Long before Ken Russell, who passed away in late November, became the notorious film director responsible for Women in Love, The Devils, The Boyfriend and The Who’s rock opera Tommy, he was an art student and, later, a freelance photographer. In the 1950’s Russell’s work was published regularly in the preeminent British photo news magazines of the day, including Picture Post. After his work had been tucked away in his agency’s archive for half a century, Russell’s early photos resurfaced half a dozen years ago and received renewed interest with an exhibition at the Proud Gallery in London.
In 1955, the fledgling photographer created a series called The Last of the Teddy Girls, which featured photographs taken against the war-torn backdrop of London’s East End. The images are one of the first reportage series to be made of British youth culture, presenting pictures of working class girls in Neo-Edwardian dress—a fascinating counterpoint to their drape-coated and drainpipe-wearing male counterparts the Teddy Boy. The Last of the Teddy Girls also provided a rare and unique glimpse of a little recognized and under-documented subculture of austere post war Britain.
These quiet portraits—a direct contrast to Russell’s later bombastic directorial style—are an unexpected and exceptional historical record of cool. They document both the attitude and innocence of 1950’s youth and are an embodiment of the rebellious nature that Russell possessed throughout his life.