldgate hang directly opposite her pictures of middle-European pilgrims and the villagers of Sumiac, a remote Czech hill village — a place as distant from the East End as can be imagined. Seeing these sets alongside each other illustrates her gift for empathy, and some fundamental truths about the human condition.
Two images on this page are of men singing: the second is of a man singing in church as part of a religious pilgrimage in Slovakia. This is what Marketa has to say about it:
During the pilgrimage season (which ran from early summer to the first week in October), Mr. Ferenc would walk from one pilgrimage to another all over Slovakia. He was definitely religious, but I thought that for him the main reason to be a pilgrim was to sing, as he was a good singer and clearly loved singing. During the Pilgrimage weekend the churches and shrines were open all night and the pilgrims would take turn in singing during the night. And only when the sun would come up at about 4 or 5 a.m., they would come out of the church and sleep for a while under the trees in the warmth of the first rays of the sun [see pic below]. I was usually too tired after hitch-hiking from Prague to the Slovakian mountains to be able to photograph at night, but in Obisovce, which was the last pilgrimage of that year, I stayed awake and the picture of Mr Ferenc was my reward.
Mr. Ferenc, Obisovce, Slovakia, 1968. © Marketa Luskacova
Marketa’s pictures are the kind of photographs that transcend the medium and assume the monumental power of art from the ancient world. As it happens, they are already relics from a lost world, as both central Europe and east London have changed beyond recognition. Spitalfields today is more like a sort of theme park, a hipster annexe safe for conspicuous consumers. In Marketa’s pictures we see London as it was, an echo of the city known by Dickens and Mayhew. And the faces in her pictures …
Spitalfields, 1976. © Marketa Luskacova.
Sleeping Pilgrim, Levoca, 1968. © Marketa Luskacova.
Spitalfields, 1979. © Marketa Luskacova.
Sumiac, 1967. © Marketa Luskacova.
Tailors, Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.
Bellringers, Sumiac, 1967. © Marketa Luskacova.
The photo at the top, of a man singing arias for loose change in Brick Lane, has featured on The London Column before. It is one of the greatest photographs of a performer that I know. We don’t know if this singer is any good, but that really doesn’t matter. He might be busking for a chance to eat – or perhaps, like Mr. Ferenc, he just loves singing – but his bravura puts him in the same league as Domingo or Carreras. As with her picture of Mr. Ferenc, Marketa gives him room and allows him his nobility.
As they say in showbiz, always finish with a song: this seems like a good point for me to hang up The London Column. I have enjoyed writing this blog, on and off, for the past eight years; but other commitments (including another project about London, currently in the works) have taken precedence over the past year or so, and it seems a bit presumptuous to name a blog after a city and then run it so infrequently. And, as might be inferred from my comments above, my own enthusiasm for London has suffered a few setbacks. My increasing dismay at what is being done to my home town has diminished my pleasure in exploring its purlieus (or what’s left of them).
It seems appropriate to close The London Column with Marketa’s magical, timeless images. I’ve been very happy to display and write about some of my favourite photographs, by photographers as diverse as Marketa, Angus Forbes, Dave Hendley, David Hoffman, Dmitri Kasterine, John Londei, Homer Sykes, Tim Marshall, Tony Ray Jones, etc.. It has been a great pleasure to work with writers like Andrew Martin, Charles Jennings, Katy Evans-Bush (who has helped immensely with this blog), Owen Hatherley, Owen Hopkins, Peadar O’Donaghue, Christopher Reid, Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, and others. But now, as they also say in showbiz: ‘When you’re on, be on, and when you’re off, get off’.
So with that, thank you ladies and gents, you’ve been lovely.
David Secombe, 30 April 2019.
Transmitter, Crystal Palace, © David Secombe.
Merry Christmas everybody. D.S.
Sad news: Bill Pearson, a sometime contributor to The London Column, died suddenly at the beginning of March. By way of a tribute, we present here some of his atmospheric photos of the vanished hinterland of riverside London (Bow Creek, Surrey Docks, Erith, etc.) from the ‘8os and ’90s. RIP. DS.
