The paradox of black-and-white photography is that however explicit the image, we often see it with innocent eyes. Part of the reason is that black-and-white photographs are usually old, and with age comes distance, and with distance a safety – usually a mistaken one. The disconnection also comes from the grainy, almost dreamy quality of the prints, which is down to practical matters, such as where the photographs were taken, how they were lit, how the prints were stored, and if they’ve been copied and enlarged. All these elements are at play in Soho Archives, the upcoming exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery. Many of the images seem appealing, at least at first glance. But look closer, and you realise that David Hurn’s images of flimsily clad women are not sorority girls but Soho strippers, and their grubby changing rooms and bored expressions reveal the bleak economics of shimmy-shake. The Daily Herald photographs have a lighter mood, only then you notice that the police have broken noses and facial scars, and suspect that they gave as good as they got. The uneasiness of Jean Straker’s images is more difficult to pin down. With Classical poses and slick studio lighting, his female nudes have a formal quality, yet the smiling woman with masks on her body suggests the omnivorous male gaze, only with identities guiltily hidden.
Soho Archives: 1950s & 1960s, 26 September to 16 November, The Photographers’ Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2