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.
All photos © Tim Marshall 2015.
Merry Christmas everyone.
… from The London Column.
A University Education by Tim Wells:
The poshos behind me in the pie and mash queue
are puzzled. Firstly that there’s a queue, secondly
that the disappearing London they’d set out to discover
At the counter I order large pie and mash. Easy,
one perfect pie, mash smoothed to the side of the plate
and smothered with liquer. It fair sets a fellow.
There is some disquiet after me however.
Adding some toit to his hoity voice the chap behind
declares ‘I can’t seem to see a menu’.
The old girl serving stabs her wooden spoon
into the steaming vat of mash, stares at him blankly
and states, ‘this is a pie and mash shop dear.’
The rest of us punters burst into laughter.
A toff fumbles for change.
Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984.
Joanna Blachnio writes:
Elephants in London have a long history. Tradition has it that Julius Caesar used a war elephant during his invasion of Britannia; he and his forces pitched camp not far from modern-day Bromley, so this un-named animal might be said to be the first pachyderm to impress suburban Londoners. In the 13th century, there was an African elephant amongst the Royal Menagerie which resided at the Tower of London – a gift from Louis IX of France. Plus, there is the elephant at the Elephant and Castle – although that area got its name from an 18th century coaching inn that stood in the vicinity.
One of the most poignant stories in the bestiary of London was that of Chunee, the mad elephant of Covent Garden. This sad creature arrived in Britain from India in 1809 as a theatrical and, later circus, animal, becoming one of the city’s attractions for almost two decades: even Lord Byron took note of his dexterity and good manners. He spent his dotage in the fabled menagerie at Exeter Change in The Strand, increasingly tormented by loneliness (there was no mate to help him while the time away) and a bad tusk. In February 1826, during his weekly parade down the Strand, Chunee rebelled against his captivity and went berserk, trampling one of his keepers in his rage. His temper did not subside and a death sentence was passed. The convict, however, clung on to life with the strength proportional to his body mass – almost seven tons. When they tried poisoning his food, Chunee was having none of that, and would not touch it. A troop of soldiers were sent for, yet even the fusillade from their muskets failed to kill the elephant, whose moans allegedly caused more distress than the sound of gunfire. Finally, one of his keepers ended his agony with a sword.
The elephants in Tim Marshall’s photograph are remote from the romance and pathos surrounding the death of their famous London ancestor. An impassive clown holding the curtain aside for their entrance, they take the stage with the weary docility of ageing pros. Their thick skin seems whitewashed in the glare of the stage lights. The last elephant to take to the ring can probably only sense what we are able to see: how much space there is in his wake.
Tim Marshall writes:
These photographs where taken in Easter 1984. At that time I was a student at Central St Martins School of Art making a life changing decision to stop illustrating with a pen and to start doing it with a camera.
I spent about four days photographing Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. I remember going to Clapham Common at 8.00 in the morning, and before the circus site was in view hearing tigers roaring and elephants trumpeting, which was very surreal in central London. I photographed the tent being put up and only realized later that, everybody worked as a team and very hard. The tiger trainer helped put up the tent, starlets of the trapeze would, after finishing their acts, sell candy floss. Clowns empted bins. The clown Nelo, was not actually that funny and quite sad. Children would laugh at him rather than with him. He was a clown whose personal life seemed to be in complete disarray. But he wanted to be loved and make people happy.
After the show, I remember that certain pubs had a ‘no travellers‘ policy, so the people from the circus were refused entrance; and in the pubs they did manage to get into, they were only allowed in to the public bar rather than the lounge.
… for The London Column. © Joanna Blachnio, © Tim Marshall, 2012.
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.