Roger Mayne: Urban hymns

Roger Mayne's pictures of the `rotting slum' which was North Kensington were an inspiration for the Fifties novel `Absolute Beginners'. On the eve of the photographer's 70th birthday, Robin Muir meets `the Laureate of Teenage London' who is suddenly - four decades later - hip once again
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The tangle of streets that makes up North Kensington was the setting for much of Colin MacInnes' 1959 novel Absolute Beginners - and also the pictures on these pages. Today its boundaries are roughly marked out to the north by the Harrow Road and to the south by the Westway. In the post-war years, however, North Kensington was easier to pinpoint. Shoe-horned between the Grand Union Canal and the rail tracks sweeping into Paddington station, it was, according to MacInnes a "weird and fantastic region" which was "a rotting slum of sharp and horrible vivacity". "This," he wrote in Absolute Beginners, "is the residential dosshouse of our city," adding, "You'd not live here if you could live anywhere else."

And no one captured the vivacity of those streets quite like Roger Mayne, "the Laureate of Teenage London" as he was once called and will now hear again on the eve of his 70th birthday and a celebratory show of his work. Mayne also took pictures in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds and, if not quite the laureate of these places too, he came close to it in Sheffield. "I can see," wrote a commentator in the RIBA journal during the Sixties, "that this series was a watershed, the first sign of a new attitude."

Mayne is still taking pictures, some 40 years on, no longer in what is left of the North Kensington he once knew, but from his home in Lyme Regis. And in the intervening years he has lost none of the mercurial charm that identified him so firmly, all those years ago, with the best of urban documentation.

The irascible MacInnes thought highly enough of Mayne to commission the photograph for the jacket of Absolute Beginners from him, and wrote a few years later that "he is one of the few English photographers I know of who have disclosed to me a world of modern fact: a portrait of sub- life of which, without him, I would have been unaware." The results so perfectly captured the mood of his novel that MacInnes, notoriously prickly and hard-to-please, was dumbstruck. "We all gawped at it," he recalled, "and slapped it on the cover there and then."

In his novel, MacInnes' hero was a teenage photographer on the verge of making it, younger, certainly, than Mayne, who by that time was nearly 30. Probably because he liked it that way, Mayne was then unestablished in the public eye, even if at 23 this photographer's first published work appeared in Picture Post. Commissions daunted him. "The photographs I was taking were never created to tell a `story'," he recalls. "That concept was alien to me. I just couldn't work like that." He did, however, show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1956 and by the following year had two photographs in the Museum Of Modern Art in New York. The Observer published some of his work and it would have appeared there more frequently but its picture editor Mechtild Nawaiasky despaired of Mayne ever falling into line with the newspaper's style.

Although more widely celebrated today, he remains a photographer's photographer and for decades has been tireless in his efforts to establish photography as an "art", though he probably wouldn't put it quite as uninterestingly as that. "Photography involves two main distortions," he wrote in 1960, "the simplification into black and white and the seizing of an instant in time. It is this particular mixture of reality and unreality and the photographer's power to select that makes it possible for photography to be an art."

But, whether he likes it or not, he will be remembered for what is known in loose and generic terms as the "Southam Street" series. His evocative portrayal of street life in North Kensington is one of the most enduring and sustained in British photography. When I went to see him at home, in an Elizabethan manor house in Dorset, he was still able to draw from memory maps of the area. He picks out the streets where he made himself invisible - St Stephen's Gardens, Portland Road, Princedale Road and the sweeping curve of the Kensal Road. But of all of them, Southam Street - with its peeling stucco and walls chalked with graffiti and the outlines of goalposts - entranced him the most. "I remember my excitement," he has said before, "as I turned the corner into Southam Street, a street I returned to again and again."

Between 1956 and 1961, Mayne made 27 visits to the street and became as much a part of its life as the crying girl, the boy goalkeeper and the housewives on doorsteps, earning the trust and affection without which the series would have been impossible. Though he lived further south, at 7A Addison Avenue, it surprises him, he says that "it took me a year and a half to find it. I had bought a bicycle and cycled to south London and to Bethnal Green. I had a thing about the East End, but then, on my 27th birthday, I just walked around a corner ... "

He made around 1,400 negatives in Southam Street and in 1977 presented Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photographs of the V&A with 88 prints - the maquette of the book Portrait of Southam Street 1956-1961 that he had hoped to produce much earlier. The museum published it a decade later as The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne.

Notorious as a slum area before the war, by the time Mayne had finished recording it in 1961, Southam Street was in terminal decline. Two years later it was declared unfit for human habitation and was demolished in 1969. The name lives on in W10, though it is a much abbreviated street, leading into Adair Road.

Though played against a background of disintegration, Mayne didn't intend his series to be a record of the grinding misery of inner-city life in the manner of, say, Lewis Hine's stark expose of New York's slums. He admired the humanity of documentarists sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged such as Walker Evans and Paul Strand. However, in 1952, he acquired a copy of Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment, the photographs within it were for him "a series of exclamations and visual explosives".

This shy and charming man produced vigorous and uplifting photographs of the street with an energy at least the equal of Cartier-Bresson. But that is not to play down their wider impact - they still say much about post-war austerity.

Mayne's sincerity is beyond dispute. "My reason for photographing the poor streets," he commented at the time, "is because I love them and the life on them (I am concerned here with what I see: for the moment it is irrelevant that most of the houses have no baths and that their structure is endangered by disrepair. Empty, the streets have their own kind of beauty, a kind of decaying splendour and always great atmosphere ... "

His most astute critic appears to be his wife, the playwright Ann Jellicoe (her husband's meditations on Southam Street, appear in her celebrated stageplay The Knack). She says of his work: "He photographed children and mean streets because he found them beautiful but also because they didn't demand that he play a middle-class social or professional role."

Roger Mayne was born in Cambridge, the son of a schoolmaster who, but for lack of funds, would have been a barrister. Roger's father drove his children hard, determined they should get the opportunities denied to him. It was a stern upbringing: "Picture Post did not permeate our home," the photographer remembers. Mayne took a degree in chemistry at Balliol, Oxford, which he completed just after his father died - but he never thought much about the subject again.

Mayne's father had published a book in 1937, Mayne's Essential of School Algebra, which as a school text, shifted in bulk. After his death, the royalties gave his son an income which, along with his parsimonious habits, enabled him, for a time, to fund visits to Southam Street. Indeed the book still provides Mayne with an income as it is still required reading in Hong Kong - when we met, he was anticipating a cheque for pounds 420.

But a more important book is about to be published - a comprehensive review of Mayne's work. This should put him firmly up there where he belongs. Vintage prints of his pictures are still at astonishingly affordable prices but the American dealers are latching on fast. And photographers are unstinting in their admiration. Perry Ogden - whose own pictures of urban children, Pony Kids, was published recently - collects him. Bruce Weber buys up his work whenever he is in London. "But I would like," says his friend Zelda Cheatle, in whose eponymous gallery his show opens this week, "for at least some of his photographs to stay in Britain".

`Roger Mayne' runs 25 May-25 June at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, 99 Mount Street, London W1 (0171-408 4448). `The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne' is published by Zelda Cheatle Press at pounds 19.95.

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