FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 28 / SEP / 2022
by Maurice Rickards
The Studio Ltd: London, 1959
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
Many of the photographs in this publication, its author begins perversely, "were taken for no reason at all". They offer "diverting evidence of what can be done on the lunatic fringe of orthodox photography". As per the jazz reference of the title in its higgledy-piggledy font, the book takes an eclectic view of what might be described as an alternative photographic vision. Much is whimsy – demonstrated by the cover image of the author’s assistant, smirking as an axe protrudes from his forehead – but there are serious messages too, visualising risk, threat and tragedy.
Maurice Rickards [1919-1998] was described as an artist, photographer, author and journalist in 1959. His work as a publicity designer had already secured him "an international reputation for the unexpected". Off-Beat Photography was Rickards’ first non-fiction book and he had yet to focus on the passion that would establish his later reputation as a major collector and a pioneer scholar of paper ephemera. In his many later writings on the subject, including 2000’s authoritative Encyclopaedia of Ephemera, published posthumously by the British Library as his life’s work, he makes no reference to his earlier photographic career. Nonetheless, it is highly distinctive.
Off-Beat Photography includes technical trickery and visual jokes – a miniature man trapped in a glass bottle, a woman lighting a cigarette with a pound note, and a photograph of the "high-minded" author with an extended cranium, for example – alongside photographic experiments including solarisation and shadowgraphs. These share aesthetic appearances, if not intentions, with celebrated artistic precursors, from Man Ray to Moholy-Nagy. While much of the book’s purpose is to explain how to create visual effects for fun, or for eye-catching scenes "surrealistically" produced for advertising, off-beat endeavours also achieve more serious ends.
Rickards’ "photo-diagram" of the splitting of the atom shows how the off-beat can serve science. Against a black ground, a central explosion, from which neutrons emerge at high speed, is flanked by concentric electron circles. To the left of each illustrated page, Rickards’ text explains how each assemblage was achieved. In this instance, he not only outlines the scientific accuracy of his scheme, but also the mundane miscellany of its components: billiard balls, half-penny pieces and the confetti contents of an office paper-punch. Nuclear fission is elsewhere rendered in a more "poetic portrayal of a world beyond our sight". A swirl of monochrome textures and tones is produced from displaced negatives to imagine nuclear energy’s abundance as "a visual rendering of the invisible".
Nuclear forces, the preoccupation of the late 1950s, are also imaged via other strategies. In one instance, the atomic formula is typewritten in white over the face of an eager youth to depict the promise of a nuclear future. The fuel that will be saved by nuclear energy is visualised in a striking double-page fantasy, showing twenty million tons of coal as a mountain in central London. Nelson’s Column is dwarfed by it and Trafalgar Square is buried beneath it. The sense of scale certainly succeeds in its message, but a sinister undertone is apparent. The Aberfan disaster that tragically buried a village school under colliery spoils was seven years into the future when the book was published, but Rickards’ photographic impression is nonetheless evocative of catastrophe.
Perhaps the communication of risk was Rickards’ intention, for elsewhere he imagines Piccadilly Circus in the aftermath of an H-bomb hit. Housewives in headscarves collect "radio-activity-free" water from a standpipe, while livestock is traded in an improvised marketplace, overseen by an armed patrol guard. The result is dark in both mood and print. Rickards had to choreograph a cow, goat and several chickens, as well as a substantial cast, before an "abnormally reluctant dawn" at 5.30am on an Easter Monday. Back in the studio, Rickards lettered in the looting and missing persons posters, but the central scene was photographed in the flesh.
Off-Beat Photography contains more than gags and tricks. Its most potent achievement, for me, is an illustration in which no post-production was involved: a photograph taken for a road safety campaign to visualise traffic accident statistics. Thirty-one members of a church congregation assumed the positions of volunteer casualties for a poster that travelled worldwide. With its corpses scattered across a single street, the photograph resembles a scene of atrocity. Rickards’ off-beat approach purported to be pointless, but his work was put to use by the British Safety Council and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. His hardest-hitting posters of the 1950s were banned by local authorities and were defaced when on display. Off-Beat Photography disrupts multiple expectations, including what photography should and shouldn’t depict. Don’t judge it by its cover.