I love the cover of this book; it takes me backwards. Taken at face value, the cover image gives nothing away except the aura of the late ’70s, early ’80s. A stylish young woman is holding a cassette player in one hand and perches it on her hip. She wears jeans that are stretched from a few days wear but we can’t be sure how the jeans story ends: bell bottoms or straight leg? Her cute little jumper with giveaway stripes is topped off with a necklace that pokes out of the V. But the hair, lop-sided and softly rockabilly, makes her look seem more modern. A style-fusion.
Someone once told me that decades never really happen in useful chunks. They spill over at the edges to give ill-defined and awkward periods, in this instance of fashions and styles, which in turn may lie dormant for many years before being ignited and catapulted to ruffle the image of future ‘decades’. Now it’s an all-and-anything-goes mish-mash but there again, wasn’t it always? Look at her.
I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to find her in someone else’s photograph? She is compelling, attitudinal and attractively coy. Not aggressively street, not over-bearing and garishly confrontational. She is intriguing. In another photographer’s portfolio there might have been more clues about her politics or social context but here we are confined to her image. Attitude and image does not always equate with politics and opinion. Maybe she just read Jackie. There are gentle hints about who she was back then in those distant years. No doubt she is different now.
Flicking through the rest of Vandenberg’s photographs we also find smiles alongside other style-driven street people photographed in a similar way. Not as graphically strong as our cover girl. Her placement in front of a slatted wooden something (garage perhaps?) gives a feeling of looking back at a lost horizon.
Vandenberg’s other subjects are photographed less consistently. I get the impression he was looking for stylish individuals and his skills as director relied on personality rather than manipulation to get a consistent style of photographic project flowing. Some of the group shots appear too casual and slip into snapshot-style ‘friends on the street’ territory. Presumably he suited the streets of London and blended in. But there are other real gems, where the relationship between photographer and subject introduces something of that era afresh to our own.
Stanley / Barker should be thanked for adding this photographer to their portfolio of titles and bringing wise words from Martin Barnes to our ears in a new format. I also appreciate the irony of putting portraits in a landscape-shaped publication. This seems to accentuate the urban street in this instance. I am not so sure about the interwoven page sizes; they give a feel of ‘family album’ to this street album but maybe that was the aim? The sliced, shortened pages do provide other juxtapositions, from a viewing perspective, but it can be distracting in a practical page-turning way.
I showed these pictures to my son, who it’s fair to say, has been a little hip in his time. He could see the appeal of this publication to a younger viewer. The modern hipster as viewer would not necessarily see the history that someone of my generation perhaps would. For them this could be a style bible. It looks modern and functions as a source book from the fashion industry, housing styles that offer the chance to recreate or explore authentic / historic / vintage fashion.
Vandenberg’s photographs are plucked from history and feel fresh, naïve even. It’s a project worth looking at from the perspective of contemporary photographic practice and historic street photography. I don’t think it’s true value is as a contender for the hidden gem award (part of forgotten-photographer-resurrected culture). The value of this work lies in its relevance to a young viewership whose eyes are hungry for inspiration to translate into the culture of the here and now. I hope their distribution lives up to the potential.
– reviewed by Helen James
Al Vandenberg, On a Good Day, published by STANLEY / BARKER in partnership with Eric Franck Fine Art