Roger Mayne – photographs

Mayne, R. (2001) Roger Mayne Photographs. (s.l.): Jonathan Cape.

I came across this in my local library. I was well aware of Roger Mayne anyway but I’d not seen a collected set of his work before, particularly not his ‘Southam Street’ photographs. I’d seen one or two before but had not appreciated just how well they seem to capture a distinct change in British life. I know this is specifically about a small area in west London, but the images of post-war children playing in otherwise empty streets, of teenagers out for fun and action, of African and Caribbean immigrants finding a place in Britain, all add up to a view of a Britain on the cusp between the war years and the swinging sixties. Of those not specifically from Southam street, some are of other areas of west London but others are from the East End.

There is an innocence present in the photographs of children playing, making use of whatever they could find for games, that acts as a reminder of how much life has improved in the intervening sixty years or so. A small boy rolls a broken bicycle wheel along an empty street. Two boys attempting to tie a rope to a lamppost to use as a makeshift swing. Three girls smiling proudly about a chalk drawing in the road. By contrast there is an air of tension, of aggression in the teenagers. Groups hanging around on streets, smoking, and just out for want of something to do. There are also photographs of the older generation, often with a social expression born out of having survived the war.

Other photographs range across Britain and Europe, and though they do have an interest, don’t always manage the same intensity as his London scenes. The last set in the book, Family, is as the title suggests, photographs of his family at play. This set does seem slightly uncomfortable, as if one is an uninvited outsider in someone else’s world.

Modern sensibilities also make viewing some of his photographs of very young children rather uncomfortable. One would have a lot of trouble trying to photograph naked children in quite the same way these days.    

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