Archive for the ‘Photo History’ Category

Fink notes

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Although many photographers have worked with square format cameras, notably those made by Hassleblad and Rollei, few have really taken to the format and worked with it. Many always cropped their images, and saw the square format simply as enabling them to shoot in the same way for either a portrait or landscape format, with none of the problems of needing to tune the camera on its side. And some cameras really did make this a little of a problem. For those photographers who work with a camera on a tripod or stand it can also present some difficulties. But with the square format you just took the pictures and cropped whichever way you wanted afterwards.

What I like about Larry Fink’s photographs – most of them on square format ands presented as square is how he really gets the frame to work, getting in close to his subjects and using those edges in a really dynamic way.

The front page of his web site contains the text:

Viscerality is my perceptual mode. Simply spoken,it means that I want to touch everything that I love. Hopefully my pictures are a testimony to the love of the senses.

I’ve long thought of photography as being a very tactile medium and I’m at my happiest photographing people and groups of people at the kind of range where I could reach out and touch them, though often I have to work from a rather longer range.

Fink’s best-known work remains Social Graces, a book published by Aperture in 1984 (with a later Powerhouse edition in 1999.)

Born in Brooklyn, like others of a similar generation he studied paintings in the museums of that city, as well as photography with Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research. And he got to know many of the artists and literary figures living in the city.

Visura has a great portfolio of his images of ‘The Beats‘, taken in the late 1950s and published as a book in 2014, and you can read more about him and the book in The New Yorker. Olivier Laurent wrote about him on Time LightBox in 2015, and there is an interesting interview with him by Julie Ma on The Cut.

What prompted me to write this post was Fink on Warhol: New York Photographs of the 1960s which appeared recently in L’oeil De La Photographie.

I’ve owned several square format cameras over the years, including an ancient Rolleiflex (it cost me £35) but never really got into the cameras or the format.

The Capa Controversy

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Regular readers will have seen (and perhaps got rather tired of seeing) my frequent posts about the persistent detective work by A D Coleman and his co-workers, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist J Ross Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy and military historian Charles Herrick. Together they have succeeded in putting together a minutely detailed and evidenced examination of Robert Capa‘s exploits on D-Day and the subsequent processing and publication of the ten or eleven frames he took before leaving Omaha beach along with the stories fabricated around this begun by Life‘s then assistant picture editor John Morris within hours or days of the events and shortly after by Capa himself but with later embroidery by others.

It was of course obvious to any photographer who looked at the published images and thought about the story that was being told that it was absolute bunkum – film just doesn’t melt like that – but that didn’t stop it being repeated in book after book after film and web site, even those of some of the most prestigious organisations in photography (or perhaps especially them.)

I return to it because of a post by Coleman in iMediaEthics, Conflict of Interest, Cubed: Robert Capa’s D-Day Photos, John Morris, and the NPPA in which he looks at the article in the US NPPA’S (National Press Photographers Association) publication, News Photographer, The Fog of War – D Day and Robert Capa by Bruce Young. You might like to read both before continuing with my comments, though if you have been following the story I think you may well agree with me.

Young got considerable cooperation from Coleman and Baughmann who hoped he was going to acknowledge their work and put the record straight, but he does the opposite, muddying the water, adding some half-baked and unsubstantiated suggestions and parading a great deal of ignorance while somehow pretending to make some kind of objective overview that would put the matter to rest. NPPA members surely deserve better – we all do.

When Young gets down to business, he quotes at length from Capa’s own published account, written in Capa’s best story-telling mode, a fictionalised Hollywood version of his life story, followed by John Morris’s totally unbelievable account of the darkroom mishap. Young’s next paragraph is interesting, beginning by stating that this was the established story and legend for 70 years (which isn’t quite true – many of us challenged parts of the story long ago) and goes on to say “but if the devil is in the details, this story carries enough demons to populate all nine rings of Dante’s Hell“, going on to list a series of questions.

If he had bothered to read all of the published research by Coleman and others and had understood it, he would have found we now have answers to all or virtually all those questions, supported by evidence from various sources, but instead he goes on to suggest that Coleman, one of the best known and highly regarded critical writers about our medium over very many years, is not really qualified to comment because he has never been a professional photographer. While I sometimes think it helps, being a pro is neither necessary nor sufficient, why mention it when the research was the result of a team including one player with a Pulitzer for photjournalism?

