Kurt Benning in Islington

Kurt Benning in Islington (London Shop Windows 1971-1973)

Ian Jeffrey,  7. December 2012

Before beginning properly l will outline a theory of photography, so as to be able to place the pictures. The theory depends on the idea or even just the observation that photographs are time-based, or usually taken in a fraction of a second. This may be an advantage if pictures are needed for forensic purposes: the finish of a horse-race, for instance. Otherwise the condition is a drawback, because we don’t often want a record of dispositions just as they occur.

There have been various ways of extending and dilating time, varying from era to era and from time to time. Firstly, c.1900, aesthetic photography broadens and stabilizes the moment, fading contours and blending differences of texture in favour of a tonal continuum. Turn to Stieglitz around 1910 and you will notice that he likes to select moments that precede other grander moments. He dwells on the introductory phases to big events. He takes pictures of race-horses going to the post, for instance, and looks at passengers on a ship awaiting disembarkation (‚The Steerage‘ is a case in point). In the modernist era photographers begin to consider the photograph as a sensitized scientific plate able to register particles in transit. Kertesz is a good example. His picture of the viaduct at Meudon features a passing train on a viaduct and a passing pedestrian below carrying a mystery parcel to the right. You often find this metaphor of the sensitized plate in street and crowd scenes in the 1920s. Modernist documentary in the 1930s understands the present moment as a time of preparation. There is a good picture by Walker Evans, for instance, of a woman in a striped sweater Standing in front of a striped fagade of a barber shop, as if waiting for business to begin. That kind of present moment is anticipatory. Afterwards, in the 1950s and 1960s now tends to become an extended part of a continuum, often dark and shadowy and come to a near standstill – as you find in Robert Frank’s pictures taken in the USA in the 1950s. The Japanese, Tomatsu and Moriyama in the 1960s, began to deploy continuum pictures, as if the photograph had been cut from a rush of time out of control.

Kurt Benning’s is an art which takes account of time, although it is not quite like anything described above. The pictures look, in many cases like montages, and they include a lot of frames: the frames of the Windows themselves and internal frames around mirrors, for example. It may be that in 1971-73 he was sensitive to whatever was transitory, although it may also be the case that he was dealing with a culture that was very much aware of time – perhaps as a scarce or slippery commodity that had to be taken account of.

The pictures, all 48 of them, deal exhaustively with time. Sometimes they are quite schematic . In one very straightforward image of a hairdresser’s window (GENTS HAIR DRESSING STYLIST) the barber has arranged varieties of MODERN STYLING passing from adolescence to a florid maturity, of the kind you used to see in First Division footballers, all centred on a DUREX GOSSAMER SENSITOL LUBRICATED advert discreetly but centrally placed in the window. The whole suave display aims at copulation. What sort of trope? There must be a name for it: discretion as a way of marking the climax. You might argue that the Ages of Man were increasingly sub-divided in the 1960s (and 1970s) and suddenly left hanging, leading to no afterlife.


In one encyclopaedic image under the heading N the past and future intersect in a complex montage. Once upon a time, background lettering implies, the establishment had dealt with PASSPORT images. It still did, to some degree, when the photographer passed by; but mission creep had set in promising a range of possibilities, some of them desperate: SITTINGS NO APPOINTMENT REQUIRED is one of them, and another suggests that surplus photographic equipment will be bought ‚AT VARIOUS TIMES OF THE YEAR‚. The whole inscribed window is rife with readings of the future. Hand-writing proposes that the future is a state of affairs read by an individual, on the basis of experience. Professionally photographed adverts promise utopia, or a fictional domain you can only entertain as an ideal. N’s inscriptions, on the other hand, tell of hard earned experience and an optimistic but at the same time sceptical take on the immediate future. It is a scene which shows that something has happened or gone amiss, and that there has been a turning point leading to this scattergun approach to making a living.

Death also visits Islington and is remarked on to good effect in the shop window of COOKSEY & SON AT 266. The name itself promises continuity. A clock in the window, standing at around thirteen minutes to one in the afternoon marks the unrolling of time. The promise of FUNERAL SERVICE DAY & NIGHT on the glass door of the premises takes account of the unexpected. The COOKSEY vision of the future is practical and even downbeat, directed at people faced by real emergencies and on tight budgets: ‚motors & horses at the same price within 12 miles without extra charge‘. COOKSEY & SON knew their clientele and what the future had to offer for all concerned.

The key to these shop window images is that they were taken at the end of an era, at the onset of decrepitude. Modern times were bearing down on whoever owned or rented these establishments. They couldn’t afford to modernize, and probably their clients couldn’t afford to go any further up market. Hence the people of the area were left with a window display of false teeth not very artfully arranged under a sign reading, intentionally or not, WE ARE STILL OPEN. In the end, these notices declare, you will lose your teeth. Another sign, nicely written, declares that it will rain: UMBRELLAS, it says.

The collection constitutes an inventory of likely outcomes in hard-pressed environments. The pictures assemble a limited but entirely predictable roster of future conditions and events: rainy days, toothlessness and death. These hand-written and patiently assembled montages are on the point of being ousted by seamless renderings of utopia, a future, that is to say, where adjustments can’t be made, where extemporization is out of the question. It is a certain kind of future on offer, hand-made and hand-written and unremittingly personal. The years 1971-73 may have marked the end of this phase of life in European cities. Thereafter the future was taken out of our hands by and large, to be processed and bestowed if not from above at least from somewhere else over which COOKSEY & SON’s clients had little control. l think that as a record of a transitional phase in human affairs this collection is hard to beat – at least if it is read attentively and in detail.