All photos © The Estate of Bill Pearson. (Thanks to Felicity Roberts for passing on the sad news.).
Park Crescent east, November 2016.
From Georgian London, John Summerson:
The earliest architectural feature of Regent’s Park is the very lovely, unpretentious, neatly detailed Park Crescent (1812). It opens out at either end to the New Road (Marylebone Road of today) and is continued northwards by Park Square (1823-5). The design of the Square is less happy, the facades being crowded and coarse in design, but the arrangement as a whole, considered as a formal approach from a thoroughfare to a landscaped park, is admirable, and the simple appropriateness of Park Crescent with its Ionic colonnades is beyond criticism.
It’s not every day that you see a Nash Terrace being destroyed. As of November 2016, this is what the west side of Park Crescent looks like:
As a footnote to the entry above, Summerson adds: ‘In recent years the whole of Park Crescent has been rebuilt, the new facades, however, being scrupulous copies of the old.’ He was writing in the 1960s; Park Crescent had been damaged by bombing in the war and the facades cleared and replaced in the 1950s. So in fact, the familiar Regency terrace was never, in my my lifetime, anything more than a simulacrum.
An architect friend notes that the firm carrying out the work have good credentials for restoring historic buildings and, in any case, Nash’s first priority was always the scenic exterior. Summerson sums up Nash’s Regent’s Park terraces with this chilly flourish: ‘Where the eye apprehends a mansion of great distinction, supported by lesser mansions and service quarters, the mind must interpret it as a block of thin houses carrying less ornament or none at all. The sham is flagrant and absurd. The terraces are architectural whims; and though Nash was serious enough in his intention, the effect is an odd combination of magnificence and bathos …‘
So it was conceived as a fake and was remade as a different kind of fake in the post-war era. This knowledge should make me feel better, but somehow it doesn’t. The reason the site is being developed, inevitably, is to provide luxury homes for the super-rich; and, should you be super-rich, you can watch a video of the development here and browse one of the flats for sale (for £5.5M) here. The blurb for the 3 bedroom apartment mentions an ‘indulgent’ master bedroom, and a photo of the en suite shows a television installed in a cabinet above the bath (handy for keeping tabs on financial markets via Bloomberg or catching the latest edition of Supermarket Sweep). The illustrative interiors in the sales material as are tasteful and antiseptic as any expensive hotel suite anywhere in the world, which is the default mode for such developments. These are dwellings fit for any self-respecting Master of the Universe or dictator in exile, although any resting despots would undoubtedly want to tart up their London pied-a-terre more than just a bit.
We have banged on before about the aggregate of unease that, post-Boris, post-Cameron, London is being transformed into a theme park replica of itself: a city made over for the (very) well-heeled to live and shop in, a sanitized urban consumption zone. It isn’t just a town planning issue or a conservation issue, it’s a usage issue. Summerson’s disdain aside, there was something strangely comforting in the knowledge that behind Nash’s sweeping facades were ramshackle structures consistent with the building philosophy of Georgian London (or, for that matter, the post-war era). The sheer opulence of the new quarters behind Park Crescent makes one choke; it is just another case of planning consent granted to nurture the sensibilities of the platinum Lamborghini set. Who is this brave new city for?
Work has already started on the evisceration of Park Crescent east … the Amazon Property hoarding has appeared near the junction with Portland Place – and outside no. 7 we noticed the poignant notice below …
All photos © David Secombe 2016.
N16. © David Secombe.
In London these days, a not uncommon sight,
but something Mexican-macabre about it all the same:
lashed to a post, or to railings, a bicycle painted entirely white –
white handlebars and frame,
white gears, brakes, wheels, spokes, pedals and chain –
and decked with florists’ bunches, satin-bowed and in cellophane.
There may be cards and messages as well. Toys, too.
Often a doll or a teddy.
But it’s the white that’s so striking. What does it mean to you?
Ghostliness? A skeleton? A bicycle being skeletal already…
Oh, get over it, it’s the vernacular now; and what’s not to like
about ‘Out with the whited sepulchre! In with the whited bike!’?
