John Bignell was a jobbing photographer for most of his working life and took photographic assignments wherever they took him, from the banks of the Thames to ancient Greek cities. Or just round and about in Chelsea. I once had to look for something in the Chelsea News and went through an entire bound volume of a year’s weekly papers and found at least one photo by him in almost every issue. He covered news stories, did catalogue shoots and took portraits. He did what used to be euphemistically called “glamour” work (although some of the pictures in this genre look a bit odd, rather than erotic,by modern standards ) and documented burlesque shows at the Chelsea Place and elsewhere. And sometimes, when the mood took him he took pictures which now look like some kind of 1950s idea of illustrations to 21st century urban fantasies. I’ve featured some of these before as lone items but I’ve wanted to collect them together along with some more of his “strange” pictures. So some of these images will be familiar to regular readers and some won’t. But all of them are in some way weird or eccentric.
I realise that I am imposing something of my own love of the uncanny or the Fortean onto these images. But go with me. These two,for example,look they belong in an adaptation of a Neal Gaiman story. If Neal Gaiman had lived in the 1950s that is.
“Virtue fights back”, 1955. I used this in December 2014, and made the connections with Gaiman’s book / TV series Neverwhere and Christopher Fowler’s novel about another London Above, Roofworld. This could be the same duo.
“Satan triumphant” 1958.
Actually I think the models are the same, Desiree and Pierre, from the Chelsea Palace. Here they are on stage as “apache” dancers, a favourite cabaret theme of the time.
This picture was also part of a stage show, continuing the “claws” theme.
Never mind the knife, Madam. pick up the ray gun!
Bignell had started playing with strange scenarios as far back as 1949, in these two pictures, illustrating Cinderella, in a King’s Road antique shop called Horace Walpole.
The two ugly sisters are represented by dummies with the stuffed heads of deer.
Seedy and sinister like something out of a fantasy by Powell and Pressberger, which leads us to the next image.
This picture from 1958 was entitled “Probably the most widely seen eye in the world.” The eye belonged to the Mayor of Chelsea’s mace bearer and featured in posters and publicity for Michael Powell’s ill-fated film Peeping Tom, which more or less ended his UK career.
On the back of one print of the picture Bignell has written a reference to Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography”, even noting the page number in the Penguin edition of the mention of Peeping Tom. There’s nothing particularly illuminating there but perhaps Bignell wanted to remind anyone who read the caption that someone thought the film was a serious piece of work. There seems to have been a lot of moral panic about it when it first came out, which seems almost inexplicable in the light of what we’ve seen since. Following Bignell’s lead I refer you to David Pirie’s “A new heritage of horror: the English Gothic cinema” for an account of the film and its reception.
Continuing the gothic theme is this atmospheric picture of a respectable looking man alone in a dark alley, actually Carlton Mews, near Trafalgar Square.
He looks a little like a character in an M R James or Algernon Blackwood story on his way to a supernatural rendezvous.
Less morbid is this picture, of an ecstatic dancer named Lyn, in a Margaret Morris style pose on a beach at Foulness in 1956. Bignell entitled it Lyn-a- leaping
Next a picture from 1955 (or possibly 1956) that is wrong on many levels.
It was entitled “Ancestor worship”, to add more misconception to the wrongness of a Frenchman in a gorilla suit holding a juvenile chimpanzee. (Yes, it was Pierre again.) What did they imagine the young ape was thinking? He can’t have been fooled for a second, so perhaps he thought it was just another of the inexplicable things the humans did from time to time. This was at Chessington Zoo, a perfectly reputable establishment where they probably still had chimpanzee tea parties in the 1950s and other anthropomorphic entertainments, so some of the apes would have been used to close contact with people.
Bignell couldn’t resist another photo of the “Chessington gorilla”. Here he is with his partner Desiree again.
Although this is also a strange picture it will offend no hairy humanoids, and might interest human or non-human lovers of wacky cars. These so called bubble cars used to be seen around the place in the 50s and 60s. Motoring experts will correct me if my identification is wrong but I think it’s a Heinkel. (Interestingly there was another variety of bubble car made by Messerschmitt – what prompted aircraft manufacturers to make tiny cars?)
The last picture is simply a salute from the master of the revels, Bignell himself, with his eye on the camera, and the viewer.
For the record, and I know a few of you will wonder, they’re at the Lord Nelson (later the Trafalgar) in the King’s Road. There are two dates on the picture, 1968 and 1954. The earlier one seems more likely but you never know in Bignell’s world of the strange.
The trouble with Bignell
The trouble with the work of John Bignell and writing about it is that for most of his career he was, as I said in the first sentence, a working photographer going where the work took him, and fitting in the more personal / artistic work when he could. For most of his career he doesn’t seem to have concerned himself too much with his place in the history of photography. When he eventually did a book it was called John Bignell: Chelsea Photographer. It’s a good book but it established him as an observer of Chelsea/ London life. That’s not a bad thing in itself but I think he was so much more than that, as photos like the one in this post and others show.
I’m going to carry on writing about him and posting photographs by him. One of these days perhaps the wider world will recognize him as a great original.
One of the many great qualities of the Bignelll collection is that you’re always finding surprises, or variations on photographs you thought you knew, a different print or an unexpectedly informative caption in Bignell’s hand. As often happens while trawling through the collection for this post I came across further ideas for new posts. There could have been more on childhood in the 50s for example. There’s probably a possible post about Wimbledon Common too or more on Bignell’s models. To spare your sensitivities I’ve never done a post on his glamour work but that too is aesthetically interesting . Strictly speaking the nude and the sundial (featured here) should be in this anthology as it has a few mystical connotations, with a second picture from the same session but to keep this post safe for work we’ll keep that one back for now. We’re used to thinking of the 1950s as a staid, conventional era, but there was plenty of strangeness bubbling up under the plain clothing.