The Sixties in black and white
It’s 50 years since the 60s were in full swing. Writers might nominate the 20s, 40s, or the 80s as times of particular fashion and culture but rarely do they conveniently start at the beginning of the decade. So 2016 is not a bad time to celebrate that extraordinary, happening time when it was in full swing. You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels – 1966-1970 opens at The Victoria and Albert Museum on 10th September but St Leonards has its own show Swinging London Pop and Protest and HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went along to see Graham Keen’s singular take on that time.
It was the era of black and white, extraordinary personalities and vibrant creativity. It is amazing the power of black and white; there are photographers who use colour to great effect but mostly they don’t match up to the impact of a good black and white image.
Keen was present at many of the key cultural and artistic happenings in the 60s yet many of these photographs have never been seen before. He was involved with the revolutionary counter culture newspaper, International Times (IT) – and when the magazine was raided by police, Keen and three other directors were sent for trial, and found guilty of Conspiracy to Corrupt Public Morals.
You walk into the room and on the right are images of Yoko Ono at her first London show at the ground-breaking Indica Gallery. Often depicted as a witch because of her supposed role in breaking up the Beatles, here she is solely an artist with her art – untainted by the notoriety that would cling to her later. There she is relaxed in white, hands fluttering over her all-white Chess set; on top of a ladder, magnifying glass in hand to see the word ‘yes’ written on the ceiling. John Lennon visited the gallery climbed the ladder and discovered the answer ‘yes’. And there is the apple John bit into, fell in love and, not long after, the Beatles disintegrated.
Keen photographed the people behind the ground-breaking gallery, Indica: Barry Miles, John Dunbar, Peter and Jane Asher (brother and sister) with Paul McCartney lurking on the side.
Then there are the CND peace marches that included a short-haired Marc Bolan without the curls, Donovan, Julie Felix, Joan Baez and Vanessa Redgrave.
And there are the anarchic writers William Burroughs with his chiselled face and Alan Ginsberg. And there is Mohammed Ali meeting Michael X, the British Black Power leader.
Another sign of the times was that culture and pop had not been beset by public relations’ strictures, nor was there the cult of personality, so journalists and photographers had open access to all artists.
Keen’s brother, John, a jazzer at heart, accompanied Graham one day when he was taking photographs of some band. “I’m a jazzer I don’t know the pop world. I thought these boys were just playing around. I didn’t take them seriously.’ A few days later he learned they were the Pink Floyd at one of their early light shows.
Luck was with Keen one day when he was asked by a friend to go to an artist’s gallery opening. And there in front of him was not only Giacometti, but suddenly Francis Bacon walked into the frame. “I was too shy to ask them to pose but I did take their photographs.” And great they are too, the two profiles of Giacometti and Bacon together with silent space between them. Another of Giacometti, his face moulded like his work, with the ghostly impression of one of his sculptures standing behind him.
Keen has the demeanour of a photographer, his eyes bright strobe the room, he looks slightly stooped as if he is still carrying his cameras – phantom ones now – and he scurries like a man busily pursuing his next shot. At the private view, he said few words – either too shy, humble or maybe he just doesn’t like talking in public. Asked about that time, as far as he was concerned that era wasn’t so special: he was there, it was his life, those were the people he knew.
The curator of the show is Terence Pepper, Senior Special Adviser on Photography for the National Portrait Gallery. He discovered Graham Keen’s horde of photographs by accident. He bought one of his photographs on eBay and had a hunch there were more images of that time out there. Discovering that Keen was very much alive and living in Battle, East Sussex, he found this amazing archive. Lucky he did.
At the private view, Lucy Bell’s Gallery was packed so it was difficult to see all the images properly. Consequently, it is a good excuse to go back and see the show again. It is a gem of a exhibition, a fascinating record of the people that were part of that time and made the sixties what they were.
Graham Keen’s Swinging London Pop and Protest is on until 22 October at Lucy Bell, 46 Norman Road, St Leonards, East Sussex TN38 0EJ. Open Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 4pm or by appointment.
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