Unseen street photographs reveal London's bleak 1970's

We are always looking for some exciting photography made in London. Street photography has never been this popular with so many people owning cameras and camera phones and the internet helping everyone raise the profile of this photographic genre. But it was very different before digital and this time I interview Stephen Gavin, a talented man who's photos have only just recently resurfaced from the 70's.

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Stephen, tell us a little about you?

During the 1970s I completed a BA and an MA in Painting, and for a year was Fellow in Painting at Kingston Polytechnic. Later, I taught Design & Technology (with some art) for almost thirty years. Now retired with my children grown, I have revived some projects and begun new ones. Scanning negatives made in the mid-1970s was my first.

When I was 17, I bought my first SLR and began to photograph seriously. Photographs on record sleeves first inspired me, but factual articles in the ‘Sunday Times Magazine’ made the greatest impact. These covered topics like ‘War in Cambodia’, ‘Children under Stress’, ‘Nazi Occupation of Paris’, ‘Bar Girls of Manila’, ‘Germany’s Immigrant Workers’, ‘War in Saigon’ and so on. These led me, indirectly, to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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You mention having grown up children. Have they got a passion for photography? Have they seen these fabulous London street photographs? What do they think?

All three were encouraged to paint, draw and make things from an early age. My two eldest followed ‘creative’ subjects to A’ level, but now work in law and insurance. They appreciate art, but perhaps realised it wouldn’t get them where they wanted to go. I expect too that an absence of the grants and bursaries that I benefited from, made them more pragmatic in their choice of career.

My youngest (20) could be a good photographer and makes interesting self-portraits. All three capture ‘mementos’ with their phones, but I would not say they are passionate about photography. As for what they think of my photographs? They acknowledge that ‘I take a fair photograph’, but I suspect that fulsome praise would be a step too far.

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What was the context in which you shot these?

In about 1973 I met a homeless man called Fred Cole. He slept rough and relied on the goodwill of others. We met regularly to chat, and my experiences with Fred led me to photograph in the seedier parts of the West End. My thinking was informed by George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and Jeremy Sandford’s ‘Down and Out in Britain’; as well as the films ‘Cathy Come Home’ and ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’.

The 1970s were bleak, as is the mood of these photographs. It was a time of strikes, power-cuts, the three-day week, double-figure interest rates and inflation, a quadrupled oil price and the threat of nuclear war. Because of the IRA's bombing campaign, Londoners were very aware that any parked car or piece of hand luggage might explode.

In approach and style, Henri Cartier-Bresson particularly influenced my photography; and to a lesser extent Brassaï and Eugène Atget. Cartier-Bresson had trained as a painter, and his strong unstaged compositions informed by Surrealism impressed me very much. My photographs were also taken with a 50mm lens, and are uncropped and ‘as seen’.

Do you know what happened to Fred Cole in the following years?

Sadly not - he was still about in 1979-80, but I moved away and we lost touch. Since retiring, I tried to contact the convent, but it closed some years ago. Living as he did, and assuming he was about 20 years older than me, Fred is unlikely to be alive. He never mentioned siblings or children, so there are few lines of enquiry.

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What will happen to your collection, is there a plan to exhibit them at all?

When they are in the collection of the Science & Society Picture Library, I hope they will be safe and reach a wider audience. I have no plans for an exhibition, but would be very pleased to see them on a wall. I suppose if digitally printed this would be relatively easy to achieve.

I have scanned other negatives from the 1970's, but have not cleaned them up. Among these are photographs made at Dover docks, and when I hitchhiked to Spain. I also have many ‘compositions’, and some smaller groups.  

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What do you do nowadays?

Until recently I had never made any relief prints; so I am enjoying making woodcuts, based on images collected over the years which I combine and develop mainly through line drawings. I cut them into found pieces of wood, and print on paper pre-worked with watercolour or ink.

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Why aren't you still shooting in the streets seeing you definitely have the eye?

I love photographing people for fun, particularly ‘in their natural habitat’, but think because everyone knows they might appear on the Internet, and are generally more clued up about photography (‘paparazzi’ and so on), on the street one has to be cautious and respect their privacy. It was always true of course - I recall photographing a man and woman leaving a club in Greek Street. The man took offence, and I took to my heels. I only escaped by running in front of a bus on Shaftesbury Avenue. In fact, I didn’t stop running until I got on my train at Waterloo Station. So, not being able to run so fast is probably one reason!

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Over the years, I have informally photographed groups of people (plays, weddings, a primary classroom, parties etc.) but not necessarily on the street. Last year, I was in Spain for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria because my great, great, great, great grandfather was there in 1813 and kept a diary. I took photographs of Peninsular War re-enactors without problems, but they were dressed to be seen and had anticipated the attention. In contrast, recently I was in Ramsgate on a Saturday night, and watched groups of young people laughing and enjoying themselves outside a fish and chip shop. I had just photographed at a relative’s party and was tempted to take some photographs - but thought better of it.

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Last year, on a walk from Leicester Square Station to Waterloo, I spoke with two newspaper sellers outside Embankment Station, and showed them the 1974 photograph of their stand. They said they knew one of the men and we had an interesting talk. This has made me consider returning to the sites of my 1970s photographs in search of conversation and new photographs.

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Some general thoughts about photography?

I remember when it was a relief and a wonder for a photograph ‘came-out’. Now, to get an adequate image, there’s no need to think of (or even know about) film speed, aperture, exposure or even focus. At this level, photography can be an almost unconscious activity – and because of this, very revealing.

My first camera was an Agfa Rapid 35mm camera that had ‘sunlight’ and ‘flash’ settings, and possibly one for ‘shade’. My first SLR was a Praktica Nova, followed by an Eastern Bloc made ‘Leica copy’ called a Zorki. With both, the viewfinder at night was so poor that I often estimated the subject distance. This explains why Bill Brandt commented: ‘These are very good, you have a style of your own’ – and referring to one – ‘but you must learn to focus’. *

With black and white film it was necessary to 'see tonally': firstly, to see the world in terms of the medium; and secondly, to identify the subject as a high key, low key or average subject. If high key, a negative would need more exposure than indicated by the meter, and a low key subject less. I usually took a reading from my palm, having set (if I remember correctly) the meter to half the ASA (ISO) number of the film, in accordance with Ansel Adams' Zone System. I often estimated exposures.

It was not worth attempting to photograph in colour at night without a tripod, so I used Kodak’s Tri-X or Ilford’s HP5, pushed to 1600 or more, processed with Paterson’s Acuspeed. Parts of my negatives have no perceptible detail, so images rely on contrasting areas of tone, silhouette and other pictorial devices.

*On recalling the meeting with Bill Brandt, I was reminded that it was William Betsch who, generously and at short notice, arranged our meeting at Brandt’s flat. On Googling for William I learned that he had died in 2010.

I met William Betsch in 1976 at the Royal College of Art. He was exploring the idea that Vermeer worked in a room-sized camera obscura. I don’t remember any paintings made by William (we called him ‘Bill’ then). While at the RCA he photographed in Morocco. I lost touch when he moved to Paris in 1980.

(William Betsch 1945-2010 http://blog.williamalix.com/2010/08/12/william-betsch-1945-2010-2/)

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All images © Stephen Gavin

Photographs by Stephen Gavin appearing in this gallery can be licensed for commercial use at www.scienceandsociety.co.uk 

Individual prints may be purchased at www.ssplprints.com