There are many other curiosities in Young’s piece. Speaking about Morris’s reactions to Coleman’s research he suggests “But what if John Morris, now 98, sticks to the story because … well, it’s true? There are problems with some exacting details, but…” But it isn’t exacting details there are problems with but a fairly tremendous weight of evidence, and Morris himself has since accepted at least some of the facts, whilst spinning new fictions.

Young then goes into rather a lengthy digression on memory, which is to some degree irrelevant, as the fictions were written down close to the event, but rather fails to see that what he says about memory makes a nonsense of relying on Morris’s memory – having based his life and career around the story for the past 70 years he doubtless came to believe in his story. That’s how memory works!

I started writing not meaning to criticise Young, meaning to leave it to readers to make their own judgements. But it is really so bad I couldn’t resist, but I’ll spare you the rest of my thoughts. Of course Coleman has a lot more to say about it and about many details, and its hard not to feel his criticisms are at least largely justified.

But does it all matter about Capa? Well, obviously it does, from the angry responses that publishing the series of articles has generated from much of the photographic establishment. I think it matters because of the wider issues. Personally I’ve never been a great advocate of academic research that is too concerned with the details and minutiae, I’ve always been more concerned with the fate of the forests rather than the leaves on the tree. Integrity is the bedrock of photojournalism and documentary practice, and I think this research calls into question not so much the integrity of Capa – who didn’t make up the story about this or about the Falling soldier (about which Young also seems uninformed about the most recent research) but of the whole system that promulgates news to the public – immediately through Life Magazine in this case, but in the 70 years since then various other organisations including Magnum and the ICP.

Of course I didn’t know Capa, who was killed when I was still in short trousers, but I get a strong impression of him from his writing and photography and the stories about him I’ve heard over the years. I can imagine him opening the magazine and seeing the caption under the ‘Falling Soldier’ or the D-Day pictures, shrugging his shoulders and saying ‘Oh well, it’s a better story’ and thinking it was in any case too late to stick to the truth.

And of course the picture is still the same, still a powerful, truly iconic image of war. For me it isn’t diminished by knowing the truth, and it in no way diminishes my respect for Capa as a photographer to realise that he was only human, cold, wet, scared and shaking as he lay on the beach, only able to make ten or eleven exposures in the 20 minutes or so he was there. One was really enough.

You can read Coleman’s post about this at iMediaEthics and the NPPA, though I wrote this post before doing so. It contains a link to Young’s change of mind over the ‘Falling Soldier’ that I was unaware of, and also to another of Coleman’s own articles, Ethics in Photojournalism Then and Now: The Case of Robert Capa which I’m now reading with considerable interest.

Dog control

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

In his latest contribution to Photocritic InternationalOn John Berger on Photography‘, A D Coleman provides the answer to something which had worried me about the photographs of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. I remember looking at length at a display of his photographs at a corner in Paris Photo a few years ago and wondering how he managed to control the dogs who play such an important role in many of his images (such as Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992.)

It wasn’t as if the same dogs appeared in many images, so it was unlikely that he had a troupe of highly trained canine actors, and the pictures were taken in various countries, which would create tremendous logistic problems for such a company. And the animals certainly did not look stuffed (though some stuffed animals have been realistic enough to fool the judges in prestigious wildlife photograph contests.) Many of the images show the dogs on a background of snow, which would have made it rather easier to add some or all of the dogs in printing, but there were none of the signs of that making it highly unlikely. But obviously the photographer had to have some way to attract and place the animals, and something that left little trace in the images. There were no signs of bones.

Coleman’s revelation, first made in an essay for a 2010 book, comes in a shortened form on his web site, but there is a link to download his whole essay. In it he comments on a text by the late John Berger which was printed in Sammallahti’s ‘The Russian Way‘ and is also on-line.

Berger, like Coleman and myself and almost everyone else who looks at the work of Sammallahti had of course noticed the dogs – it would be hard not to – and he posits:

“It was probably a dog that led Sammallahti to the moment and place for taking each picture.”

