The girl in the picture

November 23, 2012 § 4 Comments

Another London at the Tate showcased photographs of the city taken between 1930 and 1980 by outsiders, often on journalistic assignments. Arguably the most striking image in the exhibition was one taken by American photographer Bruce Davidson in 1960. It shows an apparently homeless teenage girl holding a kitten.

Davidson had already achieved fame for his pictures of Brooklyn gangs and had been invited over by Queen magazine to take photographs depicting British life. Buying a Hillman Minx convertible with red leather seats, he toured the country while living off bananas and fudge. The results were published by Magnum in a book called England/Scotland.

One night in London, he encountered a group of teenagers who took him to ‘a cave’ and then to a concert in a ‘huge dancehall, possibly on an island’ (anyone any idea where these places may have been?). At the end of the evening he accompanied the girl outside. She was carrying a bedroll and picked up the stray cat. In Davidson’s own words: “There was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn’t know where she had come from, and I didn’t get her name, but there was something about that face – the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life – it was the new face of Britain.”

Davidson later became well-known for his photographs of the American civil rights movement and of passengers on the New York subway. Describing his work as that ‘of an outsider on the inside’, he has said that his mission in life is “to make visible what appears to be invisible [as] someone who is blind and suddenly begins to see.”

Fifty years on from that night in London, he is still haunted by what may have become of the ‘invisible’ girl with the kitten, searching for her whenever he visits the city.

Photographs trick us by making the ephemeral seem permanent, and never more so than when the subject of the picture is as transient as a homeless teenager. It is possible that she is no longer alive – but it is equally likely that she leads an ordinary life and has simply never encountered her own iconic image.

The man who created it hopes she has become a writer or an artist, or has at least led a full life and not spent it on the street: “She was Joan of Arc, she was any and every woman that had a spirit and a strength.”

She may still be out there. And hopefully no longer carrying her bed for the night.

Bruce Davidson’s best shot
Audio: Photographer seeks girl holding kitten
Bruce Davidson’s ‘encounters with the invisible’
Another London at Tate Britain

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§ 4 Responses to The girl in the picture

  • KB says:

    Not long after I posted this, a friend suggested that the dancehall which Bruce Davidson visited may have been Eel Pie Island jazz club. Here’s a fantastic picture of the club published in Life magazine in 1960 – the year ‘Girl Holding a Kitten’ was taken:

    Two girls at Eel Pie Island jazz club

  • Paul says:

    I am sure the venues referred to were in fact Eel Pie and Chiselhurst – as it says in this article the two are not that far apart: eelpie.org/jazz_and_folk_in_the_60s

    When I was studying at the Royal School of Mines we held a “mining disco” in the caves, the evening started at the Union bar in South Ken and we all hopped on a coach (or coaches) down to Chiselhurst and then back with several of my colleagues carrying on partying in Central London, so it’s eminently feasible.

  • RJH says:

    Jimi Hendrix played at Chislehurst caves. I know they still had parties there in the 1990s because my sister met her husband down there but they’re not allowed to have bands down there anymore (which is a bit of a shame as it would be perfect for a British Sea Power gig).

    I love the picture from Eel Pie Island. It’s nice to imagine the girl in the picture hanging out there.

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