‘we could be heroes’ at the photographers gallery

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‘It’s not the history of art, it’s the art of history’- Bruce Davidson

A century of youth culture is traced through the group show ‘We Could be Heroes’ at the Photographers Gallery. It exhibits work by Bruce Davidson, Ed van der Elsken, Bert Hardy, Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Roger Mayne, Chris Steele-Perkins, Anders Petersen, Al Vandenberg, Weegee and Tom Wood.

The title of the exhibition sets the tone for the works within; a cry of questionable optimism and the uncertainty of greatness that is so intrinsic to the pysche of youth. It’s reference to the lyrics of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is bittersweet of these uncertain desires, ‘though nothing will keep us together, we can beat them, forever and ever, we can be heroes, just for one day’; the sense of a battle against an order and the expiry of youthful abandon filters through to the photographs themselves.

To be young is to be a virgin to humanity. It is to experience the love, sex, art, music and culture that will abolish a class of liminal, transitional identities and create an individual. No one captures the dark romance of this human drama (and education) like Ed van der Elsken, the Dutch photographer whose work captures the agenda of the young across most of the world for the entire latter half of the twentieth Century.

Van der Elsken’s beeldroman (photonovel) of excesstiantialist post-war Paris, ‘Love on the Left Bank’ is a poem of true young love, that of heartbreak, and a selection of photographs are featured in We Could Be Heroes. It follows the story of Manuel- a Mexican immigrant – and his love for Ann, an Australian dancer and artist paving her way in Paris’ bohemian quarters.

The photographs within are timeless, raw portraits of youths close up dancing, kissing, smoking, fighting and embracing (those hobbies of the young) in the cafes of the left bank that are a culture within themselves.  The technology, or lack of thereof, is the only marker for dating the scene, even the clothes of the bohemians wouldn’t look awry on the young artists on our streets today.

Love On The Left Bank is a cinema-verite approach to unveiling these particular youths. The stark black and white photography is as striking and raw as the individuals it works to expose, a product of van der Elsken’s motto, ‘last zien wie je bent (show us who you are)’.

The central female character Ann, played by Val Myers is the icon of sensual femininity and Van der Elsken portrays her through his photographs and the accompanying story as the girl that all the boys want to be with and all the girls want to be. Her seductive, kohled and distant stare observes her peers, lovers, the viewer and herself intensely. The times where Ann embraces her own reflection in all those grime plastered mirrors is the true picture of the teenage self and sexuality as we seek to confront our identity. The lack of hope of post-war mentality and the vulnerable appetite of youth  is spoken from the dead eyes in ‘Love on the Left Bank’. There are no smiles, just seductive, drugged and lost stares to our seeking ones.

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We take the place of the voyeur throughout this exhibit, Weegee’s photos in particular create a sense of being somewhere you’re not supposed to be, an intruder into the spaces inhibited by the young. His photograph ‘Lovers’ captures a passionate kiss between a young couple in a cinema, framed by adults.  In comparison to the sense of abandonment that the young exhume (the girl is barefoot, the arbiter of wild childhood adventure), the old look bored and boring, albeit the comic happenstance of their 3d glasses. The image is arousing of both desire and nostalgia, it demands us to confront our first experiences with love, sex and skin as the boy cherishes her face and shoulders in his hands. Behind them, one man holds his hand to his face in questionable disgust.

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The works on show are representative of a universal youth with their presentation of different races and classes in a variety of spaces. A selection of Al Vandenberg’s works from the beautiful and hugely important series documenting British black culture in 60s and 70s London, ‘On a Good Day’ are featured. Too much of our social history of youth and subculture fails to acknowledge the individuals of different race or religion so the inclusion of some of Vandenberg’s seminal and stunning body of work is fantastic and a true call to install interest in these before silenced stories.

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Reservation from the subject towards the camera, thus their exposure is something that features fleetingly throughout the photographs on show. Bruce Davidson’s long term full immersion photo essay, ‘Brooklyn Gang: Summer 1959’ follows notorious teenage gang, The Jokers as they make love and trouble through one summer. Despite initial hostility to their being documented, Davidson gained trust and managed to create an intimate, honest and emotional chronicle of the teenage delinquent.

Brooklyn Gang is a collection of entangled bodies that are the manifestation of the desire to be wanted and belong that was so evidently felt by the group of working class, Italian-Catholic boys and girls, many from alcoholic parents. They hold each other with the feral desire to be loved and they crowd in alleys and under boardwalks like a tribe to install the sense of family. Though seemingly quite large in their number, the gang is isolated and are pictured in only a few particular places. The photos imbue a sense of community denied elsewhere.

Davidson draws often on the idea of the tattoo as a symbol of apparent teenage delinquency, yet here we see it more as a marker of tribal togetherness in a world of otherness. The boys hold up their biceps in pride and crowd into a tattoo shop ready to modify and take control of their own bodies as a defiant act of the awareness of self.

There are as many girls in Brooklyn Gang as boys, often being kissed and embraced, often holding the boys themselves. One photograph captures beautiful gang member Cathy observing her reflection in a cigarette machine liked Ed van der Elsken’s Ann. Davidson remembers her as ‘always there, but outside’. Some years later Cathy put a shotgun in her mouth and killed herself. Many of the others in  Brooklyn Gang ended up dead from drugs. Though the photographs capture the reckless abandon and rebellion that comes with youth, one must read them all as bittersweet. They find wonder in the carefree but fail to acknowledge the time beyond the frame. The ‘could’ of the exhibit’s title comes to mind.

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What comes so strongly from the photos exhibited in We Could Be Heroes is the role the photographer plays. Many of the master photographers featured (disappointedly, no women) intertwined their personal and professional lives, photographing friends, lovers and enemies to create bodies of work that belie photojournalism and exist as something much more profound. These are not simply observations on youth culture over a Century, they are accounts of living within it- the love, the sex, the friendships, the fights, the drama, the failings and the feral desire of being young.

Nothing quite captures the sense of what the photographers felt like they were capturing quite like what Van der Elsken said of his work and life in 1966:

‘I look at you. How lovely you are. How lovely you were. All your fun. All your misery. I picture. There are things that I got to tell you. I prod you in the ribs. I grab you by the arm. I yank your coat-tails. I say, d’you see that? Dammit! Fabulous! Unbelievable! Super! Or. Filthy bastards! Dirty dogs! What a lousy squirt! …D’ you see that? Look at them! Jesus, I’m alive’.

It reads like a monologue of what we all would cry to our teenage selves as we stumbled through the trials of growing up and is the voice of the artwork on display.

We Could Be Heroes is currently on show at the Print Sales Gallery at the Photographers Gallery, London until the 12th April

More information can be found here.

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