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Two uses for a bath, by Ken Russell

“Secretly, I think they’re rather special”

St Leonards gets first look at long-lost early photographs by master film maker Ken Russell. LUCY BELL, curator of this new touring exhibition, writes about the show.

For more than 40 years, Ken Russell has directed some of the most provocative, controversial, and memorable films in British cinema, including Women in Love, The Music Lovers, Tommy, and Altered States. Lesser known is his working life as a photographer, which spans three intense years and crosses over into his early film career.

From 1954 to 1957, after giving up on a career as a ballet dancer, Russell freelanced as a photographer. Submitting work to the Pictorial Press agency, his photographs appeared in publications such as Illustrated Magazine and Picture Post. He trained in photography at Walthamstow College. “You learned about texture, form and pattern, which I promptly discarded.”

Russell’s “cinematic eye” is in early evidence in his photographic work, as he starts to draw mini-dramas within the single frame; his series of Portobello scenes, snapshots from the everyday, reveals a sensitive humanity, whilst the voyeur and viewed are intertwined. The subjects are often aware of their part in the photograph, as if the photographer is directing the natural action, whilst remaining candid…

However, this more candid work is very different from the work emerging from the Troubadour; surreal compositions created with the help of the Troubadour coffee girls expose Russells linear intelligence “They’re a bit odd and they’re of their time,” says Russell. “Some are a bit abstract or surreal.” Through the 50’s and 60’s the Troubadour was one of THE centres of London intellectual and artistic life. Ken Russell recruited staff for his first shorts here, and it was here that he became friends with Oliver Reed, and the path to his film career was set.

“In a way I was making still films, I suppose. Some of the photographs were catch-as-catch-can. But I learnt the value of the perfect composition. When they sent me the prints I thought, ‘My God, did I take these? They’re not bad.’ Secretly, I think they’re rather special.”

His early work such as the Teddy Girl series have all the characteristic of a “great photographer” —  they are iconic images, unearthed at last, and deserve acclaim.

The pictures had survived by a lucky chance. The agency Russell worked for was bought out by TopFoto images in the late 1970s. In 2005 TopFoto’s owner Alan Smith found them in the archives and took them to show Russell, who wanted to keep hold of them, but Smith insisted on taking the negatives back with him. Not long after, Russell’s house burned to the ground and most of his original scripts and research were destroyed.

Ken Russell: Photographer:Film-maker: Exhibition 17 March to 30 April at Lucy Bell’s brilliant new gallery in Norman Road, St Leonards  — a most worthy successor to IPG which closed its doors for the last time 31st January.

Posted 13:07 Sunday, Apr 25, 2010 In: Photography

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