Roger Mayne -street photographer


Having explored the work of Doisneau and Ronis , I thought I should tackle a British ‘street’ photographer –Roger Mayne.

Some of the quotes have been taken from the Victoria and Albert museum website

Roger Mayne

I will try and let Roger speak for himself:

I started photography quite early but it wasn’t, in retrospect, very serious. I can’t remember when I first became interested in photography, but I didn’t have much of a background. There were no Picture Post magazines in my family and I wasn’t even allowed comics as a child. So I started photographing landscapes because I like mountains. I can’t explain why I like mountains living in Cambridge, which is in a flat county, and I can’t really say how I first began to be interested in photography. I think photography probably found me.

Text adapted from spoken dialogue (V&A)

“Just after I came to London I began to take a few photographs of children.”

cricket addison place. 1957

‘Photography involves two main distortions – the simplification into black and white, and the seizing of an instant in time. It is this particular mixture of reality and unreality, and the photographer’s power to select, that makes it possible for photography to be an art. Whether it is good art depends on the power and the truth of the artist’s statement.’
Roger Mayne, 1960, quoted in the comprehensive monograph
Roger Mayne Photographs (Jonathan Cape, 2001)

Screaming Child 1956

“My reason for photographing the poor streets is that I love them, and the life on them (I am here concerned with what I see: for the moment it is irrelevant that most of these houses have no baths, and that their structure is endangered by disrepair). Empty, the streets have their own kind of beauty, a kind of decaying splendour, and always great atmosphere — whether romantic, on a hazy winter day, or listless when the summer is hot; sometimes it is forbidding; or it may be warm and friendly on a sunny spring weekend when the street is swarming with children playing, and adults walking through or standing gossiping.

Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road.1956

I remember my excitement when I turned a corner into Southam Street, a street I have returned to again and again… I think an artist must work intuitively, and let his attitudes be reflected by the kinds of things he likes or finds pictorial. Attitudes will be reflected because an artist is a kind of person who is deeply interested in people, and the forces that work in our society. This implies a humanist art, but not necessarily an interest in ‘politics’.”

 The other kind of photography that I began to become aware of was photography with people and there was a lot of talk in photographic magazines about the then newly-formed Magnum group.  (V%A)

Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent.1957

“My intention is to be a fine artist, but I think that it is the nature of the medium of photography that one has to start with what photography does, which is to take records of things. So I think you take a record and if, for various reasons, everything comes together, then the record will raise itself to a work of art.”

Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow.1957

“I went to South London and I saw, in the distance, a bombed building with a lot of children playing in it, so I thought that might be an interesting subject. So I walked towards this building and when the children saw somebody with a camera they immediately stopped this fascinating thing, whatever they were doing which intrigued me, so they all came out and wanted their photograph. You used to get this cry, ‘please take my photo Mister’.”

children-in-bombed-building-bermondsey.1954

“In the series I’ve taken them the way they wanted to. They went back into the building and started playing very much as they had before and I think this is quite a lesson to be learnt. One shouldn’t be afraid of wasting a few shots on often very dreary mug-shots just to get yourself an entry into the situation, because they’ll soon forget about you and get on with what they’re doing.” (V&A)


Boy on a Bombsite, Waverley Walk, Harrow Road area.1957

Although now more than fifty years old the Southam Street photographs have become an indelible part of how people perceive Roger Mayne as a photographer. They are in many ways a noose around his neck. “In a sense I put it round my own neck” says Roger. “What happened was – I’ve always been an inveterate maker of albums – so I made an album of Southam Street, because it was the most prolific. I tended to have favourite streets. Southam Street had the most photographs, so I made an album of it. Then I had 56 pages given to me in a magazine so I condensed the photographs to fit the 56 pages. It went to about 1500 copies. When the V&A exhibition came up, a similar situation happened. I re-edited the Southam Street and of course by doing that I drew all this attention, and I just saddled myself since with Southam Street. Some of the people photographed came to the V&A opening. The Evening Standard did a feature on the street of ‘Roger Mayne’s exhibition’ and they were interested to hear comments from some of the people who lived on the street. They got some – in fact quite a lot. Then The Sunday Times did a feature before the exhibition and some of the families photographed called me and came to the opening.”

Boys smoking 1956

Footballer and shadow.1956

“When I came to London I endlessly went to galleries – I soaked myself in visual art, cinema as well – I got it into my system. You almost feel that the moment is significant without knowing necessarily why. Terry Frost says ‘If you know before you look then you cannot see for knowing’. It’s not an intellectual process. It is not simply capturing a moment. It is what is in front of me – it is a formal shape. If the formal shape is interesting, it makes the photograph possible to look at again and again and again. A lot of news photography for instance – what is in front of the camera – it can be tough, it can be sensational, interesting, all sorts of things, but it lacks a compositional element.”

two-boys-with-snowballs.1955

 I turn the corner and I find this wonderful street which was Southam Street, which was the street where I was to take probably the most of all photographs of streets.  (V%A)

Girl on the Steps, St Stephen’s Gardens, 1957

Most photographs of children I try and take unawares.There was this girl, this very beautiful girl, sitting on these steps, but I simply didn’t seem to be able to take her unawares. She insisted on looking at me. In fact she looked at me so persistently that I was forced to take the photograph the way she wanted. In fact it did turn out one of my best-known photographs.   (V&A)

snowballs-east-end.1955

 I have been labelled as a photojournalist but I’m not happy about this. I had to earn my living, so I do think of myself as earning my living on the fringes of photojournalism, but I do think of myself as a fine artist. My intention is to be a fine artist, but I think that it is the nature of the medium of photography that one has to start with what photography does, which is to take records of things. So I think you take a record and if, for various reasons, everything comes together, then the record will raise itself to a work of art.  (V&A)

kensal-road-girl-doing-a-handstand-1957

cricket-addison-place-north-kensington-1957

conkers-addison-place-north-kensington-1957

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~ by Ray Harris on May 20, 2012.

3 Responses to “Roger Mayne -street photographer”

  1. beautiful

  2. I love your pictures of southam street I was born there in 1959 it was a wonderful place to live I found a picture of my mother on your site having mixed raced children then was indeed uncommon and you captured a snap of her and my brother with a cousin who is white you put in under black and white children in a pram I myself Iam white so having black brothers was uncommon when we moved to ealing in the 60s

  3. […] blogged about Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau,Bert Hardy and Roger Mayne, you may have noticed I like street photography, realism, photo journalism, documentary and a […]

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