Reality is a dirty word - photographs by Ken Russell

Window on High Fashion ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell Photo by Ken Russell (January 1955). From The Last of the Teddy Girls        Barbara Wood, 18, from Plaistow models a boater & blouse through a paneless window in a bomb-shattered East London building.

By Jeremy Miles

Ken Russell found it remarkably easy to forge a reputation as a wildly eccentric film maker. He just did what he did and let the British press do the rest. For years you couldn’t read his name in a newspaper or magazine without the label ‘enfant terrible’ or ‘the wild man of cinema’ being appended.

His movies - beautiful filmed, sometimes shocking but always utterly unique - will one day be regarded as works of genius. But Russell’s brilliance was often overlooked by those who thought him pompous and self-indulgent. 

When he died five years ago at the age of 84, it was clear that he had missed out on much of the commercial success he had so richly deserved. Too much of a maverick for Hollywood perhaps but  undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest film directors. Movies like The Devils, Women in Love, The Music Lovers and The Who’s Tommy are extraordinary works that could not possibly have been made by anyone else.

Promenade in Portobello ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell Photo by Ken Russell (1954)                From Portobello - scenes of everyday life.

Before the big screen there had been spectacular Tv work too starting with a series of short films for the BBC arts programme Monitor.  It was his groundbreaking Elgar film in 1962 that really propelled him to fame. Much of his best work focused on composers. Frederick Delius, Gustav Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Franz Liszt  all provided wonderful material for Russell’s extraordinary imagination.

But where did this unstrained movie maker’s  ability to tell such vivid stories in pictures come from? 

The answer may well be found in a fascinating new exhibition that has just gone on show at the Proud Galleries in Chelsea. Called Reality is a Dirty Word it explore’s Ken Russell’s early career as a photographer. 

For half-a-dozen years in the 1950s he spent much of his time armed with a Rolleiflex camera  scouring the streets of post-war London for images that summed up the hidden spirit behind the bomb-damaged austerity of the era.

The result is a collection of remarkable photographs that capture significant moments of humour and pure humanity during a time of adversity and a painfully uncertain future.  This unique exhibition of original prints signed by Russell himself provides a candid insight into a lost London as seen through the eyes of one of Britain’s most original characters. 

His work appeared regularly in publications such as Illustrated Magazine and Picture Post. Sometimes poignant, occasionally surreal and frequently funny, Russell’s photographs capture all the irreverence and unconventionality of an  outlook that would characterise his work as a filmmaker. Throughout his time as a photographer, he used his cinematic eye to create mini-dramas out of ordinary mundane moments. Speaking of his photographic work, Russell once said:  "In a way I was making still films. Some of the photographs were catch-as-catch-can, but I learnt the value of the perfect composition.” 

His lens captured scenes that range from the everyday to the wholly bizarre, including men on penny-farthing bikes, a landlady in Hyde Park breaking archaic regulations, children dressed in adult’s clothes and a dancer wearing an upturned hip bath like a tortoise shell. 

A policeman on a pogo stick chases a criminal who is carrying a bag of loot. Photograph by Ken Russell

The photographs that emerged from Russell’s camera include some of Britain's most significant records of street life during the aftermath of the Second World War. An unexpected and exceptional historical record, documenting the fashions, the cultures and most importantly the people during this shifting time, including a series called The Last of the Teddy Girls, which feature a group of young women who rejected the new post-war feminine fashions and instead took on a more androgynous look. There is a surprising innocence to Russell's photographs, where he used bomb-sites as backdrops to his scenes, capturing children climbing walls and mischievous boys clambering through fences in their makeshift playground. 

These prints embody his quirky and  rebellious and quirky nature revealing both the attitude and innocence of 1950’s youth. Reality is a Dirty Word runs until 3rd January 2017.

*Reality is a Dirty Word  is at Proud Chelsea, 161 King’s Road, London  SW3 5XP until 3rd January 2017. Open Monday to Saturday 10am till 7pm. Sunday: 10am till 6pm. More info at Proud Galleries

© Jeremy Miles 2022