Coleman comments that on this occasion Berger (for whom he expresses respect and admiration) got it precisely wrong – and spills the beans, having asked the photographer and, perhaps surprisingly, got a straightforward reply – which you can read in his post. I’m pleased too, that Coleman mentions his collaboration with Jean Mohr, which produced the works by Berger I most admire, and was the main subject of my remembrance of him in Berger & Mohr last month, though neglected in much of the media comments.

It is of course, as Coleman makes clear, not just a matter of the dogs, but about how critics need to examine the actual evidence – and where necessary to ask appropriate questions rather than simply postulate theories. It’s often also important to be or have been a photographer so as to appreciate what is likely or possible – and what isn’t. Those who write about photography without having had an intimate practical involvement in making photographs are often likely to get the cart before the horse.

Coleman has also recently added more to his comments on John Morris’s continuing fabulation about Capa’s D-Day pictures. Morris’s story (or now rather stories) fails on many points, but not least the photographic practicalities. Things like knowing that in the days of film, working photographers when unloading 35mm film would usually rewind the leader inside the cassette or at least tear it off so there was no doubt the film had been used and could not be reloaded by accident. Like knowing that after fixing, unexposed film is clear.

Early Days

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

One of the sites I like to look at occasionally is the Blogs page of British Photographic History, launched in 2009 by Dr Michael Pritchard, where there are often posts from members that interest me, though I write far less about photographic history than I used to when I was writing for another place.

There of course I chose to write about many of the important figures in the medium, including its inventors and many of the early greats of the medium, drawing very much on the lessons I’d earlier given on photographic history as well as published works and the generally rather small amount of information on the Internet in the early 2000s. But although I spent some time looking at actual photographs in collections, exhibitions and museums and was involved for some time in actually creating images using some of the early techniques, I was never really a historian, relying largely on the contributions of others though occasionally with a little of my own interpretation and perspective. And just a few times being able to point out some of the errors in published work.

I wrote at least four full-length features on the work of W H F Talbot, both about the processes he developed – photogenic drawing, salt paper printing and the calotype – and his use of photography, particularly in his ‘Pencil of Nature‘. And while I had access to a number of books on him and his work, the William Henry Fox Talbot catalogue raisonné now available in a beta version and formally announce this Friday would have been a great extra resource.

You can read more about the project, led by Larry J Schaaf on the site itself, so I need not waste your time with details here. There are some parts of the site which are not yet complete, but there is already a very large searchable collection of the work of Talbot himself, as well as a number by Calvert Richard Jones and a few by others.

From the catalogue record you can click on the image to go to the image viewere, which as well as allowing you to zoom in, also has some tools (at top left) by which you can alter brightness and contrast, change from colour to greyscale, and invert the image – particularly useful when viewing the paper negatives.

There are some exhibits that seem almost to be blank paper – either because they were greatly underexposed or because images have faded with time. But perhaps as a scientist, Talbot beleived in keeping the result of every experiment he made with the new medium. Fading of prints was certainly a major issue in the early days, and many surviving Talbot prints have faded badly, sometimes to the extent that they have little value as pictures, though this doesn’t stop them being sold for silly money.

Photography on paper really became practical with Talbot’s calotype process, and the two people who produced the best-known body of work in the early days were Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill (who I think should be thought of in that order) working as a team in Edinburgh in the early 1840s. Also on British Photographic History was a post about the sale of their former premises, Rock House, next to Calton Hill in Edinburgh for more then £1.7m. The post links to both the estate agents site for the property and to an article in The Herald about the sale. Although it would be a grand place to live, I didn’t put in a bid for it, as the “house was recently redesigned internally by Jonathan Reed, a designer who had worked for figures such as David Bowie, Giancarlo Giammetti and Queen Rania of Jordan” and I think I would want a complete redesign for comfort before trying to live there having seen the pictures.

The studios, later home to other notable Scottish photographers, have been bought by an individual who wishes to remain private, but Adamson & Hill’s real studios where they made the great majority of their portraits are the Edingburgh cemeteries which remain open to the public.

