British photographic history

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History: Learning to Retain Photos: Images from 1981 England

Autumn 1981 was a very memorable time for me and my writing and photography. Though I didn’t meet our group’s individual requirement of writing at least 12 feature stories (I did 8 or 9, all edited by our moderator/editor John H. Whale, who wore many hats at the Sunday Times including chief proofreader, the latter job shared by him with his wife, Judith), I did take 2,000-4,000 good photos then.  My peers in the Sunday Times intern-group from the Missouri Journalism School did not take nearly as many photos, unless they were much more secretive journalists than I surmised.

After the first two weeks, I found myself without a good story idea. So I set out walking one day with my camera from our group’s large flat in Islington, and walked 3-4 miles up and down different streets than usual, eventually sensing I was close to the Sunday Times Building. As I walked near it, I came upon a small art gallery advertising a show by a British neo-mannerist painter Erica Daborn, who had done some paintings inspired by “Elephant Man”, an award-winning play. I entered, found no-one in the gallery, took some shots of the paintings, and someone emerged. Long story short, I arranged an interview with the artist, took several photos of her with her paintings, sent my original slides and story to the Baltimore Sun newspaper, and didn’t hear back. I learned then to always make copies of your photos (and stories) or find out later perhaps, how valuable they are to people other than you, the photographer (and writer).

I was a relative newcomer to photojournalism, but not to writing ironically. As years have passed, that London semester inspired me to author and publish many books and articles about Picture Post Magazine and its staff, and to write many reviews of British books too. For one thing, I wrote the first complete history of Picture Post; my book's title is “All the Best”. I also wrote and published my dual biography of that magazine's lead-photographer Bert Hardy and writing mate James Cameron covering the Korean War in 1950, “Crucial Collaborations”, and my biography of Mr. Hardy, “The Cockney Eye”.

In Autumn 1981, though, I wrote some pretty fair stories too – including my published report about a very tense meeting between 50 IRA relatives and then Cardinal of England Basil Hume in the rectory of Westminster Catholic Cathedral; my unpublished report about the only professional Palestinian theatre troupe in the world then, El-Hakawati; my published report on a then-recently-begun, but fast-developing theatre in Islington, the Almeida; and my published report about Archie Shepp’s renowned quintet at the Camden Jazz Festival, with emphasis on Shepp’s trumpeter, Charles McGhee. I took photos in all these places, but no longer own any of these latter images. Photographers, beware: Guard your originals with your life, because there are people who want them, especially if you have a bit of talent and have photographed in the right places at the right times.

I photographed for some of my housemates/fellow interns then too, including Marynelle Hardee, Louis Trager, Cal Lawrence, and Dan Higgins. I’ve no photos left from my shoot of Union Chapel with Marynelle (she kept them and needn't have); only 1 photo left of my shoot at the Billingsgate Fish Market with Louis (I later lost them I guess and Louis had begged me in Missouri to let him publish some of them with his magazine article, but the only image I liked of mine from that shoot showed market-men in white coats and dark caps in a logjam of boxed, frozen fish on carts, and the article needed more than 1 photo; I've still got a copy of that somewhat soft-focus image somewhere, but haven't been able to find it recently); no photos left of my shoots relating to skin-head culture for Cal; and only 5 photos left of my shoot near Covent Garden with Dan Higgins (he kept some fairly good negatives for his story, though he needn't have). In addition to my taking a roll of film of street traffic from the roof of the Drury Lane Theatre (Dan wanted a rooftop view of traffic including a taxi), I also managed four good images of the distant rooftops (including two good views of Covent Garden) seen from the Drury Lane's roof. We also commandeered an office window kitty-corner from Covent Garden, and I remember my photos of that historic building across the way suggesting a high-speed zephyr train. When I went down to photograph the Garden from inside with Dan, we stopped briefly so I could photograph a guitar busker out front; it's a photo that's been published often, and likely will be published many more times too.

Also, walking and busing about London, and to and from Surrey via train to interview and photograph Bert Hardy, I took some pretty fair images I still own. In addition to my very good photos of Bert and his dogs, 2 of my photos at the British Museum stand out – a guard smoking just outside an entryway; and people exiting and entering an entryway, the latter of which I photographed from the inside looking out. I also took a photo on the train back from the Hardy's titled "2 Ages of Woman", which matches up fairly well with a photo I took in London, "2 Ages of Man".

And just up the street from my fairly good photo-portrait in Soho of an Anglo-Asian man in hat and coat reading a newspaper, I photographed two Chinese restaurant employees having a smoke on break. Also, I've written about and included some selections on this blog of my London children's day centre photos, of which I only own about 10 percent of the almost 800 photos I took on that personal, month-long 1981 assignment, though not a bad 10 percent because they were prints made from my first-edits in 1982 or so.

