The early vision of Philip Jones Griffiths
Before becoming the world's most fêted war photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths trained his lens on Britain's 1960s revolution.
Monday 19 January 2009
The photographer Philip Jones Griffiths spent the last days of his life in front of a computer in his hospital room obsessively working on what he knew would be his final book of photographs. Recollections is a collection of images from the early years of his career when he still lived in this country, before he joined Magnum and became the definitive photographer of the Vietnam War. Jones Griffiths was president of Magnum from 1980 to 1985.
The photographs in Recollection are of British celebrities, politicians and ordinary people going about their daily lives. They document the birth of popular culture and the sexual revolution. He photographed The Beatles playing their first concert at the Empire in Liverpool in 1963 and there's a photograph of Ringo Starr wearing his shirt with no trousers as he nonchalantly signs an autograph for a female fan.
At the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961, a young couple lie entwined on the grass. To one side, a matronly woman purses her lips disapprovingly at this spectacle of intimacy. It's a wonderful photograph that captures a definitive moment in our history. You can see the change and how liberated young people felt, as well as the bewilderment of the older generation. There is humour and celebrity. In 1960, British comic Norman Wisdom stands off-stage as a bucket of water is poured over him while he is fully clothed, wearing a three-piece suit.
Bob Hope and Laurence Olivier dance together on stage at the London's Palladium Theatre in 1959 and there's a young Tony Benn in 1962, posing on the bank of the Thames with the Houses of Parliament as a backdrop. There is a photograph of uniformed nannies leaning on old fashioned perambulators as they hang around outside Number 10 chatting up the policemen. It's enough to bring a tear of nostalgia to the eye.
Aside from politicians and pop stars, not everyone in Britain was enjoying the benefits of the time. Jones Griffiths never shied from the complexities of story telling and there are multiple layers to his pictures. His reputation was built on his search for truth: political and photographic. He did not crop images or set up shots and he believed there was only only one chance to get it right.
Jones Griffiths shows the grinding poverty faced by so many people in Britain. There are photographs from Liverpool of children in the 1960s. The streets are shabby and the children look grubby.
Jones Griffiths captured dignity in even the most dire of situations: in war, poverty and political strife. He was remarkably perceptive, which gave him an ability to capture the subtle nuances of emotion on the face of his subject. There are two London children photographed in 1961 and Jones Griffiths writes about self-esteem and how it could be seen on the face of the little girl he photographed but not on that of her young brother, who is still unsure of himself.
Jones Griffiths was a political being and his best work combines emotion with political issues. Born in the Welsh town of Rhuddlan in 1935, he remained an ardent socialist and Welsh nationalist for all of his life. There are photographs of Welsh miners whom he described as the "kings of the working class". And Jones Griffiths's language is that of the class warrior. He believed that his empathy with societies under foreign occupation came from his experience as a Welshman, living under the colonisation of his country by the English. This keen sense of injustice drove him to return to Vietnam, where he photographed the war and the aftermath of the American invasion. Henri Cartier Bresson said of his photographs: "Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths."
Recollections includes photographs of the war in Northern Ireland, which he covered during the 1970s. He photographed the remarkable incongruities of daily life in an urban war zone. A woman mows her lawn in 1973 while a British soldier crouches in the corner of her garden with his rifle raised to his shoulder.
There is a vast archive of Jones Griffiths's work which forms a visual record of the past 50 years. Recollections is a small proportion of this, but no less fascinating for it.
An exhibition of photographs from 'Recollections' is at the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool. It will then tour to the Side Gallery, Newcastle, 14 March to 2 May and Bodelwyddan Castle, Wales, 2 May to mid July. 'Recollections' by Philip Jones Griffiths is published by Trolley books ( www.trolleybooks.com)
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