“I photograph on a good day, when I feel good and the subject feels good.”
London in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Post Jubilee and early Thatcher. In the pop culture world Punk was passing the baton to New Wave and disco was dying a slow public death. Pubs closed at 11 and buses still had conductors. And American photographer Al Vandenberg was walking the streets of London, capturing British youth culture with his trusty Olympus OMI. Sloane’s, punks, rockers, Yardies, mixed race couples, school girls, skin heads and the odd shopkeeper, Vandenberg had an eye for the stylish, an affinity for those who seemed to belong to a tribe of their own choosing.
In 1974, Al Vandenberg, Boston born commercial art director turned photographer, made a permanent move across the pond. A searcher and a seeker by nature, Vandenberg was a man who lived according to principals he embraced in the political heyday of the 1960’s. Vandenberg was a man whose life choices informed his career, and not visa versa.
In his early years Vandenberg studied (albeit for a short time) under both Alexy Brodovitch and Richard Avedon, and was also mentored by Bruce Davidson. After initially exploring classic street photography in the vein of Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand, Vandenberg soon became disillusioned with the “cliché” of shooting the poor and homeless. It was at odds with what to become the guiding philosophy of his photographic work. It was all about the good day.
Reading between the lines of Martin Barnes (senior curator of photographs at the V&A) tender and knowing essay about his friend, it seems that Vandenberg, tuned in and dropped out. Vandenberg famously said, “I was tired of making a living and wanted to live”. And this he did. Leaving behind a lucrative and prolific career as commercial art director (his most public moment being the collaboration with Peter Blake and Michael Collins on iconic the Sargent Peppers art work and cover) Vandenberg decisively quit commercial photography for good when he moved to London, and concentrated solely on his street practice for the rest of his life. His description of how he walked ceaselessly through London East to West and North to South with one camera and one lens brings to mind Forrest Gump on his tireless journey. If the cry had been “Shoot Al, shoot! then Vandenberg was certainly listening..
Published posthumously after his death (Vandenberg passed in March 2012) On a Good Day is a fitting memorial to a photographer whose way of life was as honest as his portraits. Vandenberg’s engagement with, and affection for his subject can be easily intuited. Vandenberg passes no judgment as he presents us with a black and white encyclopedia of young Londoners from this era, and without the ironic tone of other photographers drawn to this Britain. Shot in a landscape format, often in groups of 2 or 3, his subjects lean, smile or stare at the camera. Dipping in and out of various cultures and classes, and with casual celebrity inclusions (Lemmy outside of a grotty pub, punk icon Jordan in front of the legendary Mclaren/Westwood store “Sex”) the common denominator is the ease with which the subjects hold the camera’s gaze, how intimate the visual conversation is.
And inevitably, there is a nostalgic attraction to the modern viewer, particularly For Londoners familiar with the streets that Vandenberg traversed and the years that he did it. En mass the images ignite a mind blowing guessing game of connect the dots. Shot in front of brick walls and painted doors, graphic signage and glass fronted shops, there is a touching connection to the familiar to embrace. So many of us could have looked in that window or even knocked on that door. The confidence to photograph only on “a good day” was a gift that Vandenberg did not squander. Al Vandenberg’s legacy brings joy.
On A Good Day by Al Vandenberg can be purchased here.
Sophie de Rakoff is a London born, Los Angeles based costume designer who looks at a lot of photographs and buys a lot of books.