We Could Be Heroes, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

In 20 bittersweet photographs taken over the last century from master photographers, this exhibition explores youth culture and the various rites of passage towards adulthood. We Could Be Heroes reflects the rebellious bravado of the ‘teenager,’ a character which appeared during a new wave of post-war freedom, as younger western generations seized their opportunity to turn away from tradition and assert new attitudes and subcultures.

First, in 1959 legendary Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson (b. 1933, USA) embedded himself amongst Brooklyn gang the Jokers. Across 11 months, he produced one of the first full-immersion photo essays about an American youth subculture: Brooklyn Gang. The series features everything from drinking in back alleys to moments of rage, make-out sessions in the backs of cars to liaisons under the Coney Island boardwalk. There is also Chris Steele-Perkins’ (b. 1947, Myanmar) iconic series The Teds which looks at the distinctive style of the Teddy Boy culture in 1950s and 1970s Britain in rough and ready portraits, as well as gentle images of Teddy boy meetings, weddings and dances.

Meanwhile Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken (1925 – 1990, Netherlands) depicts the reckless, decadent and hedonistic lifestyle of 1950s Parisian bohemia; Anders Petersen’s (b. 1944, Sweden) focuses upon the margins of society, such as the late-night regulars of a Hamburg bar in Café Lehmitz (1978) or even the seedier side of London’s Soho (2012); and the collaboration between Karen Knorr (b. 1954, Germany) and Olivier Richon (b. 1956. Switzerland) entitled Punk (1977) used confrontational, posed portraiture to capture symbolism within London’s punk scene.

Yet another series to take place in London comes from British photographer Roger Mayne (1929 – 2014) whose images from the 1950s simply capture members of the first generation to be identified as ‘teenagers’: his W10 (1956 – 1961) series, shot mainly in the now demolished ‘slum’ of Southam Street, contrasts the exuberance of youth with the urban dereliction they inhabited. Other exhibited photographers include Bert Hardy, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Al Vandenberg, Weegee and Tom Wood.

We Could Be Heroes, 6 February – 12 April, The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW.

Visit the gallery’s website at www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk.

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1. Al Vandenberg, Untitled – High Street, 1975, from the series On a Good Day. Courtesy of Eric Franck Fine Art.