This is one of a pair of black and white photographs with the same title (see P79311). Both works are part of the series of distorted or ‘stressed’ images that Nigel Henderson produced in the early 1950s. The artist has experimented with the printing process to alter the representations. He explained that the process involved: ‘stretching and distorting the printing paper while enlarging in order to stress a point or evoke an atmosphere’ (quoted in Walsh 2001, p.28). Nevertheless, the subject has not been so abstracted as to become unrecognisable. Both photographs show a male figure wearing striped swimming trunks standing with his hands on his hips on a beach at the sea’s edge. At his feet is a pile of clothes. Shown in profile, in this image the figure faces to the left, in the other, to the right. One of his legs is bent and placed slightly forward. These similarities reveal that the two pictures, in fact, derive from one original negative, but one is reversed and each has been distorted to create different visual effects. P79310 appears as a monochrome negative and P79311 appears as a monochrome positive.
Henderson took up photography in 1949 while living in London’s East End. He studied art at the Slade School of Fine Art in London after the war (1945–9), but the curriculum did not include photography and he was obliged to teach himself. Transforming the bathroom at his home in Bethnal Green into a darkroom, he became interested in experimental photographic techniques. An early group of ‘stressed’ images evolved from photographs that Henderson took on the streets of Bethnal Green and show boys on bicycles, as in Stressed Photograph circa 1950 (P79309). However, the original image used for the ‘stressed’ photograph of bathers does not derive from a picture taken by Henderson, but from a Victorian lantern slide.
Clearly visible on the surfaces of each of the two photographs are two deep crease marks, one vertical and one diagonal, where the photographic paper has been folded or ‘pleated’, as Henderson termed it. These interventions have caused the scale and proportions of the forms to become exaggerated. In this image, the bather is set within a wider expanse of seascape than in P79311. His bent leg is grotesquely swollen, but the body is diminished. In P79311, the figure looms large within the frame, his back and the back of his head distorted. While the effects of Henderson’s interventions are evocative of the distorting mirrors of the funfair, these images remain experimental. They are designed to suggest ambiguities and undermine the apparent literalness of the photographic representation, rather than to create caricatures.
In 1954 Henderson exhibited examples of his ‘stressed’ photographs at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901–85) saw them. Dubuffet bought six for his own collection, and wrote to Henderson encouraging him to produce more in this vein. The painter Francis Bacon (1909–92) also owned one of the ‘stressed’ images of male bathers, possibly received as early as 1950 as a gift from Henderson with whom he was friends (Walsh 2008, p.77).
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced p.31.
Victoria Walsh, ‘Real Imagination is Technical Imagination’ in Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, pp.74-88.