A photo by Roger Mayne

Roger Mayne Two Boys Smoking, Southam Street, 1956
black and white photograph 39 x 26.5cm (paper size) 34.1 x 22.7cm (print size)

This image appears in the first major exhibition in eighteen years of the British photographer Roger Mayne, at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.
Shot from above, from a passing adult’s perspective, two boys, seated on a worn Victorian doorstep, are tightly framed, even somewhat cropped. The horizontal lines behind emphasise the characters’ vertical disposition and this, in turn, underlines their hierarchy.
The older boy (are they siblings perhaps?) wears the trousers, both metaphorically and literally, and the viewer notes, by contrast, the vulnerability of the small boy’s bare knees and short white socks. A privileged glimpse of a corner of the street where teenagers are made, in a world of hard knocks where everyone knows their place. A rite of passage into adolescence, a seated adventure in a grubby existence, the younger exhilarated by the attention of the older, the thrill of the ride, dipping a toe, forbidden pastures, driven by the nervous energy of the the chance to and the short lived but sharp thrill of brief intoxication. The initiation is acknowledged with a smile of approval as the older boy looks down with apparent pride.

Mayne, like other photographers of the era, saw the importance of documenting urban working class communities before they were destroyed by the ever accelerating modernization of the second half of the twentieth century. The viewer with the benefit of hindsight anticipates the approaching changes to the area and a sense of sadness is felt. Nevertheless, Mayne did not aim to be a social realist, nor did he have family links to the people of the areas that he photographed. He described the work as a ‘choreography of human life’, ‘the embodied experience out in the street’, ‘the way that people seemed to live through their bodies’.

The curator of the exhibition Ann Douglas suggests Mayne’s ultimate intention was to impart a ‘feeling state’ between photographer and the viewer. He undoubtedly, and very movingly, achieves this.

Vicky Burch