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.
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.
Kings Cross. © Dave Hendley.
Overheard pub conversation:
Everyone’s got an uncle Bill. And everyone’s got just one picture of him. Uncle Bill died before you were born. The photo is your mum’s, taken on a trip to Hayling Island when she was a girl. And she shows you this photo, a tear at the corner of her eye, ‘That’s your Uncle Bill’ she says. And she hands you a tiny black and white picture of a man in a suit standing in the middle of a field. That’s your Uncle Bill. Well, it was my Uncle Bill. Who was called Norman. Your Uncle Bill was probably called Cliff. Or Lance.
In the final of the series of Dave Hendley’s rediscovered 1970s photos, this image shows an elderly couple outside their house in Fulham; they were facing eviction from their home after living there for decades. That is as much as I can tell you about the facts of the picture; Dave doesn’t know what became of them or the house itself (if it wasn’t flattened for redevelopment, it is probably now one of those candy-coloured terraced houses that go for over a million pounds). I’d like to know the full story, but perhaps it’s as well I don’t. I imagine the outcome was shabby and depressing: the early 1970s was not a glorious era for social housing in London.
Dave’s photographs this week are fragments of a lost career, and these pictures only exist because he left some old prints at his mother’s house. I don’t know why Dave felt compelled to chuck his old negatives, but he was young when he did it and perhaps didn’t reckon on their value as a permanent record. Now that almost all photographs exist as pixellated images that never get preserved as hard copy, it is sobering to consider the implications for the future. Dave ditched his negatives and got old enough to regret it, but fine prints were (accidentally) preserved. Today’s toy-like cameras make images that are no more durable than an ice sculpture. Photography is becoming utterly ephemeral: you aren’t creating a graven image, you are generating a string of code. Then, a bit later, maybe you get short of space on a memory card so you ditch a few images you don’t think you’ll need, or you forget to back them up, or the hard drive they were on went down … you won’t recover those pictures in anyone’s attic, they are gone. The future is bright and shiny and cares not for the past. Even those of us still using film wince at the price of ‘traditional’ materials: posterity carries a premium. What did Uncle Bill look like again?