Amateur PhotographerA London eye

An exhibition of Frederick James Wilfred’s nostalgic images of London will go on display next month as part of the London Festival of Photography. Gemma Padley speaks to Frederick’s son, Russell, about his father’s love of photography, his fearless nature and his eye for a picture.

Sometimes a body of photographs is so strong it is able to transport you to a time and a place that has long since passed. Such is the power of Frederick James Wilfred’s work, whose images documenting life on London’s streets in the 1950s have recently been acquired by the Museum of London. The images, which are tinged with nostalgia, depict the hustle and bustle of daily life for people in post-war London. Among the 500 or so photographs in the archive are pictures of children playing on the streets and shopkeepers — ordinary people going about their business. These are simple moments that are decidedly unremarkable, yet through Frederick’s lens they become charming and moving.

‘My father loved to be around people and to talk to them,’ says Russell, Frederick’s son, who is also a keen photographer. ‘He liked characters — people whose lives you could see written in their faces. His mother owned a café in Islington and they used to watch the world go by.’ After Frederick’s death in 2010, Russell painstakingly scanned his father’s negatives and approached the Museum of London, which acquired the collection. Some 15 prints will go on display at the Museum as part of the London Festival of Photography in June.

Born in the London borough of Islington in 1925, Frederick worked in photography all his life, first as the chief photographer for Hawker Siddeley Aviation (he photographed the early flying trials of the Hawker P1127), before opening and running a camera shop near Hampton Court until 1963. He then opened his own commercial and portrait studio, which he managed until his retirement in 1990.
‘My father photographed weddings and was a portrait photographer for many years,’ says Russell. ‘I used to assist him and ended up following in his footsteps going into the photography business, too.’ Russell runs a business that manages photographers for cruise ships and has his own family portrait studio where he lives in Helsinki, Finland.
An active member of the Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society, Frederick was never without his camera. Using a Rolleiflex for his street photography, he also used a Hasselblad and then much later, a 35mm camera. He developed his own negatives and made prints in his studio darkroom. ‘When I was going through my father’s things after his death, I found the receipt for his Rolleiflex,’ says Russell. ‘He bought it for 80 pounds, which he paid in two parts, in 1951. He used this camera pretty much all the time until he switched to a Hasselblad, which he used to shoot weddings. It was only later that he used 35mm cameras.’ The unintrusive nature of the RoIlei made it ideal for street photography, says Russell. With this camera, you’re looking down when you make a picture and not pointing a camera in someone’s face; he says. ‘It’s very inoffensive, as you can engage with the person or subject. Indeed, my father would always frame the picture and then look at the person he was photographing, forgetting about the camera, which he regarded as a means to get what he wanted. He was quite opinionated and would get mildly annoyed if people assumed a good photograph was the result of a good camera. He would say: “A good camera enables you to take better-quality rubbish!”

Frederick would dive straight into situations if he felt there was a picture to be made. His approach was to be as close as possible to what he was photographing. ‘My father would often look past the person he was photographing so the person wouldn’t realise they were the subject of the picture,’ says Russell. ‘He used this technique when photographing at markets, for example. He would get right in there, close to his subjects — he had no fear. His neighbour, who sometimes went with him to take pictures, used to say: “I wanted to do what your dad was doing, but I felt too self-conscious!”
‘He had a unique sense of humour and liked to include things in his images that made him chuckle,’ adds Russell. ‘There are elements to the images that you notice the closer you look at them, such as details in window reflections or kids running around in the background. He enjoyed looking at the way the light fell on his subjects, and what he loved most was portraiture. If someone said they weren’t photogenic, his reassuring reply was, “There are no unphotogenic people, just good and bad photographers.”

After Frederick’s death, Russell began the time-consuming process of digitising his father’s negatives. He used a Nikon Coolscan 9000ED scanner with his MacBook Pro. It was a huge undertaking, although thoroughly rewarding. ‘My father had boxes of negatives, but when he moved to a smaller house with my mother he edited them down,’ says Russell. ‘He had a habit of cutting the negative strips so many of the negatives were stored individually, which meant they were more likely to have fingerprints on them. I think we found something like 525 negatives, which I’ve been scanning since January 2011’.
Russell says the negatives were a little dusty, which meant he had to do a fair amount of spotting on some of the scans to remove dust spots. This could take anything between an hour and six hours per image.
‘Scanning the images was a learning process for me,’ he says. ‘I changed and tweaked things as I went along. Looking back, I could perhaps have spent a little more time cleaning the negatives before scanning them in as my haste to see the images on-screen made more work for me afterwards! All the negatives are scanned now, but of these 350 or so still need spotting, which could be a good couple of years of work.
‘It was fun trying to identify the places in the images and to see how much London has changed in the years since the images were taker,’ adds Russell. ‘It gave me a whole other insight into what my father was like — I felt as though I was seeing everything through his eyes.’

Anna Sparham, curator of photographs at the Museum of London, explains how the acquisition of Frederick’s images by the museum came about

In Spring last year, Wilfred’s son, Russell, contacted the Museum of London to see if there was potential interest in viewing his late father’s street photographs. Russell’s visit was eagerly awaited by the museum as the example photographs included in his email stood out among the tide of other images we were being offered at the time. Russell brought with him several hundred original negatives, a number of which he had scanned to show us. The immediate interest on our part was obvious. Through our discussions, we realised that a few prints made by Frederick were already in the museum. It seemed his striking photographs were destined to be included in the museum’s collection. We opted to wait for Russell to digitise all the negatives he had so we could view them at low resolution. I made a selection to submit to our Collections Committee for approval; we were spoilt for choice. Russell then supplied the museum with digital scans from which new archival prints were made in-house. In context with the rest of the museum’s photography collection, Wilfred’s street photographs are now housed alongside, and arguably on a par with, images by Roger Mayne, Bob Collins and Henry Grant.

Francis Marshall, senior curator of paintings, prints and drawings at the Museum of London, who curated the exhibition, shares his thoughts about Frederick’s images

The images are uniformly strong with a remarkable sense of composition and design, telling details and juxtapositions. They reveal a lost London still recovering from the austerities of the Second World War. I selected a long list of the strongest images. Then Brett Jefferson Stott, director of the London Festival of Photography, and I edited this down to 18. We’ve tried to give a sense of the breadth of Fred’s work so there are engaging images of kids playing in the street, news vendors and a fabulous portrait of a road sweeper. They’re marvellous images that haven’t been seen before. There will be some 15 images on show. We’re working on the exhibition design now and this can affect the final image count.

Frederick Wilfred – Amateur Photograher 26th May 2012 (Download PDF of the article 3.2MB)