Iain Sinclair visits the Tate archive and unearths the images of a photographer ‘trembling on the brink of life and death’

The cutomised lacuna of the archive is both compelling and depressing. You come wanting secrets, revelations, mess, the bones of lost worlds. Like the random furniture of blitzed Whitechapel streets heaped in a discreet warehouse that belongs to the Museum of London: the resolutely inscrutable in quest of narrative. The Tate archive does not advertise that kind of exuberance. Stealth, silence, walls that slide back to reveal catacombs of labelled boxes, infinite folders of letters in which the dead write, so lovingly, to the dead. Realising how our own biographies, in the end, are no more than reprieved paper, sticky-stiff paintbrushes, wreaths of bills and invitations to events we didn’t attend is a melancholy affair. The archive is Sicilian in its menace, rented alcoves in which to inter documents and artefacts from which scholars are invited to tease future projects: you must be interrogated, post-mortem, or you will fade like an inscription in soft stone erased by the grit of the city.

A title caught my eye, Window Cleaner’s Funeral. Here was a potent sequence, four stills, four frames – in negative. A deleted English Hitchcock? A Bethnal Green episode edited out of The Man Who Knew Too Much? Spectral gondola cars, fuzzy huddles on the pavement, a high angle point of view. “In the midst of death we are in life,” scribbled the photographer. The cynical romantic.

Nigel Henderson. That was the name on the packet. Artist, night-flyer, cyclist, maker of masks, custodian of shopping lists: “candles, notepaper, methylated spirits, matches, cigarettes, washing powder.” I knew a little about Henderson, but nothing as intimate as this. The handling of the photographic record of his expeditions from 46 Chisenhale Road, that ambiguous zone on the boundary of everywhere, Bow, Old Ford, Bethnal Green. Henderson, it was made clear, when I plunged promiscuously into his correspondence, his notebooks, has been ahead of me every step of the way: excavating, recording, witnessing. Getting it wrong, the timing, staying resolutely on the lee side of fashion. But shaping an archive to die for: literally. Mortality was the imprimatur of his art – which was otherwise restless, neurotic, unfinished.

“I just walked and walked and kept staring at everything. And it occurred to me after a little while that I might try carrying a camera with me, but it wasn’t that I decided to be a photographer.” So he wrote to his wife Judith with her Bloomsbury connections, the Woolfs and the Stephens. Like David Bailey, he learnt the rudiments of the business in the RAF.

The flat in Chisenhale Road was a few doors down from a veneer factory, where they manufactured propellers for Spitfires. Now of course a gallery, the space in which Rachel Whiteread exhibited the ice block of her cast room, Ghost. Henderson, it is evident, stood on his porch, up the steps from the street, and recorded, in four surviving images, the funeral of a window cleaner. The title creating the visual poem, Surrealist vinegar for localised street theatre.

A small crowd masses, across from the pub which is no longer a pub. A convoy of gleaming motors with windows the dead man could be proud of: his occupation was his status. Flowers on the roof of the hearse. Street urchins. Dustbin lids. Iron railings. Henderson’s memory-frames have been left in negative, a posthumous dream. At the east end of Chisenhale Road, a tall crane swings into view and disappears; the bombed city rebuilding itself, anticipating future development, canalside apartments, Olympic parks. Uncooked negatives sustain their relativity.

A child, two doors down, notices the photographer, turns to face him; it’s over, the illusion of invisibility. “A vigorous movement,” Henderson reported, “a sudden emotion and I feel as if I’m trembling on the brink of life and death.” The positive prints, if they were ever made, eluded the archive. Leaving the original episode with its integrity unviolated. But soliciting fictive resolution. A trap into which, eyes half open, I willingly fall.