Tish Murtha

Monday, February 6th, 2017

I’m not a fan of the Metro, the free newspaper that litters our trains in the mornings. It’s useful if you have to wait for a train, to put underneath your bottom to sit on those cold metal benches, but otherwise I never bother to pick up a copy myself, and when occasionally I pick up a copy someone else has left on the train, a quick flick through confirms my belief that it isn’t worth reading. Which is what you expect given it comes from the same stable as the Daily Mail, a sorry excuse of a right wing newspaper.

But for once the Metro web site has published something worth reading – and my thanks to friends on Facebook for point out Ellen Scott‘s article Powerful photo series captures unemployed youths of Thatcher’s Britain, about the work of Trish Murtha (1956 – 2013), a photographer who lived the life she photographed in Newcastle’s west end.

Murtha first used a camera to frighten away men who would proposition her on the streets where she lived, taking it out and threatening to take their pictures – even if there was often no film in the camera, but soon got hooked on photography and aged 20 went to study at Newport’s School of Documentary Photography in 1976, returning to photograph in the community where she lived. Later she spent some time in London.

The Guardian published a piece written by her younger brother Glenn Murtha, in their That’s me in the picture‘ series in 2015, and you can find out more about her on Wikipedia, which also links to a number of sites with her work on them. She died suddenly of a brain aneurysm just a day before what would have been her 57th birthday in 2013.

Her daughter Ella Murtha wants to make sure that her mother and her pictures are not forgotten, and manages an official Facebook page dedicated to her. She is planning to create a Kickstarter page shortly to fund the publication of a book of this series of pictures and her essay, Youth Unemployment. I’ll add details here when they become available.

My opinion about the Metro was confirmed by the two stories listed under the heading ‘MORE’ at the bottom of the piece which includes eighteen of Tish Murtha’s pictures.

MORE: Photo series celebrates hard-working cats on the job
MORE: Photographer captures the weird and wonderful things people have flushed down the toilet

Grove Hardy

Friday, January 27th, 2017

I’ve just come across an article about what used to be one of the leading professional darkrooms in London, and one where one of my friends, the late Townly Cooke, once worked as a printer. One of the more interesting exhibition visits I made was to a Magnum show, I think on the South Bank, some years ago with Townly, where he talked about some of the images which he had worked with, although I think the prints in the show were not up to his and Grove-Hardy’s standards.

Grove Hardy ~ Requiem for a Lab is on the unattributed Darkside blog – I’m unsure whether the author wishes to remain anonymous or has simply forgotten to add his name, so I won’t name him either. After Bert Hardy, who had set up the lab with printer Gerry Grove in the 50’s, died in 1995, his wife Sheila continued to run it, renaming it ‘The Bert Hardy Darkroom’, and it finally closed in 2007 after the retirement of the last remaining printer – there simply was not enough work to keep it running.

The darkroom perhaps doesn’t live up to what many might expect of a professional darkroom, and certainly not like some of those that have appeared in books which have looked at photographers and their darkrooms, though it is in most respects a little more well equipped than my own black hole. But its enlargers are a little more primitive than mine, and unable to make sensible use of Multigrade papers, so all its prints were to the end made on graded papers. The writer comments that by “the 2000’s Grove Hardy were probably the only lab in London still using graded paper, and Ilford were making it primarily for them and a handful of other labs worldwide.”

The darkroom was just off the Blackfriars Rd in Southwark, a short walk from where Bert Hardy grew up, and close to another site many photographers knew well some years ago, the Valentine Place premises where Martin Reed set up photographic suppliers Silverprint. Reed sold the company a few years ago, and Silverprint has now moved out of London, but still supplies hard to find photographic materials (like film and silver-based papers) and equipment at new address in Poole, Dorset or by mail order.

Laughlin’s Third World

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

One of the books I’ve had on my shelves for a very long time – since soon after it was published in 1973 – is is ‘Clarence John Laughlin: The Personal Eye‘, a catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition and a double issue of Aperture, Volume 17, Numbers 3 & 4, also published ‘as a book for general distribution’.

I don’t think its distribution in the UK would have been very wide, but like many US photographic publications of the time it would have been available at the Creative Camera bookshop in Doughty St and doubtless advertised in the magazine.