Christopher Reid, © 2016
Piccadilly Line 2013. © Estate of Dave Hendley.
There are times when The London Column feels like an obituary strand; and last week saw the death of another contributor, one who also happened to be a very dear friend.
King’s Cross Station, 2011. © Estate of Dave Hendley.
Dave Hendley was many things: a photographer, a DJ, teacher, printer, art director, reggae fanatic, mountain bike aficionado, snappy dresser, record collector, record label founder, Leica collector, writer, seaside-dweller, bon viveur … yet he was never a dilettante, he was fully authentic in every one of his diverse activities. I knew him through photography. We were first introduced, sometime in the late 1980s, by our mutual friend the late John Driscoll, as we belonged to a scene that centred around the darkrooms, photographic suppliers and pubs of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. At that time Dave was a printer and sometime freelance photographer. I didn’t learn the extent of his involvement in music until much later, when he casually showed me a box of prints of portraits of reggae stars that he had taken in the 1970s. It turned out that this unassuming, softly-spoken Londoner was a very considerable force in the reggae scene and played a key role in the dissemination of the music. (Radio 1 Extra played its own tribute to Dave a few days ago, a broadcast that filled a few gaps in my understanding of his musical activities.) Dave’s Jamaican portraits are wonderful and are their own testament to his devotion to reggae.
It took me a while to catch up with developments but I gradually realised that Dave Hendley had become one of the most contented people I knew. His life on the north Kent coast struck me as nothing short of idyllic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so totally at peace as Dave was in his garden in Tankerton – or, for that matter, in the bar of the Continental Hotel. And, finally, his work was gaining wider recognition. His Jamaican portraits are being collected into a book and his street photography is being celebrated in Japan, and both of these developments were sources of great satisfaction to him.
In St.James’s Park (early 1970s). © Estate of Dave Hendley.
Amongst Dave’s thousands of photos, this particular one is a special favourite of mine. A picture of two men on a bench in a London park that shows what photography is capable of revealing, or appearing to reveal. We don’t know what the actual relationship between the two men in the photo really is but Dave gives us a novel’s worth of speculation. It manages to be poignant, sinister and hilarious all at the same time, a Pinter play condensed into a twelve by nine and a half inch print.
Dave Hendley in the ‘Tokyo Camera Style’ pages of Nippon Camera, Dec. 2014.
Everyone who knew Dave will have their favourite image of him: working in a darkroom maybe, teaching at St Martin’s certainly, DJ-ing somewhere, riding his bike in the Forest of Blean, wandering a city street with Leicas at the ready, and so on. But whatever he was doing he was always reliably, quintessentially Dave, and he was always exhilarating company. For me he was simply the perfect English gentleman. Decent, level headed, kind, understatedly elegant and elegantly understated, knowledgeable but unpretentious, modest but capable, gently melancholic yet wildly enthusiastic, local yet international – constantly, uniquely himself, whether he was in Tokyo, Trenchtown or Tankerton. He even lived in a bungalow, and you can’t get more English than that. We need more like him in the world; but of course there could only ever be one.
The first thing I noticed was that the beigels had gone
and there was a run on fried egg sandwiches.
Katie Hopkins became a nice person.
The free newspaper on the bus had actual news in it.
It turned out there actually was £350 million for the NHS.
Farage said he’d buy those of us left a pint,
which was fortuitous ‘cos Wetherspoons had cut their prices.
No more forelock tugging for us, Squire,
‘cos what with all the empty houses
each and every one of us got a luxury flat,
each of which came with a rent cap.
The radio could have been better. They’d decided no Kate Bush,
no P.J Harvey but there was a hell of a lot of Coldplay.
Employment was a doddle. I’d always wanted to be a doctor,
or a plumber, or have me very own fish and chip shop,
and these days all the education was free so it was
certificates all round. Gilt edged ones with a crinkle cut at that!
At the job my working day had been halved, pay doubled,
holidays extended. The light began to dawn.
© Tim Wells. Written after the United Voices of the World picket of 100 Wood Street, 29 June 2016.