Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

Al Vandenberg's Vibrant Celebration of London

As the first monograph of his work is posthumously released, we explore the American photographer's uplifting street portraiture from the capital, taken in the 1970s and 80s

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Photography by Al Vandenberg, Courtesy of Stanley/Barker

Who? Until recently, American photographer Al Vandenberg (1932-2012) was best remembered for his art direction of The Beatles’ iconic album cover for Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – but he was, in fact, an exceptionally talented documentarian whose street photographs of 70s and 80s London drew widespread acclaim when they featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum's recent exhibition, Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s. 

Vandenberg grew up just outside of Boston, and studied photography alongside Bruce Davidson, Alexey Brodovitch and Richard Avedon. He began his career, in his own words, "on the streets of New York going from one depressing neighbourhood to another, passing Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand collecting images of poverty, urban low-life and ethnic minorities." By the 1960s, however, he had entered into the commercial world, achieving great success as a photographer and art director – but neither strand of creativity satisfied him. "After about ten years I left that behind me," he explained in a later artist's statement. "Neither the spying on poor people for middle-class audiences nor serving the media world gave me the kind of images that I wanted to leave to my children. My camera became more than just a way of making a living. Making a living seemed less important than living itself. " It was then – in 1974 – that Vandenberg opted to move to London, and take on a more optimistic approach to his medium: "I believe that applying the same technical expertise and the same 'eye' to photographing people who are happy results in the kind of images that show that, in spite of all our difficulties, the world is also a happy place."

What? Now an excellent new book from publisher Stanley/Barker, titled On a Good Day, brings together Vanderberg's most compelling street portraits from the decade and a half that followed, and is the first ever monograph of his work. Just as he had resolved, the images are full of joy and perfectly embody the diverse and spirited zeitgeist of the capital in that era. A group of school girls (sporting coy grins and mullet haircuts) stand hands on hips, half awkward, half confrontational in a typically teenage juxtaposition; a bespectacled young man in an elaborate fur jacket cuts a cool, very 70s dash; while a muscular man props up huge 1980s ghetto blaster on his shoulder, striking a nonchalant pose beneath a ripped Notting Hill Carnival sign. Motorhead’s Lemmy also makes an appearance, as does Jordan (AKA Pamela Rooke) – the infamous shop assistant at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's shop SEX. Vandenberg captures his subjects in a relatively formal manner, using shop fronts, garage doors and houses to serve as a backdrop, giving them a studio-like conventionality which proves a powerful contrast to the informal, very personal mood that prevails.

Why? Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A, notes in the book's afterward that "Vandenberg sees all with a sincere and perceptive eye and a sensitive understanding of character, regardless of social standing and cultural background." And it is this that sets the image-maker apart from many of his contemporaries. London at this time was a subcultural haven and Vandenberg's appreciation for the air of youth, vibrancy, rebellion and acceptance that the city emitted is tangible. His sitters are bound by a strong attitude and personal style, each distinctly comfortable and openly themselves in Vandenberg's presence, making for utterly captivating viewing. 

"It’s a great time being young, with your whole life ahead of you," he once said. "It’s a time for love, hope, dreaming, great creativity. It’s a time away from home, breaking free from parents, home, creating freedom. You feel you can be anything and do anything. The future looks very positive." And indeed, as Barnes observes, "Every picture in this book is imbued with a positive, uplifting intention." To this day, London remains a place of great hope and multiculturalism, with a creative scene that is hard to rival, and, at a time when political tension abounds and the threat of Brexit looms, Vandenberg's work serves as a poignant reminder to celebrate our past and remain optimistic about our future.

On a Good Day by Al Vandenberg is out now, published by Stanley/Barker. A specially curated selection of original prints from the book will be exhibited by Eric Franck Fine Art at Photo London, from May 19-22, 2016.

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