Roger Mayne was a photographer who captured the squalor and spectacle of Southam Street, a pocket of North Kensington in London that was to become synonymous with post-war poverty.
The series of photographs taken by Mayne, between 1956 and 1961, are one of the most important photographic surveys of city life in 1950s and ’60s Britain. The images formed a London reflection of the deprivation photographed by Bert Hardy in Glasgow’s Gorbals, a reminder that such harsh conditions could be found only a bus ride away from Westminster.
Southam Street and its W10 environs lay close to where Mayne lived as an aspiring photographer in his early 20s. On the day he discovered the street he took 64 photographs - shots which, he acknowledged, seemed “to hit people’s mental funny bone”. He worked on the move, equipped with a lightweight Zeiss Super Ikonta camera, immersing himself in the hustle and bustle of the block: a hive of activity that was as joyous as it was desperate.
All human life was here. Sharp-dressed West Indians clashed with pipe-thin, trouble-hunting Teddy Boys, girls gossiped in doorways, gangs of young men smoked and gambled. And everywhere around him children darted, danced, ran, cycled and fought. Boys and girls played football in the middle of the road and cricket against the walls. Slowly Mayne earned their trust and recorded their wild, urban upbringing.
One of the street urchins running riot was a young Alan Johnson - later the UK Labour Home Secretary - whose sister appears in one of Mayne’s photographs. “The houses had been jerry-built in the 19th century for a predicted population drift that never occurred. By the Thirties they’d been declared unfit for human habitation,” noted Johnson. “My sister and I were born into those slums 20 years later. Electricity didn’t arrive until roughly the same time as Roger Mayne. The 1951 census recorded that the number of people living at a density of more than two to a room was four times higher in Southam Street than in London as a whole.”
For a young photographer looking for his muse the area was ripe with dramatic potential. “The first day I discovered Southam Street I was so excited,” recalled Mayne. “I was a bit shy, and eased myself into photographing the children.” After a while he went about unnoticed. “When I had taken the photos they just went on with their games, playing football or swinging on lampposts. They got to know me and understood I wanted them photographed unawares.”
It was a community where it was better to be outdoors than in. “This was a world that had changed little since Dickens,” stated Johnson, “but one that would virtually vanish within a decade”. Southam Street was levelled in 1963 - having been declared uninhabitable - and the residents relocated to council houses and tower blocks. Erno Goldfinger’s “Brutalist” Trellick Tower now punctuates the site.
Mayne returned to the scene and photographed the ruins. “I was sad when the street was demolished,” he recalled. “I suppose there was the middle-class, left-wing view of the working class as romantic, but I just remember turning the corner into Southam Street and being greeted by this wonderful life.”
Roger Mayne was born in Cambridge in 1929. He studied chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford, between 1947 and 1951, a period during which his father died and he was introduced to photography (through an interest in photographic processing). “Learning to process photographs is more like learning to cook than studying Chemistry,” he recalled. “In those years I developed from a feeble amateur to a serious photographer. You could say photography discovered me.”
After university, he found a mentor in Hugo van Wadenoyen, a British photographer of Dutch origins, who introduced him to the Combined Societies, a progressive group of local photographic societies that formed an alternative to the Royal Photographic Society. As a pacifist Mayne refused to do National Service. Instead he worked as a hospital porter in Leeds. His interest in art, sparked as an undergraduate, grew and led him to St Ives, where he photographed the artistic community, including Patrick Heron and Terry Frost.
In 1956 Mayne had a one-man show of his photographs at the ICA and by the following year was established as a freelance photojournalist, working for magazines such as Vogue, Queen, and New Left Review and providing photographs for book jackets - Colin Macinnes commissioned Mayne to provide a cover image of disaffected youth for his novel Absolute Beginners (1959).
Mayne found his true calling, however, in detailing London’s working class areas and he made his reputation for photographing them with a lack of guile through his work in Southam Street. “Although my approach is documentary, using the camera as a recording machine,” said Mayne, “if the image is good enough, if everything comes together, then the picture can rise to art.”
As a counterpoint to his work chronicling the slums, Mayne photographed at the Royal Court Theatre, where he was introduced to a young rising playwright named Ann Jellicoe. They married in 1962, the year Jellicoe’s play The Knack was a hit at the Royal Court.
During the late 1960s, Mayne taught at Bath Academy of Art, in Corsham, to which he had been introduced while compiling a photo-essay on student life. In the 1970s, Mayne and Jellicoe moved, with their two young children, to Lyme Regis in Dorset. There, Mayne worked on brooding landscapes wrought with a stark chiaroscuro. He also continued to capture the adventures of childhood - this time his subjects were his son and daughter (he would eventually also focus his lens on the early years of his grandchildren).
The following decade he began experimenting with drawing, painting and etching. A series of photographs taken in Japan, Goa and China during the mid-1980s - of cyclists weaving around traffic, card sharps playing on the curbs and lovers in the rain - showed that he had retained an eye for a startling street scene - he considered these among his best photographs.
During the 1990s, Mayne travelled extensively, photographing in Paris, Iceland, Spain and Tuscany. At this time his Southam Street series gained a new audience when the singer Morrissey used selected photographs by Mayne for his album covers and concert backdrops.
The series were featured in the book Uppercase 5 (1961). Mayne’s other publications include The Shell Guide to Devon (1975) - in which Jellicoe provided the text to accompany his photographs - and Roger Mayne Photographs (2001).
Mayne won the Lucie Award for Achievement in Documentary in 2006 and many of his portraits - including studies of Kenneth Tynan, Harold Pinter, Lindsay Anderson, John Fowles and Duke Ellington - are in the National Portrait Gallery.
His Southam Street photographs remain his most celebrated works - they have been exhibited in the US, Australia and Japan and were a highlight of Tate Britain’s blockbuster exhibition, How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007), for which his Jiving Girl (1957) was the show’s poster image. The entire series is now held by the V&A. “My reason for photographing poor streets is that I love them,” he stated in the late 1950s. “The streets have their own kind of beauty, a kind of decaying splendour.”
Roger Mayne is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.