I’m only here for an afternoon on my way north – for a funeral. (Two weddings and a funeral this year). I know London well. I grew up a thirty-minute train ride away and we came ‘up’ often, to Liverpool Street Station. I studied here, coxed the novice eight on the Thames, cycled from King’s Cross to Putney, from friends’ flats in Maida Vale to Regents Park, crisscrossing the city.
With just an afternoon to fill, I can’t seem to match time and opportunity. I wander down Shaftsbury Avenue. It’s a windy, aimless day. November: the rat’s arse of the year my Dad used to call it. He was Fulham born, and spent all his working life in the City. No matter how often I come back here, how many of my memories have overlaid those he second-handed down to me, my father shadows me on lost days like these. We circle his favourite places: the statue of nurse Edith Cavell off Trafalgar Square, St. Martins-in-the-Fields, the big Galleries.
It’s the opening day of the Taylor Wessing photographic Portrait Prize 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery www.npg.org.uk/whatson/twppp-2016/exhibition.php. Hovering indecisively in the entrance area, I notice the inscription over the doorway: “Ondaatje Wing”. I remember: my parents met in a house owned now (but not then) by Christopher Ondaatje. I get a ticket and start walking round.
Photographs are accessible: we stand where photographers stood with their cameras and we think that we are seeing what they saw. And we are, because photos reproduce the physical act of looking in a way that other two-dimensional art forms tend not to. But photographers frame. And framing is another word for manipulation. We see what the photographer wants us to see. Constructing a set, working with horizons, using a background fabric are devices. There are plenty of these in evidence at the Taylor Wessing in work by Tamara Dean or Kovi Konowiecki, Kelvin Murray or Matt Hamon.
But with my father trailing round behind me, these are not the photos that I linger in front of. He was not a fan of analysis, or big names, trusting his own eye to establish preference. So what touched him and what touches me, perhaps only today, are images that
don’t fuss with form too much. Photos that absorb my gaze and reflect it back to a camera that stood more or less where I, the artist-in-lieu, now stand, refracting experience and memory back into the image.
The winning portrait is of a uniformed South African student: green blazer, tie, the school’s coat of arms and a curious, assured gaze. Nearly a century earlier and a continent away, it’s my Dad, a confident child in the green, badged uniform of Fulham’s Peterborough Road Primary School that looks out at me. Another image, white backgrounded, shows a street child (John from Tanzania) wearing – of all things – a Chelsea football club glove: an emblem of the Saturday entertainment that sustained Dad and his brothers throughout a difficult childhood. A black and white tableau vivant shot of a London shipping company office: could be my father posing in a snappy 1960s suit in deference to the ‘old man’ seated on the right.
And here, finally, is an old man, seen from behind, supporting himself as he rises from a hospital bed. Large ears on a shrunken head, a crooked rack of a spine, watch slopping at the wrist, white, wispy hair: not Len, an old man from Melbourne, by Ebony Finck, but my father in the last months of his life.
Enough. My father has long since caught up with me, overtaken me, in fact, in his eagerness to get back outside, down to the river or into a café.
Time to travel again in the real world. Or what passes for it.