Exhibition puts camera innovator in the picture with images of Sheffield

Girls dressed up for a 'teenage night' at a Sheffield club, 1961, by Roger Mayne
Girls dressed up for a 'teenage night' at a Sheffield club, 1961, by Roger Mayne
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A group of girls congregate at the edge of a dancefloor, all with pleated skirts, one draining the last dregs of a bottle of pop. They’re dressed up for a ‘teenage night’ at a Sheffield club in 1961 - frozen in time in a picture by renowned photographer Roger Mayne.

Mayne, who died three years ago aged 85, is best known for his pioneering body of work on community life in London’s Southam Street in the 1950s and early 60s. His approach to his subjects - capturing children at play and the first generation of teenagers against a backdrop of scruffy streets and bombsites - is credited with making a big contribution to post-war photography.

Boy playing conkers, 1957, by Roger Mayne

Boy playing conkers, 1957, by Roger Mayne

But Mayne took his camera outside the capital on many occasions, taking reams of pictures of Sheffield and, in particular, the Park Hill estate. His images of Sheffield form a large part of an exhibition happening all this month at the Nottingham Lakeside Arts centre. The show had a run earlier this year in London and is the first major survey of Mayne’s work since 1999.

The photographer’s aesthetic has cropped up in popular culture repeatedly - two of his images have been used as cover art for releases by singer-songwriter Morrissey, and a shot illustrated the book jacket of a novel by author Ali Smith.

But co-curator Anna Douglas, from the Photographers’ Gallery, who worked on the exhibition with colleague Karen McQuaid alongside Roger’s daughter Katkin Tremayne, says the breadth of Mayne’s work has been overlooked.

“Not that many people know even today that he was photographing in Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham.

“He lived as a young man in Leeds; his mother and family moved up there because his father died. He does have a personal connection to Yorkshire.”

Mayne came to Sheffield at least three times from 1963 to 1969, and was invited for a series of commissions, including acting as stills photographer for a BBC film at Park Hill, and a supplement for the Architectural Design magazine, for which he ventured beyond the estate, exploring the city’s markets, factories and more.

“Park Hill at that point would have been notorious for being one of the largest, innovative and most experimental housing estates in Europe. It really did make a big splash.”

He also took the pictures for the official Park Hill brochure issued by the city council - the booklet’s cover is featured in the exhibition.

“We’ve by no means got all the Park Hill photographs he produced on show - it would be a really good, but big, show. If you look at the negatives and contact sheets, he probably took maybe 100 plus. The majority of the Park Hill photos were only published in the 1960s and have then, of course, been forgotten.”

Anna says Mayne was drawn to Southam Street because of its ‘chaotic quality’, and that he ‘bemoaned’ the idea of such areas being demolished in favour of modern housing.

“What I find interesting about the Park Hill photographs is that although in theory he dislikes the atmosphere, actually when you look at the photographs he finds a very similar energy that he finds in Southam Street and North London.

“He still finds what he’s primarily interested in but it’s much more formalised.”

She thinks Roger helped paved the way for fine art photography today by making the case that the medium was more than simply a mechanical means of recording information. “He took those prejudices full on.”

The free exhibition is at Lakeside Arts’ Djanogly Gallery until October 29. Guided tours are taking place, visit www.lakesidearts.org.uk for details.