Comments/Context: Roger Mayne's photographs of children playing in the streets of working-class slums in 1950s postwar England are remarkably pared down and structured for what we call street photography. Using the linear geometries of the row houses and tenements as a controlling framework, his urban portraits and childhood vignettes play out with sparse, gritty clarity. Kids in proper school uniforms scramble around and improvise games, all with the dingy reality of the city as an ever present backdrop.
While we Americans might see a certain commonality between Mayne's images and those of Helen Levitt's New York, I think this parallel is mostly superficial. Mayne's pictures capture a time and place far different than our own, even though kids everywhere want to climb on window sills, create makeshift sculpture out of cardboard boxes, and play soccer in the street. Of course there is joy in these pictures (wrestling, giggling, fighting with swords, blowing bubbles), but shadows, broken bricks, and decaying architecture loom in the background, exhaustion and empty poverty never very far from view. Many of Mayne's photographs capture this emotional back and forth: an optimistic billboard with a huge sparkling cruise ship flanked by a dirty weed strewn vacant lot, girls happily scrambling over a pock marked, bombed out wall, and Teddy boys posing in fancy suits and pompadour haircuts, trying to find some way to rebel against the whole stifling situation.
Beyond the subject matter of these photographs, I was also struck by Mayne's use of scale in some of these prints. Very few photographers working in the 1950s were experimenting with print sizes nearing 20x24, and as a result, there is something strikingly unusual about the surprising bigness of a handful of these works. (Apparently, Mayne was interested in ensuring that his photographs would sit on equal footing with paintings from the St. Ives School.) Mayne was also often employing extremely high contrast (almost crossing into abstraction), with over bright windows set next to the deep black slash of a bridge girder, or patterns of smoke stacks and brick buildings placed against a featureless white sky. The combination of these two gives the images a heightened sense of darkness, often offset by the lightness of a game of hopscotch or sidewalk cricket.
Overall, I came away impressed with Mayne's ability to unobtrusively capture the fleeting moments of urban childhood, while at the same time infusing them with a heightened sense of heavy reserve. His pictures aren't just simple fun, but something more balanced and atmospheric.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3500 and $9000, with most under $5000. Mayne's work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices generally ranging between $1000 and $4000.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Through July 21st
170 East 75th Street
New York, NY 10021