“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford
‘HAROLD WILSON TRAITOR TO THE UNION FAT PIG RAT’ is scrawled on a door in Toxteth, Liverpool. It’s 1968 and Nick Hedges has been commissioned by the housing charity Shelter to travel through the United Kingdom recording the plight of people housed in substandard accommodation, ignored by councils and exploited by landlords. Over the next four years he finds no shortage of subjects. Some of the resulting images were used and published by Shelter, but this is first time in forty years that the entire set have been exhibited together, an embargo intended to protect the anonymity of those who spoke to the photographer during his travels through London, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities and communities across the country.
Forty years later what Hedges saw and photographed still defies belief. Houses (many of which barely even deserve that description) with bare brick walls, cracked ceilings, pools of standing water and sewage, surrounded by partially destroyed streets that better resemble war zones than the suburbs of major cities. In one of a number of short extracts from Hedge’s notes which are scattered around the exhibition, he recalls how in one case he had to bring light-bulbs with him in order to shoot, since the family he was visiting didn’t have any in the light sockets of the tenement they occupied. In another he notes how a family were woken one morning by the sound of a demolition crew starting to knock down their row of houses, with them still inside.
These grim anecdotes aside (and there are plenty more in this show) Hedge’s brings a photographic brilliance which makes these more than just depressing records of poverty and misery. Part of that is technical, the interior photographs are beautiful contrasts of light and dark, often composed in a chaotic way which chimes with the disorder of the rooms themselves, which are invariably stacked with broken furniture and with washing hung from the ceilings. Part of it is also procedural, particularly the way Hedges roves beyond the immediate remit of his commission, photographing his subjects at work or play for example. In one picture a woman anonymised by Hedges as ‘Mrs E’ carries out the Byzantine task of sticking broken glass to the tops of walls to ward off trespassers, in order to supplement her family’s meagre income. A profession as strange and medieval as that of Chris Killip’s nearly contemporary photographs of the Seacoal diggers. Other photographs, for example of kids at play in the streets, are reminiscent of Roger Mayne and Helen Levitt.
Despite being a series about shelter, Hedge’s exterior photographs are in many ways as atmospheric and telling as his interiors. In one picture from which the show takes it’s name, a deserted tenement street in Leeds is shown, the end of a row of houses daubed with a disintegrating sign which reads ‘BEECHAM’S PILLS, MAKE LIFE WORTH LIVING’. In the foreground three children run past holding enormous toy guns. Hedge’s photographs illustrate that the quest for decent housing isn’t just a matter of making life worth living, but that in fact for many people, and particularly children, decent housing can be a matter of life and death. As in photographs by the likes of Mayne, the children in Hedge’s photographs often look more like small adults, their faces already worn and creased by the strain of life. It’s a depressing evidence of the toll of poverty. One image which lingers particularly long on the mind is a portrait of a beautiful young girl, her face marked by a vicious skin infection from living in close proximity to raw sewage. In another we see the aftermath of a child’s funeral.
It would be easy to label what these photographs show as Dickensian and leave it at that, but really what is on display here is far beyond the awfulness of anything I’ve ready in Dickens. These pictures record things I find hard to imagine in his era, let alone a century after his death. And yet the really eerie thing about this exhibition stems from the sense of its timing, that forty years after Hedges took these photographs we should again be living through a crisis of housing, where huge numbers of individuals and families are dumped in the limbo of substandard temporary accommodation for years at a time, and others are forced onto the street. These photographs are remarkable, distressing, beautiful, pertinent, and angerful.
Make Life Worth Living continues at the Science Museum, London until 1st March 2014 and is free.