In 1945, aged 18, Ken Russell put an advertisement in the London newspapers. “Young aesthete suffering from ennui forced to seek work,” it read. “Almost any opportunity considered.” Before he became a filmmaker best known for directing The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” and “The Devils”, Russell had an odd assortment of careers. He was briefly in the merchant navy, then in the air force, then became a ballet dancer in Norway, then an actor with the Garrick Players. After that he bought a camera and took to the streets of London as a freelance photographer, shooting all day and developing films on the table of his bedsit at night.
Russell’s photos from the 1950s, which he sold through an agency to magazines such as Picture Post and Illustrated, go on show this month at the Proud Gallery in Chelsea. “I wanted to be a fashion photographer but it was too early for my kind of style,” Russell later said. Instead he prowled the city, seeking out curious and eccentric images: a septuagenarian failed novelist, children play-acting on bombsites, the coolly androgynous members of the short-lived Teddy Girl subculture. Where he couldn’t find scenes, he would set them up, using props from his surroundings. An entire set of photos revolves around people demonstrating “alternative uses” for hip baths and lampshades.
Russell put down his Rolleicord camera at the end of the decade when he went to work for the BBC. His pictures show the beginnings of a documentary sensibility that would show up in his work for television, as well as the operatic surrealism of his feature films. His negatives were rediscovered in the archives of a picture agency in 2005. It is just as well that Russell, who by then was 78, didn’t keep them at home: his house burnt down in 2006, destroying most of his possessions, including his film memorabilia. Undaunted, he was working indefatigably on low-budget movies until his death in 2011. His photographs provide a fascinating glimpse of the era, and mark the birth of a singular cinematic style.
Rock steady, 1955
The Teddy Boy style of the postwar years in London was based on the clothes of Edwardian dandies (hence “Ted”). Less well known is the short-lived Teddy Girl subculture: working-class, teenage girls whose dramatic, androgynous look symbolised a rejection of social norms and rationing-era austerity. “They were tough, these kids,” remembered Russell, who photographed the Teddy Girls in the ruins of bombed-out London from Walthamstow to Notting Hill. “They were proud. They knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.”
A Window on High Fashion, 1955
Another in Russell’s series on Teddy Girls, this photograph shows the more recognisably Edwardian side of the craze, depicting 18-year-old Barbara Wood in boater hat, pencil skirt and velvet collar viewed through the window of a bombed-out building in east London. Russell was the first, and probably the only, professional photographer to pay attention to the Teddy Girls, who usually designed and made their own clothes.
Stop thief!, date unknown
A policeman on a pogo stick pursues a fleeing criminal and his bag o’ swag. Shots like this show Russell developing the brand of dotty surrealism that he would later bring to “Tommy” and the demented biopic “Mahler” – but they also look forward to the madcap larks of “Yellow Submarine” and the stoner Sixties. In this one Russell, puffing with indignation in tunic and helmet, plays the policeman. “You learned about texture, form and pattern,” he recalled of his time studying photography at art school, “which I promptly discarded.”
Boys on bombsites, 1954
Russell always had an eye for the strange and overblown, but many of these shots demonstrate an altogether quieter sensibility. He brought a judicious documentary vision to his photographs of Jamaican immigrants in Notting Hill, poor toddlers in down-at-heel neighbourhoods of South London – and, in this striking image, young boys playing in the ruins of a metropolis yet to be rebuilt. It was 1954; rationing was still in effect. “They lived like beggars,” Russell said. “I was conscious they were poor little sods. They fascinated me.”
We Regret to Inform You, 1955
“For 20 years 72-year-old Zora Raeburn has been writing novels and sending them to publishers,” ran the article Russell wrote for Illustrated magazine in 1955. “For 20 years they have come back. She has not had a single acceptance. But she has never despaired.” The images ran under the title “Zora the Unvanquished”, led by this picture of Raeburn posing with her wall of rejection letters. By letting two rooms of her flat and working as a shorthand typist, Raeburn did eventually make enough money to publish one of her novels herself. Its title? “Disillusioned”.
Orphans of the Storm, 1954
Russell once said that the only thing standing between him and a career as a fashion photographer was his tailor, or lack of one. “You were expected to wear a Bond Street suit with a white carnation in the lapel. I couldn’t even afford the carnation.” Later he came to see his documentary photography as a route to filmmaking instead, and so it proved: his films for the Free Cinema documentary movement, and the shorts he made with the money from his magazine shoots, got him his first jobs in television. The title of this image pays homage to D.W. Griffith’s classic film about the French Revolution from 1921, but the depiction of poor children after a rainstorm has an eerie calm.
Reality is a Dirty Word: Photographs by Ken Russell, Proud Chelsea, until January 3rd 2017, www.proud.co.uk