Henderson’s treatment of his subject shows an affinity with Surrealism. This interest developed during 1930s particularly because of his privileged access to the work of contemporary, European artists through his mother, Wyn Henderson, who was based in Paris and London and had a wide circle of contacts in the art world. On visits to Paris, Henderson met artists including Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Yves Tanguy (1900–55), introduced to him by his mother’s friend, the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979). In 1938, Wyn was involved in setting up the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, which opened with an exhibition of Duchamp’s work that Henderson helped to hang. After serving in the RAF during the war, Henderson studied at the Slade School of Fine Art (1945–9). He turned to photography on completion of his course although had never received training in this medium. Having moved to the working-class district of Bethnal Green in the East End after the war, in the years 1949-53 he focused his attention on photographing scenes he encountered on long walks around the area.
This series of photographs demonstrate Henderson’s fascination with the performative and transitory nature of the urban context. He connected this interest to the sense of separation he experienced from the working-class neighbourhood in which he lived. This sense of separation endowed the street scenes he encountered with a closed, ritualistic, unreal and theatrical quality the meaning of which was far removed from his own experiences and background. Henderson explained:
My wife and I knew we would experience alienation in the working class environment. Perhaps this feeling intensified the feeling I had that I was watching live theatre ... like an audience of one in a public theatre of All. My neighbours appeared to be living out their lives in response to some predetermined script. These rituals were formal, very strong and coercive to me [and] because of their unfamiliarity exotic.
(Quoted in Walsh, p.49.)
This ‘exotic’ subject matter presented Henderson with opportunities to pursue a surrealist aesthetic within the framework of documentary photography. As with Petticoat Lane Market 1952 (P79308), Henderson uses a frieze-like composition for Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane that captures a transitory moment in the necessarily ephemeral context of the market place. The commodities on display in both photographs (wigs on mannequin heads in one and stockings pegged to a cord in the other), as disembodied and ambiguous, evoke a surrealist repertory. In Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane Henderson juxtaposes the animate with the inanimate to create a mildly unsettling but humorous effect. The image asks the spectator to compare the idealized and youthful faces of the models with that of the woman caught between them, whose face is lined and mouth unsmiling.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978, reproduced p.33.
Ian Walker, So Exotic, So Homemade: Surrealism, Englishness and Documentary Photography, Manchester 2007, reproduced p.163.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced p.51.