For those without a copy on their bookshelves, you can get a good idea of Lauglin’s thinking from ‘First Principles of the Third World of Photography – THE WORLD BEYOND DOCUMENTATION AND PURISM ONE – TEXT AND IMAGES BY CLARENCE JOHN LAUGHLIN’ on Carnival of Dogs. His 12 point manifesto there begins “In Photography, as in all arts, the quality of the human imagination is the only thing that counts – technique, and technical proficiency, mean nothing in themselves” and ends “The limitations of photography are nothing more than the limitations of photographers themselves.”

Much of Laughlin’s work is now in the Historic New Orleans Collection, where you can view and zoom into many of his pictures, so many indeed that it is hard to know where to start. But it is worth paging through the many pages of thumbnails and picking some to look at.

Although in the end I learnt that my own creative interests were in purism and documentation, in my early years in photography work such as Laughlin’s made a strong impression on me, and I’m rather surprised that although I wrote about him and other photographers who might be considered to follow in his footsteps such as Arthur Tress in another place, this is the first time in several thousand posts I appear to have mentioned him here.

Laughlin’s work was brought to my mind by two posts Clarence John Laughlin: In Memoriam on Photocritic International by A D Coleman, who wrote about Laughlin in his 1977 critical survey The Grotesque in Photography.

The first piece takes its sub-title Prophet without Honor from the subtitle of the Laughlin biography, Clarence John Laughlin: Prophet without Honor by A. J. Meek, professor emeritus of art at Louisiana State University (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and one of two stories in it recounts Coleman’s meeting with Laughlin around 1975 when the photographer showed his of work to collector Sam Wagstaff. He set out a strict set of conditions about what he expected anyone who bought his pictures must do – and after looking through the work, Wagstaff rejected the idea that a photographer should have any rights over their pictures after they had been sold.

Over the ages, artists have almost always had an uneasy relationship with those who have provided them with a living, but it is only in relatively recent times that photography has succumbed so entirely to patronage by individuals and corporations. Most of the early photographers were themselves wealthy and others have maintained some sort of independence based on various commercial practices and around the reproducibility of the medium.

The second piece, subtitled Lament for the Walking Wounded, is an article published by Coleman in his “Light Readings” column in the December 1977 issue of the magazine Camera 35, together with a postscript.

Published at the time without names, it recounted the speech by Hilton Kramer, then chief art critic for The New York Times, at a New York City national meeting of the Society for Photographic Education, in which Kramer held Laughlin up to ridicule not for his photography, but making tasteless jokes about his eccentric nature. Coleman himself felt ashamed after the event at having joined in the whole-heated laughter at a man he describes as on of “the walking wounded of photography” who have suffered from their dedication to the medium and “never got their due and are beginning to realize that they may never get it.”

Though relating events now around 40 years in the past, these are stories which are still relevant, perhaps even more relevant, today.

Charmes de Londres

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

I have quite a collection of books of photographs of London (as well as probably a few hundred thousand of my own pictures) but one of my favourites is ‘Charmes de Londres‘, credited to Jacques Prevert with photographs by D’Iziz-Bidermanas. Although most of the texts are poems by Prevert, it also has some quotations by others including William Blake and a Picasso drawing.

I didn’t buy this when it first came out in 1952, as I was then only seven and penniless – and it wasn’t in any case for sale, but came across it in an Oxfam shop perhaps 15 years ago, paying £19.50 for a copy in good condition. Perhaps remarkably you can still find copies of the original edition, published ‘hors commerce‘ for members of La Guilde Du Livre in Lausanne and printed by heliogravure (photogravure) on wood pulp free paper, for only a pound or two more. The previous year’s collaboration, published in the same way,  Grand Bal du Printemps, will set you back around 25 times as much.

Part of the reason you can still find copies of that original version (there are also later editions) is that it was a relatively large print run, with 10,300 numbered copies (mine is No. 4871) as well as 30 labelled I to XXX for the organisers of the guild. Although photographers often complain about getting second billing to writers when then works are published, Prevert had a much larger fan base!

