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.
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.
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.
Go-go dancer, The Lord Wellington, Rotherhithe, London, June 1974. © Geoff Howard.
Smut by Tim Wells:
much of it
catches my eye.
the bar top,
in her drink.
© Tim Wells.
Transport cafe, Hackney Marshes. © Homer Sykes 2006.
My Bitch Up
Burning Geronimo through the East End, the motor skittish at jump, stop, start.
Music blasting out the windows, slapping Joe Public in the face as we roar by.
Tossing the used notes behind us, dirty knees and carpet burn noses.
Each staccato burst spent, surly, and spittin’ in the eye of every pocket money massive.
On Commercial Road some City boy lone ranger races us red light to red light,
every green a pistol shot.
At Limehouse John John faces him and mouths, “Ours is stolen.”
The silence: single mum heavy. Someone drops the sprog.
© Tim Wells.
A selection of pictures from Before the Blue Wall, Homer Sykes’s project documenting the Lea Valley prior to the Olympic redevelopment, may be seen at the Green Lens Gallery (4a Atterbury Road, London N4 1SF) until the 25th of July. Homer’s website is here.
Tailor, Putney. Photo © Dmitri Kasterine.
Dead Man’s Pockets by Tim Wells:
Things found in the pockets of Tim Wells, Saturday Night, 28.02.09
Right coat pocket – mobile phone (Liquidator as ringtone), spectacles.
Ticket pocket – a dozen of his own business cards, business cards for Niall O’Sullivan, Alice Gee and S. Reiss Menswear, return train ticket to Epsom.
Left coat pocket – keys – England fob, poem entitled ‘Self-Portrait as a P G Tips Chimp’, flyer for 14 Hour 14th march show with Karen Hayley, Ashna Sarkar, Amy Blakemore and others.
Inside coat pocket – an Elvis pen.
Right trouser pocket – £8.56 in assorted change.
Left trouser pocket – empty
Hip pocket – Oyster card and wallet
Wallet (black leather) – £160 in twenty pound notes, dry cleaning ticket, Leyton Orient FC membership card from 87/88 season, visa and cash card, picture of Joan Collins in window nook, horoscope stating ‘The first thing you have to ask yourself is what has to go; the second is what is going to take its place; and the third is where will I go to celebrate. Day done.’
© Tim Wells 2009.
Watching the Lord Mayor’s Show, 1980. © Homer Sykes/Photoshelter.
Epsolutely by Tim Wells:
Epsom, let me tell you about Epsom.
The first time I met the parents of my girlfriend Alexis they put on extra posh accents to impress. They were sweet, so was the tea, and already far posher than me. It only took one ‘Ello, luverly to meet you’ from me for them to realise they’d over-invested. But by then they couldn’t back down. Alexis whispered that they weren’t normally that posh and all she’d told them about me was that I was lovely. But they knew, that I knew, that they knew, that I knew, that they knew, that I knew, that they knew, that I knew, that…
Epsom, let me tell you about Epsom.
Bin men pick up rubbish bags with their pinky fingers daintily extended, John Nettles is the law and the starlings sing ‘You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful…’ in Epsom, let me tell you about Epsom.
I bought my girl chocolates. There were only Conscious Chocolate, Green & Black’s and Seeds of Change in the pristine shops. Middle-class chocolates with centres such as ‘the better part of town’, ‘a good college’ and ‘a bit of rough’ in Epsom, let me tell you about Epsom.
There are no coincidences but sometimes the pattern is more obvious. In Epsom, let me tell you about Epsom.
Alexis had a Porsche, in ‘not red dahling; scarlet’. She’d motor to Marks and Spencer’s, to the Downs and to country pubs for lunch. On our first outing she squeezed me in and sped off in a polite cough of dust. A few miles on she remarked worriedly that the car seemed to be dragging to the left. She drove a bit further and then pulled over. She walked around the sportster but could not find fault, drove further and said that the car was still not right. I asked her how many other fat blokes she’d had in there before?
I got the train back from Epsom, let me tell you about Epsom.
© Tim Wells.