One of Ken Russell’s childhood memories was of going to school on a rainy day and noticing the clouds reflected in the puddles. These clouds—that seemed to float on the surface of the water—looked more real than the ones in the sky. They were beautiful and golden—the sky an iridescent blue. It seemed to young Ken that the reflected world down there was far more interesting than the one up in the sky.
It was a small epiphany: “If one could get down there,” he thought “it would be fantastic.” It was a vision of the world that Russell never gave up on.
In 1950s, after a stint in the merchant navy and as a ballet dancer, Russell picked up a camera and started taking pictures of the world as he saw it—this time reflected through the glass of his camera.
Over the decade, he took thousands of photographs capturing a beautifully strange and quirky world no one else seemed to have noticed. He started creating photo-essays on street scenes, market traders, parties, fashion, friends, dancers and documented the lives of many of London’s outsiders—the teenage gangs, the newly arrived immigrants and even the daily life for women in prison.
Russell then began to create his own imaginative flights of fancy—stories of cop and robbers, duels, races on bicycles and penny-farthings. He hawked his work around the agencies.
But I didn’t cut quite the right image. With my down-at-heel brogues and shiny Donegal three-piece suit I couldn’t look the least like Cecil Beaton, the popular image of the fashion photographer, no matter how much Honey and Flowers (from Woolworths) I sprinkled about my person. It was too early for the dirty photographer. You had to be dapper, suave, elegant, queer. If David Bailey had turned up in those days he wouldn’t have got past the door. Generally the editors would look at my stuff and say, “Yes, very nice but who’s your tailor? Ugh!”
Nevertheless I did land a couple of jobs because I was so cheap. £2.10.0 a page. Peanuts!
For lack of models, Russell relied on his friends and dancer pals who hung around the Troubadour coffee bar. It was an intensive apprenticeship that led to Russell making his first film in 1956 Peepshow.
Ken Russell’s photographs from the 1950s show his unique eye for capturing the unusual and an immense his talent for creating powerful and iconic imagery.
Troubadour: the penny-farthing bicycle, 1955.
Zora the Unvanquished—writer Zora Raeburn pasting some of the hundreds of rejection letters she received to a wall outside her home, spring, 1955.
More of Ken Russell’s photos from the fifties, after the jump…
Posted by Paul Gallagher |
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