Bruce Davidson, London, 1960.

davidson_p55

© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

D.S.: In 1960, the young American photographer Bruce Davidson made a lengthy trip around England and Scotland. He was on a magazine assignment, and his itinerary is a catalogue of characteristic British tropes: you get the seaside, old ladies playing bowls, fox hunting, the pre-clearance terraced streets of Northern towns, the absurdities of class distinctions, etc. But this visit was obviously important for other reasons: it’s as if he’s still trying to define his own style, which may account for the slightly shy, hesitant manner of some of the pictures. He seems more obviously in charge of his material when he returned later in the 1960s to photograph Welsh miners, but there is a touching and empathetic quality to these early British pictures, a terrific sense of time and place, and a genuine feeling for lives being lived.

davidson_p50

© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

Inevitably, those of us who weren’t alive in the ‘pre-Beatles, the black and white 60s’ (did George Melly coin that term?) mediate the era through film and pop culture; hence, for me, a couple of these pictures have a Pinteresque quality. The sailor  – The Pool of London still a working port in 1960 – and the bored girl in the pub could be bit players in The Servant, swelling the chorus of murmured non-sequiturs as James Fox orders another one at the bar. ‘I had a bit of bad luck today. A real bit of bad luck. It’ll take me a while to get over it.’ At any rate, it is a classic image of a failed bid for excitement, of last drinks drained or forgotten. It’s closing time and she’s still not having any fun. The girl in the Soho club (has to be Soho, look at those pin-ups) is also up for a bit of fun, but she looks like she has an invite to go on somewhere else: The King’s Road maybe, where Dirk Bogarde is throwing a party.

davidson_p56

© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

On the other hand, the image above seems eerily modern; it is one of a famous pair of photos taken during a long London night Davidson spent in the company of rootless young people much like himself. As a schoolboy, I remember an English textbook that used this image and invited pupils to make up their own story about the scene. Davidson has already given us a bit of detail about this encounter, but the picture still has currency as contemporary comment. It could have been taken last night.  These young people might be pioneer travellers but they aren’t gap year tourists. They are timeless strangers navigating another huge impersonal city on an endless journey through huge impersonal cities. No return tickets available. The melancholy of freedom.

davidson_p19

© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

After that, the photo of the nannies in Hyde Park brings one up sharp, reminding us how long ago these images were made.  These women are old enough to have lost their sweethearts in the Great War, which might account for their choice of occupation. And those ‘baby carriages’ really look like they should be drawn by ponies.

For me, Davidson’s British pictures of this time evoke that nostalgia for something we haven’t experienced, something familiar yet impossibly distant. They have all the atmosphere and romance of travel, and all the greyness of English domestic life. (My father always commented on how grey things seemed in the 1950s – and that decade was conspicuously good to him.) Davidson’s shows us England just before it shed its post-war veil. Things were about to get a lot livelier, but who in these pictures knew? Maybe that girl in the club.

Thanks to ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica. ROSEGALLERY is exhibiting photographs by Bruce Davidson, Evelyn Hofer, Martin Parr and other other artists at Photo London, Somerset House, 19- 22 May. (Stall B7.) Bruce Davidson’s England/Scotland 1960 is published by Steidl.

See also: Pinteresque, London Perceived.

 

 


Clapham Common Clowns. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: David Secombe. (2/4)

Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984.

From The Greatest Show on Earth, director: Cecil B. DeMille, 1952:

BUTTONS’ MOTHER: They’ve been around again, asking questions

BUTTONS: I know Mother. They’ll never find me, behind this nose.

From Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, 1892:

Bah! Sei tu forse un uom? Tu se’ Pagliaccio!
(Bah! Are you not a man?
 You are a clown!)

David Secombe writes:

Clowns always make good subjects for photographers – the ‘tragic’ ones, that is, the sad clowns of popular cliché: gentle misfits of the travelling show, forever on the move, ageing into a fragile future. ‘I am Grock’ – that sort of thing. The quintessential clown photo remains Bruce Davidson’s unforgettable image of a dwarf clown in a bleak field somewhere in America. After Waiting for Godot, this image has become a different sort of cliché, foregrounding a forbiddingly grim-faced little clown against a drab urban wasteland. It’s a clown out of Beckett, a vertically-challenged Pagliacci for a nuclear world.

Tim Marshall’s clowns are a little more nuanced; for a start, they are full-size, but the gentleman who features in three out of the four pictures in this week’s series has impeccably tragic eyes – like a refugee from a silent film, we feel we know this clown’s backstory: the unfaithful wife, the vanished child, the dying mother … but it’s all conjecture, based on our cultural preconceptions and his amazing face. In a theatre or a circus tent we aren’t guaranteed a close look at the performers’ eyes – but in Tim’s portraits this gent becomes an archetype, as timeless and monumental as Nadar’s study of that ur-clown, Debureau, inspiration for the greatest film about the theatre (perhaps the greatest film about anything anywhere) Les Enfants du Paradis. We don’t have to know what this clown was like as a performer, we don’t need to see him working a Bank Holiday crowd (“the smell of wet knickers and oranges”) to decide whether or not he was any good: Tim’s picture immortalises him as one of the greats. He has the look of tragedy all about him.

… for The London Column.