A LENS LESS ORDINARY
AS AN EXHIBITION OF LEONARD NEUMANN'S WORK COMES TO LEICA'S CITY STORE, CHRIS MADIGAN DISCOVERS THE REMARKABLE NATURE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S 'UNEXCEPTIONAL' IMAGES
11 JULY, 2016
When he was thirteen, Cape Town-born Leonard Neumann, along with many of his generation, was deeply affected by an exhibition of photographs that arrived in South Africa in 1958. Edward Steichen, director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, had gathered together work by Robert Capa, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Robert Doisneau, Lee Miller and hundreds of others for MoMA’s 1955 show The Family of Man. It highlighted the everyday realities of life that linked rather than divided all humanity across the globe. The exhibition toured the world for eight years, and the accompanying book has never been out of print. Its impact, both aesthetic and political, was powerful – not least to a boy living in South Africa during apartheid.
Neumann’s photography – currently on display at the Leica City store at The Royal Exchange – is imbued with a similar compassionate understanding of the grace of unexceptional people, the remarkable in the humdrum. He calls it Observing the Ordinary. Like Capa’s photographs of Russian peasants or David Goldblatt’s documentation of black workers being bussed from ‘homelands’ to jobs in Pretoria (another influence on the young Neumann), his black-and-white photography has depth, contrast and, above all, a beguiling approach to composition, with the eye drawn to unexpected corners of the frame. ‘I’m a firm believer,’ Neumann says, ‘in the quote by Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt: “It’s not what you see, but how you see it.”‘
In the 1970s, Neumann moved to the United States, studying at the New England School of Photography before settling in Dallas. In 2006, he and his wife came to London, where he developed another facet to his work: humour. ‘My direction changed after I became familiar with the work of the English photographers John Bulmer, James Ravilious, Daniel Meadows, Martin Parr and the great Tony Ray-Jones. I began photographing with a softer approach and seeing the gentleness and quirkiness of the British.’
That amusement derived from the mundane is manifested in images such as that of a kiosk owner almost swamped in confectionery, someone on all fours cleaning the plinth of an equestrian statue, or a man apparently sleeping off Special Brew on a bench and subtly flicking a V at the camera.
According to Neumann’s friend and fellow photographer George Coles, these images come about through sheer ‘foot slogging’ – that is, wandering the streets of London carrying his Leica M6 camera a 35mm, 40mm or 50mm Summicrons and Kodak Tri-X film. ‘On this, Lennie and I are agreed,’ says Coles. ‘You don’t make photographs at home staring at a screen; you have to be out there in the sun, rain and wind, wondering what the hell you are doing and why you are doing it, until maybe, just maybe, that wonderful moment appears around the corner – that moment when humanity, light and background coincide.’
Leonard Neumann’s Observing The Ordinary exhibition will be on display at Leica Store City until 29 July; leicastore-city-co.uk