Stressed Photograph is one of a series by Nigel Henderson dating from around 1950, not long after he had taken up photography. Most of these works, as this one, deal with street scenes from London’s East End, where Henderson was living in the early post-war years. Transforming the bathroom at his home in Bethnal Green into a darkroom, he became interested in experimental photographic techniques. During the printing process this image has been distorted (or ‘stressed’), so that the scene seems warped, as if viewed in a distorting mirror.
In this photograph the boy and the bicycle are positioned in the extreme foreground of the composition. Dressed in a light-coloured shirt, long trousers tied at the waist with cord or string, and shoes that seem over-sized (and possibly handed down to him), the figure evokes the poverty of working-class communities in post-war Britain. He is not cycling at speed, but ‘doodling’, as Henderson termed the game of cycling in controlled patterns, which typically occupied the boys in his neighbourhood during their leisure time. In the background, details of the terraced buildings of the street are visible: to the left, two front doorways with steps that lead directly from the pavement, and, to the right, an entrance to an area or basement. Against this backdrop, the boy, his gaze fixed on the front wheel, focuses on holding the bicycle steady. His concentration and the bicycle’s limited motion are emphasised by the photograph’s distortion, which has skewed the proportions of the bicycle. Its enlarged front wheel dominates the lower right-hand side of the composition and seems to push against the picture plane. The photograph’s edge has been unevenly cut as if to undermine still further the limits of the frame.
P79309 is one of several photographs Henderson took of boys on bicycles. In each case he distorted the print when enlarging it. He explained:
I noticed ... that when I had an actual negative that interested me (let’s say a boy on a bicycle) I could sometimes enrich the impact of the image by slanting the paper under the enlarger projecting lens ... If I pleated the paper horizontally I could create a pattern of stress which further animated the situation by putting the wheels and frame ‘through it’ as it were and creating an identification with the boys’ efforts and the tension of the wheels and frame in a somewhat ‘Futurist’ way.
(Quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.5.)
The distortion, then, is connected not only with the interest in experimental effects that characterised Henderson’s work, but in its perceived relevance to the photograph’s subject matter. ‘Stressing’ the print allowed Henderson to investigate the relationship between the movement of the bicycle and the intensity of the boy’s absorption in his game. Henderson commented: ‘For me this would form sometimes an “expressionistic” image giving a slightly “intoxicated” version which suggested to me a certain delirium in which a boy may fantasize and divert himself with a bike for hours on end.’ (Quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.5.)
Some of the photographs in this series show two figures playing on bicycles, others show a cyclist precariously balancing on the saddle (illustrated in Walsh, pp.35–7). With these images Henderson used distorting techniques to represent movement and to challenge the limits of the image by drawing the eye into the frame (Walsh p.29). He incorporated one of the ‘stressed’ photographs of boys on bicycles into a larger project, a study for a photo-mural (illustrated in Walsh pp.108–9) that can be related to his preparations for the Parallel of Life and Art exhibition, which he was involved in curating, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1953.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs, Collages, Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 1977.
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.