I was inspired to re-edit in black and white my back alley urban portraits with Kevin that I made for my Urban Portraits Dumfries Projects (see Part 1 and Part 2) by the peeling posters we came across on Argyle Street during the late stages of the lockdown.
The posters featured Oscar Marzaroli’s nostalgic photographs of children playing on Glasgow streets just before the old tenements were demolished and communities disrupted to give way to the new “modern” way of living. Be it mischievous youngsters climbing the back alley wall, a little girl in new rubber boots rushing along or three boys wearing their mothers’ high heel shoes in the middle of the street, Marzaroli’s images reach one’s heart without fail.
John and I went to see Marzaroli’s exhibition at Street Level Photoworks before the lockdown and I felt so touched and amused by his images of children at play. Fortunately, it has just been announced that the gallery re-opened the show on 10 September to run until 20 December 2020, Thursdays to Sundays!
Marzaroli’s images of children paying at the back alleys are still produce a powerful effect of spectators despite of coming from a certain era and certain socio-economic circumstances because ultimately their aesthetic is rooted the photographer’s deeply humanist empathy with his little subjects.
In his essay for PetaPixel “The Paradox of ‘Timelessness’ in Street Photography” Simon King, a London based photographer and photojournalist, writes:
The Humanism movement in philosophy emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively. The aspects of images that last longest are those universally recognizable expressions and emotions. Gestures and interactions, stories involving real contemporary characters rather than just “ideas” of characters, which is how “timeless” images tend to treat their subjects.
So King seeks ‘timelessness’ in his photojournalistic work not by excluding contemporary clothes and attributes, but by attempting to capture humanity that ‘transcends time, culture, and language’ while reporting on current issues. Nevertheless, he admits to preferring monochrome images:
I cannot help what a subject wears or what they do, but it is necessary to document it and allow time to decide what ends up being truly timeless. I think that my decision to shoot mostly in black and white, beyond the aesthetic, has the function of removing contextual color.
While working on my Urban Portraits Dumfries project I kept creating back alley urban portraits. Was I subconsciously influenced by the Humanist aesthetic, referencing Henri Cartier-Bresson or Helen Levitt? Not really. I was more attracted to the grittiness of back streets and loading bays, the range of urban textures and materials they provided, their subdued colours and ability to serve as distraction-free stages for my Dumfries characters.
The back alley’s urban aesthetic even today is somewhat similar to the sites that prominently featured in the 1950s humanist documentary photography. But of course for me these are not literal places where people live. Not any more. They are more symbolic photographic ‘playgrounds’, sites of possibilities.
Nevertheless, Marzaroli’s old exhibition posters on Argyle Street reminded me of the final section of our portrait shoot with Kevin when we moved behind High Street shops. I asked him to walk around, climb the walls and play with his little crocodile at the back yard, dry weeds and all, or do anything he likes. And he such a good sport! I just followed him with my camera.
The whole sequence was originally edited in colour, but now I felt an urge to see how these portrait images will look in black and white. No colour, only Kevin at play, his expressions and gestures, and the in situ urban textures I like so much.