London Photographs 1957-62
16.06.12 – 08.07.12
Museum of London / London / England
Frederick Wilfred: London Photographs 1957-62 / Reviewed by Riikka Kuittinen / 28.06.12
Frederick Wilfred: London Photographs 1957-62 offers a street-level glimpse into London life fifty years ago. Wilfred (1925-2010) was a London-born professional photographer who produced commercial work and studio portraiture alongside the street photographs seen in this exhibition. These previously unseen images of London are part of a larger archive of Wilfred’s street photography, acquired by Museum of London in 2011. This display is a part of the London Photography Festival, taking place throughout June with events ranging from exhibitions, screenings and talks in venues such as the V&A, the Guardian Gallery and King’s Cross Station.
This tightly edited exhibition displays a selection of photos from the Wilfred archive, showing cityscapes and people of London. The familiar is mixed in with the lost. Battersea Power Station is still operational, the Royal Festival Hall is recognisable, but the Shot Tower alongside is long gone, as is Twickenham Lido. The portraits observe the people of the city at work, from street sweepers to butchers. The images have an evocative quality closer to documentary photography rather than reductive nostalgia.
The 1950s seen here is substantially different from the decade of the popular imagination. Certainly, there are touches of the clichéd 50s with its emerging youth fashions: a quiff and a jukebox here, a vintage bathing suit there. But looking past these familiar visual signs, the butcher’s display of meats is rendered significant through the knowledge that rationing of meat had only finished in 1954. The startling sight of a horse and cart, possibly a rag-and bone-man, in Gloucester Terrace near Paddington suggests a rather different economic reality, as do the few rare parked cars that are possibly two or three decades old. These details not only encapsulate the post-war poverty of that specific time, but they illustrate a larger change in consumer society and how its approach to the life cycle of goods has grown ever more impatient.
The tonal greys of the black and white photography certainly also capture plenty that is familiar and recognisable to us now such as the headlines about a royal wedding and familiar landmarks such as the four towers of the Battersea Power Station. The citizens of the city are different but the same: the milk delivery boy, who would probably be too young to be working nowadays; shoe shiners; smart businessmen in hats; and street sweepers, nattily attired in suit jackets. The small details piece together a larger portrait of the working city, rather than a tourist relic.
Although we don’t know whether Wilfred worked consciously in line with his contemporaries, his London project certainly echoes the work of American photographers documenting street life, with subjects such as shoe shiners and jukeboxes also appearing in Robert Frank’s The Americans, first published 1958. Whether influenced or not, Wilfred’s photographs offer an insight into social history, allowing us to recognise what is familiar and discover what is not. The images exemplify a kind of photographic time travel away from the history books, even if it is limited to an edited version, one person’s view of the truth through a camera lens.
More images from the Frederick Wilfred archive can be seen at frederickwilfred.com.