THE STREET PHOTOGRAPHY OF NIGEL HENDERSON
Nigel Henderson was an English documentary artist and photographer, born in 1917. He married Judith Stephen in 1943 and together they moved in Bethnal Green because she was involved in a sociological project on children in working class areas of Great Britain. The close-knit community of Bethnal Green was the subject of frequent examinations at the time, studied also by various social scientists. Therefore, it was his wife who introduced him to life on working class streets. They were not native inhabitants of the working class district but they were attentive participants and observers, both interacting with and documenting the customs of the neighbourhood. They had a certain aesthetic attraction to working class street life.
Nigel started wandering around the district, taking photos of the ordinary people he met and documenting everyday life of the working class communities living in that area between 1949 and 1953. His images of London’s East End have a documentary quality and they derive from close contact with the community, and a strong interest in its inhabitants and locals as subjects. Henderson termed his own work ‘reportage’. The extensive collection of photographs recording aspects of the working class communities of London’s East End represents Henderson’s first experiments with photography.
He started creating an extraordinary collection of photographs both of the district location itself and of its people. He created powerful and realistic black and white portrays of ordinary people living in that suburb, showing how life was back then during the post-war period in Great Britain. Henderson wanted to give the idea of the working class street as an urban model of neighbourliness and community crystallized in the immediate post-war era. His main aim was to shed light on unknown subjects and especially to confer artistic dignity to the most humble and modest individuals of the society, who are not recorded elsewhere. These powerful and realistic portrays capture the texture of the streets and the heart of working class life in all its post-war reality.
The photos of the East End are of a documentary nature, showing life on the streets: children playing, street vendors, working men, market stalls, buildings and street parties. His work may be defined as ‘street ethnography’; it means that it reflects the customs, the whole culture and the habits of a certain kind of people. What is really striking about him, is that he had the capacity to bring his photographs to life. These stunning images capture the reality of working-class people and offer a true glimpse into the lives of people in various areas of London. This characteristic makes Henderson’s photography so powerful and so touching.
His unique view of the streets evokes the character of London’s East End and its people. He has been able to eulogize throughout his series of photographs the social patterns of the working class as a model for the synthesis of life and art. His extraordinary archive of photography meets the language of people on the street and of the social reality of the working class. Henderson’s interpretation of the streets evokes the wit, resilience and character of the local people.
Nowadays, Henderson’s work has been highly re-evaluated. He never really became a well-known artist during his life. Only today, almost 30 years after his death, his work is being praised and paid tribute in England and all over the world. In April 2015 the Tate Gallery, a famous museum of London, made available over 3000 photographs by Nigel Henderson and so, they can be seen and admired by visitors.