Epitaph – Roger Mayne

 girl about to do a handstand, southam street, 1957
Girl about to do a handstand, Southam Street, 1957. Roger Mayne.

I’m no hero worshipper, but it seems a little fitting to use Disphotic’s first post to commiserate the death and celebrate the life and work of one of Britain’s great post-war photographers. When I heard a month ago that Roger Mayne had passed away I felt a tinge of sadness, tempered by the thought that this might at least be an opportunity for his work to get another viewing. Mayne was someone I encountered early on, at an embryonic stage in my awareness of photography. While many of his peers faded from my interest as time went by and I became better able to interpret and understand their photographs, his pictures remained permanently and exceptionally gripping.

As many have noted Mayne was hardly the archetypal street photographer. An Oxford educated chemist, by most accounts shy and intellectual, he found his  calling in photographing the streets of the east and west ends of London in the decades after the Second World War. If memoirs and photographs of apparently idylic pre-war childhoods in the cities of Europe now weigh heavy with the knowledge of the horror that was to come, then Mayne’s photographs are a sort of negative image of these. The want and destruction of the war years are plain to see in his them, marked on every building and face. Somehow though this sense of dirt and tiredness is still overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance and energy of his photographs.

While he photographed a wide range of subjects in the streets he roved, he was particularly drawn to children at play. As H.V Morton noted in his post-war travels through the city, these were children who had only ever known London as a smoky wasteland of ruined buildings and bomb sites, and they adapted to it as only children can, making it their own playground. Mayne captured kids being kids; playing football, bullying one another, climbing on things they shouldn’t, coyly smoking cigarettes or gambling. In some ways these subjects were nothing out of the ordinary, but he caught them with such a clever, delicate eye that the resulting photographs are of far more interest than these simple verbal descriptions suggest.

At the same time Mayne was also documenting the start of something rather more exceptional, the changing role of the young in British society. Alongside the young kids up to mischief we start to see young adults evolving into something more distinctly recognisable as the teenager. We see the emergence of nascent youth movements, most notably the Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls, mixing a heady combination of style and physical menace, a cocktail which continues to define the teenager in the popular imagination, if not in fact. Mayne’s photographs then are ahistorical in the sense that they deal with the universality of childhood, but they are also historically specific in the way they document a turning point for Britain, from a country where children generally remained hidden in the background, to one which today is obsessed with youth, and which foregrounds it at every opportunity.

These photographs remain enormously significant as a reminder of how attitudes towards children have changed for the worse in the last fifty years. Amidst the clamour of fear in the United Kingdom over child abductions, paedophilia and perhaps also the outrages of the paparazzi press, it has become nearly impossible to turn a camera on a child in public, especially not one to which the photographer has no prior relationship. To do so risks disapprobation, violence, even intervention by the police. This, despite the sad fact that children are statistically most frequently at risk from those that they are closest to. In our desire to protect children, we have lost the ability to record and remember the fun and freedom that can make childhood great, and we now have only the photographs of Mayne and a few others, relics from another era, to remind us.