The book is a reminder of the fine printing that could be achieved with photogravure, and it matches the mood of Iziz’s images perfectly. A recent post on Spitalfields Life,  Israel Bidermanas’ London, reproduces a fine selection of over 20 images from the book, without Prevert’s poems (which are of course in French) and gives a good impression of the subjects, but shows them in a more modern tonal interpretation, more contrasty and with intense blacks, which perhaps loses something of the gloomy charm of the original publication. This was a post-war London still under a gloomy miasma, though probably the real pea-soupers defeated the photographer few if any images have a clear distance.

The best way to see more of his pictures on-line seems to be to search on Google Images or Pinterest for ‘Izis Bidermanas‘.

Iziz was one of many fine photographers of Paris, and another was Willy Ronis (1910-2009). In 2004, French editor Alain Dhouailly published a limited edition of 130 copies of a set of 12 or his images printed by heliogravure which gives some background on the process. Ronis’s work is fairly widely avaialable and on galleries on the web, for example at Hacklebury Fine Art.

Grossman & the Photo League

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Around 15 years ago, I wrote a series of articles and short notes about what was still then a very much overlooked part of American photographic history, but which is now referred to as ‘New York’s famed Photo League‘. An organisation that was destroyed by McCarthyism as ‘anti-American’ it remained largely outside the pale until this century, and I was pleased to be able write about it and to mention some of the photographers still alive and working who learned and developed their craft there, largely under the critical eye of Sid Grossman (1913-1955). I’ve mentioned it before on this site, including two posts with the same title, The New York Photo League where I quote from my 2001 article, and a longer version here.

You can get some idea of the critical blind-spot by reading the lengthy introductory essay by Gerry Badger to the 1985 Barbican show ‘American Images: Photography 1945-80’ which relegates Grossman and others to what is essentially a footnote to the later work of Robert Frank and the Photo League to an introductory sentence to the work of Aaron Siskind which makes clear that his importance as a photographer was due to breaking away from his early work with the League on Harlem Document.

Although none of Grossman’s work appeared in the Barbican show, that the work of several others involved in the Photo League does probably owes itself – as did much of the show – to the ideas and graft of John Benton-Harris, a native New Yorker who studied with Alexey Brodovitch, and who grew up with the work of the Photo League photographers and their successors and their views of his city.

As his artist page at the Howard Greenberg Gallery states, Grossman, who had founded the Photo League with Sol Libsohn in 1936, “had a tremendous influence on a large number of students who studied with him including Weegee, Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein, Ruth Orkin, Arthur Leipzig, Rebecca Lepkoff and numerous others.”

The main show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York until Feb 11, 2017 is the “first solo exhibition in 30 years to explore the legacy of Sid Grossman” and the exhibition also includes “a small selection of work by some of Sid Grossman’s students including Rebecca Lepkoff, Leon Levinstein, Marvin Newman and Ruth Orkin.” Also showing at the gallery is a “companion exhibition with work by Sy Kattelson, a student and close friend of Sid Grossman.

Last September, Steidl co-published with Howard Greenberg Gallery ‘The Life and Work of Sid Grossman ISBN, 9783958291256′ with a biographical and critical essay by Keith F Davis, the first comprehensive survey of Sid Grossman’s life and work, with over 150 photographs “from his early social documentary work of the late 1930s to the more personal and dynamic street photography of the late 1940s, as well as late experiments with abstraction in both black and white and color.”

England, and Saint George!

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

A few minutes on Wikipedia convinces me that April 23 has more than its share of famous births, deathas and commemorations of which the best known here is of the man the Eastern Orthodox call “Holy Glorious Great-martyr and Victory-bearer and Wonderworker George“, a Palestinian (or Turk) of Greek parentage and a Roman soldier – if he actually existed. Certainly the dragon didn’t, and was not involved in the legend that made him a saint, in which, undoubtedly like some Christians of the era, he was tortured at length before being beheaded for refusing to convert to the Roman gods following an edict by Emperor Diocletian in AD 303 which led to three years of such persecution, though applied with differing severity across the Roman Empire.

April 23 is a day George shares with a number of other saints, with Wikipaedia listing around a dozen for the Eastern Orthodox, including George’s mother, two soldiers converted by witnessing George’s martyrdom and the wife of Diocletian, as well as another 14 pre-schism Western Saints, post-schism Orthodox saints, new martyrs and confessors (though due to our change to the Gregorian calendar they celebrate these April 23 events on our May 6th.) In the West, George shares his feast day with Adalbert of Prague and Gerard of Toul, while both the Evangelical Lutherans and Episcopalians in the USA commemorate the life of Japanese Christian pacifist, reformer and labour activist Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) which seems to me admirable. It’s a shame we’ve never heard of him here.

