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Children in Bombed Building, Bermondsey, 1954
Footballer Reaching, Brindley Road, 1957
Teddy Boy and Girl, Petticoat Lane, 1956
Teddy Boys Gambling, Princedale Road, 1956
Two Boys Holding Snowballs, London, 1950s
Roger Mayne was born 5 May 1920 in Cambridge. He began taking photographs when studying Chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford University, first drawn to the chemical procedures involved in photographic processing. By 1951 he had begun to contribute pictures to Picture Post and, in 1954, he moved to London, determined to forge a career as a freelance photographer. He met with modest success, taking on various projects that included photographing the street market and slums of inner London and the artists that lived and worked in St Ives, Cornwall.
1956 was a breakthrough year for Mayne as his portraits were exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and at George Eastman House, New York. That, same year, he began his seminal study of Southam Street, Notting Dale (now often considered park of Notting Hill) in West London, which continued intermittently for five years. It remains his most important work, and established his reputation as an influential photojournalist. In the series, he documented daily life, with particular focus on children and their outdoor games. He captured the first generation to be identified as “teenagers”, and contrasted the young people’s exuberance with the urban dereliction they inhabited. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment was an inspiration for Mayne’s work on Southam Street. The original series is now owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is a valuable record of London’s urban environment in the 1950s. Most of Southam Street was demolished in 1969 as part of a slum clearance programme, to make way for Trellick Tower. Only a small section of the street still exists.
Mayne’s influences were as much among the St Ives school of artists than of any other photographers of the time. He consciously printed with high contrast to emphasise the formal qualities in his work and increased the scale of his prints to have a further dialogue with the paintings of the time. Mayne was a lecturer at the Bath Academy of Art (1966-69) and, when writing as an art critic, referred repeatedly to a “false state of photography”, which refuses to admit it remains properly an art form. He said in 1960: “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 truth of the artist’s statement.” As a practitioner, he saw himself as having come late to the Cartier-Bresson idiom, a consolidator rather than an innovator. They shared the style of “concerned” social documentary photography, taking street pictures with human subjects and applying a classical black-and-white composition to them.
Mayne married the actor, director and playwright, Ann Jellicoe, in 1962, with whom he collaborated on several projects including The Shell Guide to Devon (1975). He is best known for his black and white work from the 1950s, but was a significant contributor (in colour) to The Sunday Times Magazine in the 1960s. He photographed Greece and Spain, artists and their studios and then went on to work on photographing landscapes. Mayne continued to be in demand as a photographer into the twenty-first century. He died in June 2014, aged 85.
His work has been shown at the National Portrait Gallery, London in 2004 and formed part of the group exhibition, ‘Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now’ at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool in 2006.