All collections are the same, and each is unique. The photographs shown here, taken from a collection of about 60 made by John Londei, demonstrate this proposition with rare force. For the past 15 years Londei has spent his spare time collecting the collectives, seeking out crowds and photographing them, making a private album of exclusively social groupings: clubs, pubs and bands; scouts, nuns and fetishists; an entire cast of Aida; the assembled staff of the GLC. "Their chief point in common," he explains, "is the occasion or purpose which brought them all together at that moment.
"I remember as a kid a picture of my parents in a group. I think it was an army reunion. My father was over here with the French Canadians." (Londei's father, a Canadian of Italian descent, settled in England after the war.) "That photograph fascinated me."
Londei uses a 10 x 8 mahogany-and-brass plate camera, with a tripod and concertina lens, and wears a cloth over his head. "The camera is modern. The Japanese still make them, believe it or not." He reckons he couldn't take such pictures with a motor-driven 35mm; without the formality of his apparatus he couldn't marshal his crowds. "They see the tripod and the cloth over your head and they realise it's more serious."
His other device is the megaphone. ("Over here everybody, I'm just taking a picture!") "I definitely needed that with the Teddy boys, but there's always an awkward one in any crowd, and they can be very disruptive of the mood, so the megaphone comes in handy."
Sometimes he finds himself between wedding guests and the champagne, and he once had a sticky moment with the mothers of a troop of Cub Scouts, but the crowds John Londei tracks down are generally eager to be photographed - often at the drop of a hat. Some individuals are clearly showing off (Ron "Rubber Ron" Ellison of Camden Town's Submission Club springs to mind) and others are clearly not quite there. Many wear that look - inscrutable, sometimes poignant - that you find in all group photographs. Some pictures suggest stories, and some of the stories Londei spells out, with a collector's passion for taxonomy. In one of the 10th anniversary of the Wag Club, for example, the club's promoter is sitting upwind of his rival promoter Philip Sallon (in a red suit and hat); also present are EastEnders' Steve McFadden and dear old Rubber Ron.
These photographs reverse the usual dynamic of spectacle: instead of the many looking at one, the one (the viewer) looks at many (who are apparently viewing him). Photography is notoriously voyeuristic: these pictures make one feel like a voyeur specialising in gangs of friendly exhibitionists.
Much of the fun of collecting lies in its difficulty, in the hunt. In 1986, on his way to the London studio where he works as an advertising photographer (he commutes from Guildford; aged 49, m, 1s, 1d), Londei noticed the banners counting off the last days of the GLC. "I'm afraid I pretended that the Observer magazine wanted the shot. Thus, on the morning of March 18 some friends helped me to distribute invitations to staff as they came into work. Sure enough, at 3.30pm a flood of people turned up to be photographed." (The Observer bought the shot.)
Before the groups, John Londei spent 15 years making about 60 photographs of old shops (of the sort one sees nowadays, lovingly reproduced as installations, in exhibitions of new art) doomed to demolition by the supermarkets. "A collection distils, sums up, a particular subject. It's never complete, of course, but after a bit you think, 'That's it.'" He'd like to publish both collections as books (this one to be called We Who Are Gathered Together), but has yet to find a publisher. "A book is important, like putting a collection in an album."
All societies collect things, both socially and in gloating privacy, but the English seem peculiarly keen - as they are on clubs. This is a collection of clubs.
John Updike recently summarised one of the three rules of genetic survival as "Be nice to insiders", and there is in these pictures a primeval sense - infectious and a little frightening - of that rule in operation. (The other two rules were "Be nasty to outsiders" and "Cheat whenever possible".)
The people in these pictures are looking at the camera in affirmation, and to it for confirmation. Those who look out of the camera - the photographer, and we who observe through his work these strange and familiar tribes - find ourselves obscurely included. !Reuse content