Shakespeare was probably born on April 23 1564, and certainly died on April 23 1616, giving us another reason to commemorate – and UNESCO chose April 23 as UN English Language Day, (one of six promoting its official working languages,) for that reason. It’s also UNESCO World Book Day, though in the UK we celebrate this on on the first Thursday in March instead, as April 23 is often in the Easter school holidays.

In England, St George’s Day once ranked with Christmas as a major celebration, an occasion for feasting and drinking, but its celebration became less important after the union with Scotland, and had almost disappeared in the last century. One or two people still wore a red rose, and some official buildings flew a flag, though usually the Union Flag rather than the English flag of St George. The day never became a bank holiday, partly because of its closeness to Easter (and the Church of England even moves his feast day when it gets too close to Easter, moving it from April 23 to the Monday following the Second Sunday of Easter.)

Back in the last century, even English sport teams and their supporters would often use the Union Flag rather than the English St George Flag, but it was sport and particularly football that led to a resurgence for the red cross on white, and pubs showing England games at the World Cup on TV that led to its proliferation across the land. It became associated with football supporters, and with the largely right wing hooligans involved in football violence who dominated many ultra-nationalist groups, often styling themselves as patriots, and looking back to a mythical past of an all-white England ruling an empire around the world, or even launching crusades against the infidel foreigners.

A strange alliance between these ‘patriots’ and others who have tried to reclaim the English flag from the bigots has led to an increase in official commemoration of St George’s Day this century, which has involved groups including the BBC, English Heritage and London Mayor Boris Johnson, as well as some churches, and it’s a mixture that has been reflected in my photographs of the day over the years.

In 2016, St George’s Day actually fell on a Saturday, and I expected to see more activity than in other years, but was in the end rather disappointed. The Mayor’s day of events in Trafalgar Square seemed rather lacking in spirit, and all more organised events by ‘patriots’ in the London Area seem to have evaporated, perhaps because of increased militancy by anti-fascist groups. I paid a brief visit to Trafalgar Square, but found little to photograph – perhaps things got better later in the day, but the few pictures I’ve seen by others don’t encourage that thought.

South of the river in Southwark things were a little better with a festival ‘A Quest for Community’ with the aim of ‘Taming the dragon of difference’ involving a St George’s Day procession from the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St George to the Church of England St George the Martyr in Borough High Street. As well as St George, Diocletian and his daughter, a sooth-sayer and of course a dragon, it also included drummers and the Mayor of Southwark, to whom I was pleased to be able to point out a blue plaque and tell her a little about one of the Borough’s more famous son’s, photographer Bert Hardy, who grew up in ‘The Priory’ which was on our route.

She had been unaware that one of Picture Post’s best-known photographers and a pioneer in using 35mm in press photography had come from her patch – and never really left it, though advertising brought him enough money to buy and live in Chartlands Farm, Limpsfield Chart near Oxted. And about how his powerful photography had powered the textbook example of an unsuccessful advertising campaign, ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ along with an outstanding ‘noir’ TV ad shot by Carol Reed with music by Cliff Adams that would have topped the charts had the BBC not banned it for advertising cigarettes. Even at 3s2d for 20, nobody wanted to be seen as lonely enough to buy them.

The procession ran late, and I didn’t have time to watch more than a few minutes of the play that followed, and missed the free pint that was waiting for me in the City where Leadenhall Market was also celebrating our patron saint. Instead I met with friends at the Old Kings Head in Kings Head Yard just off Borough high St, a welcome survival of a traditional English pub – and where better to meet not just one St George, but two, the second accompanied by his very own dragon.

I forget why we left. Perhaps it was the thought of a good dinner waiting for me at home, but I stopped for a minute or so in the yard outside for a last picture of St George with his dragon holding his own and George’s pint in the alley outside, a rather different and very English version of the legend, and my favourite picture from a long day.

More at:
St George in Southwark Procession
St Georges Day in London

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