At the London Zoo, I took a series of photos (some black-and-white, some color) of Chia-Chia, a panda who was then said to have sired the fetus the “mother” panda was supposed to have inside her. It was a false pregnancy, which makes my best portrait of Chia-Chia even more poignant; he seems to be saying in that image, “Oh me, oh my, what will we ever do now?”

Other photos stolen and/or lost include my stills of a garbage truck and the men manning it, one of who was pushing refuse along a curb with a push broom; he wore a French beret and looked a bit like my Grandfather Marcou. Which reminds me, I took some fairly dramatic photos I soon lost of dark green and bright orange garbage cans by an old, low-slung building. The colors reminded me of the two sides in Northern Ireland, where my editor, John Whale, had already reported famously about the hooded men, of the IRA I believe.

Three transparencies I’d set aside were to be given to Mr. and Mrs. Whale when I departed England as a gift, I ended up having to give them to Pinkie Virani, a housemate staying in London a few more days, to relay to the Whales. I asked Pinkie to first have the Grove Hardy darkroom (owned by Gerry Grove and Bert Hardy) -- which printed the first 8X10 of my best Bert photo-portrait with dogs, a copy of which is now in the British National Portrait Gallery Collection -- make some color prints to give to Mr. and Mrs Whale. Mr. Whale told me years later he never saw those images. Earlier, I had a large print of one of my panda photos made, and gave it to the Whales, who seemed to love my view of Chia-Chia chewing leaves or grass. One of the three final-gift images was my photo of the Union Jack I photographed from our group's large office area on the top floor of the Sunday Times Building; a second was my photo of two little Anglo-African girls in Brixton, with unusual perspective; and a third was my photo of an empty baby carriage outside a shop by a Marlboro cigarette ad-poster.

I was fairly inexperienced about and free-wheeling with my original images in those days. For instance, one of my first nights in London, I walked to the Sunday Times Building from my temporary lodgings, the Melville bed-and-breakfast. I came upon a homeless man sleeping under tungsten lights on the front step of a corner store, photographed him, felt guilty, and put a pound coin in his pocket while he slept. New to this business of cadging photos that way, I felt so bad afterward I tried flushing some of my slides down a toilet (the others I may have simply put in a wastebasket). I don’t know if any of them were recovered by anyone, but they were dramatic-enough images.

Also, I learned a stinging lesson from my second ex-wife, who apparently absconded with a bag filled with 688 of my best early negatives in 1987 and then had the gall around that time to force me to destroy some of my best 8X10 prints (some of those prints were of women I'd photographed in South Korea but not all of them), including I believe my most nostalgic photo from 1981 London. In the latter case, I’d cadged a shot of two teen-aged girls in long coats walking ahead of me on a Thames Embankment stairway. Other people were alongside the stairway, including a handsome, middle-aged man (perhaps with a lady friend) in spring jacket with silver hair looking out at the Thames and maybe smoking too. One of the two girls, maybe both, wore pigtails. I’d looked at that photo often before 1987 and thought this is what street photography is all about -- a nicely taken, cadged shot, showing everyday people doing everyday things with a bit of aplomb. Maybe my memory exaggerates that image a bit, because I have been without that print so long. But I hope its negative and others by me not now with me, are rediscovered for me and mine while I and my offspring still live and are well, because I know a top administrator (MB) for Getty Images who's critiqued my work for me for many years, very rarely has said one of my photos is good, but he has a strong interest in those 688 "lost" negatives, because he’s long said my early black-and-white work is the best photography I’ve ever done.

That nostalgic view along the river was taken by me on Thames Day, and a little farther up the embankment minutes later, I photographed disabled teenagers in kayak races, with Parliament in the distance. I photographed and met Rudi Christopher then, and later visited him at Lord Treloar College (at Alton I believe), where he lived and was a student; I later photographed him at Treloar too. I'd been sending some of my stories to my J-School adviser Daryl Moen, and I sent him my story about Rudi, who dreamed of driving an 18-wheeler for a living, though he had spina bifida. (Rudi was a national paralympic champion in two sports.) Unfortunately, I, for the first time, decided to send my processed Rudi films for printing, separately to the Mizzou J-School photo lab (attn: Angus McDougall) and my films apparently never arrived there. My story about Rudi, though, sent to Prof. Moen, was published in the Columbia Missourian soon after, but without photos.

If I’ve learned key lessons about retaining my original photos (and writings) and any good copies made of them too, one is that proper conservation and retention of your works pays dividends, if not always monetarily initially (though in November 1981 I did have my first paid-use photos published, in Missouri Life Magazine, 6 of my photos from Hannibal, MO), at least in the decent levels of recognition your works can achieve. Over time, then, even monetary compensations will be obtained, hopefully for the photographer, his/her heirs, and the archives/publishers he/she has put trust in. In addition to the British National Portrait Gallery, I’ve many photos and writings in some of the very best public and private archives in the world, and more than 80 of my books are in some of the world’s very best libraries too, including in various archives and libraries of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

Learning to Retain Photos: Images from 1981 England, by Photographer and Author David Joseph Marcou.

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