This photograph is one of an extensive series that Nigel Henderson took in the late 1940s to early 1950s when he was living in London’s East End. Man in Bunsen Street, Bethnal Green shows a narrow view of street in this working class district of the city, seen from above. In shot is a wide expanse of road and pavement, and a section of the run-down terraced buildings that line the street, and form a dense backdrop to the scene. In the middle ground, a working man in dark clothes, flat cap and boots, crosses the road; his stride is wide and his face is viewed in profile. Movement blurs this figure slightly so that he seems momentarily suspended, barely touching the ground, an effect which emphasises his temporary, moving presence within the street’s oppressive architecture, and creates a sense of unreality. The figure appears imposed on the scene, as if drawn or painted rather than photographed.
Man in Bunsen Street, Bethnal Green demonstrates the intense interest in the street scene that characterises Henderson’s work in this period. Henderson studied at the Slade School of Art from 1945–9. Although the Slade provided the opportunity of meeting a future collaborator, the artist Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005), Henderson generally found the curriculum unfulfilling. On completion of the course Henderson turned to photography, and focused his attention on photographing the East End, where he had moved after the war in connection with his wife’s work. He explained:
For most of my time at the Slade ... I confined my activity in Bethnal Green to wandering about looking at things. I drew a lot but with no facility at all. It was like running up hill for me. I borrowed a camera [a Leica] and took a few shots. Only one came out ‘satisfactorily’ ... [I]t occurred to me to take the Leica around with me on my compulsive walks about the East End.
(Quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.3.)
Eventually, with a new camera (a Rolleicord) and an enlarger given to him by Paolozzi, Henderson became absorbed in photography, and in photographing street scenes and the fragmented patterns and textures of the urban environment he encountered in his neighbourhood. Although he termed his photographs ‘reportage’, creating images highly evocative of the post-war era and the poverty of the community he was photographing, Henderson’s project was never a coherent one, in the sense of aiming to create a record of East End life. Henderson instead privileges experimentation in many of the images of this series. In Man in Bunsen Street, Bethnal Green, the effect of movement abstracts the figure, so that it appears to hover within the scene, rather than tangibly to connect with the road’s surface.
In 1951 Henderson met the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) who was working on a magazine feature on the East End. Henderson showed Cartier-Bresson around the area and watched him at work. The following year the French photographer published the highly influential collection Images à la Sauvette, (literally translated as ‘images on the run’), entitled in English The Decisive Moment. Henderson’s visual effects are allied to the spontaneous, creative event signalled in Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the ‘decisive moment’, effects which are exemplified in Man in Bunsen Street, Bethnal Green as a scene that captures the transitory appearance of the human figure in the urban context.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978, reproduced p.14.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001.