An Encounter In A Park

St. James’s Park, 1972. © Estate of Dave Hendley

As an addendum to last week’s entry on Antonioni’s Blow Up and the perils of photographing strangers in parks, it feels appropriate to revisit a mysterious photo taken by a much-missed friend of mine.

Dave Hendley, who died in 2016, took this photograph in St. James’s Park nearly fifty years ago. Dave didn’t talk about his pictures much, and he offered no particular insight here: he just said that shot it quickly with his Leica as he walked past the men, then moved on before they had time to register that he had taken their photo (‘I was more ruthless back then.’) But the lack of context just makes the photo more interesting. Photography is concerned with appearance rather than truth and Dave’s photo invites speculation as much as it resists it. There are few clues in Dave’s photo as to the exact period but somehow we know it belongs to the past; and although Dave took it in the early 1970s, it evokes a time slightly earlier than that. It evokes that curdled 1960s moment memorialised in works like Victim, The Servant, and Orton’s Entertaining Mister Sloane: a world of furtive encounters afforded a desperately genteel gloss (‘the air round Twickenham was like wine’). Of course, I don’t know whether my interpretation is correct and it probably isn’t. More than one photographer has got into trouble because a photo suggested something about its subjects that was misleading or even libellous. Whatever the reality, the picture is simultaneously comic, poignant and slightly disturbing. The sharply assessing gaze of the man on the left is unnerving enough, but I find myself worried by the man on the right, his too-tight tie and his inscrutable smile somehow just wrong. We don’t know what the actual relationship between the two men in the photo really was; but Dave gives us a novel’s worth of characterisation.

Rather incredibly, this photograph is a precious survivor of a cull of Dave’s early work which the photographer carried out with youthful brutality. Needless to say, the older Dave came to regret this; fortunately, the image survived as a print which Dave discovered in his mum’s attic. I’m very grateful he found it as it is one of my favourite photographs of anything by anyone. A picture of two men on a bench in a London park: an image that is utterly revealing, even if it reveals something that isn’t true. Just occasionally, one comes across a photograph that subverts rational explanation and plugs straight into the unconscious. One thinks of the Andre Kertesz photo of a shadow behind glass on a balcony in Martinique; of Robert Frank’s picture of a girl running past a hearse on a drab London street; or Elliott Erwitt’s shot of tourists in a Mexican charnel house, all masterpieces. I think Dave’s picture belongs in their company, but he was far too modest to acknowledge his brilliance. Although I loved his photos of reggae stars taken in Jamaica in the mid-70’s, it wasn’t until after he died that I realised what an important figure he was in the dissemination of the music in the UK. By contrast, he was incredibly kind to his students or to those who sought his counsel. In the year following his death there were several occasions when I found myself thinking ‘I must ask Dave how to …’ He would materialise in The Horseshoe or The Princess Louise or – if you got to know him on his own turf – The Continental Hotel, Tankerton, impeccably turned out, Leica around his neck, elegantly sipping his lager whilst checking your outfit for solecisms (I was mortified when he pointed out, with a wolfish grin, that my ‘Barracuta’ Harrington jacket was made in Taiwan). Such a class act. The photo below – taken by another very fine photographer, Tim Hadrian Marshall – shows Dave and our great friend John Driscoll outside The Horseshoe, circa 2010. Both gone now. I’ve been very lucky with my friends but I wish they wouldn’t keep dying on me. You’ll have to excuse me now, I have something in my eye …

John Driscoll (left) and Dave Hendley, outside The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, 2010. © Tim Hadrian Marshall.