John Bignell: Chelsea Photographer 03/11/2017 – Posted in: Blog, Chelsea

In this, the first of a series dedicated to exploring the lives and work of our local heroes, we look at the photography of John Bignell.  Despite receiving little recognition in modern times (he is somehow lacking a wikipedia entry), his art identifies him as a key chronicler of sixties London, in particular the bohemian lifestyles of Chelsea and Kensington.  Between the end of the second world war and the 1980s, Bignell’s work presented London with a gritty truthfulness that covered all areas, turning his talent to street photography, advertising, fashion, celebrity portraits and still life.  Shooting mostly in black and white, his uncomplicated style and familiarity with both subject and location results in a (remarkably alien) level playing-field; no special treatment is afforded to any one person, and as such, fame is superseded by character.


Here Jayne Mansfield is entertaining children at a dance, rather than early Playboy subscribers.  Below, a dog-walker feeding pigeons is as much a valid subject for portraiture as Sammy Davis Jnr.
woman-in-dovehouse-green-fac_rbkc_jb_80p     sammy-davis-other-pic_jb_421

While supermodels were being finely-tuned, and Hollywood starlets starved to perfection, Bignell approached fame as an irrelevance.  Nobody makes a cameo in his photography, rather, his photography makes an impression on (and of) their lives.

Further to the excitement that surrounds images of sixties culture, he acknowledges the hopefulness of a society newly recovered from the ravages of war.  Turning away from the traumas of the past, his photographs of youths playing amongst the rubble inspire strength and joy.

JB Car

In the introduction to Bignall’s seminal work, Chelsea Photographer, Marvyn Levy writes ‘he is a man of our time, but his view of the world is fundamentally concerned with the poetry of the peaceful and the serene…[he] prefers the immutable radiance of the beautiful, rather than the transitory excitement of a kick to the face.’  This collection is notable for the absence of conflict – he is, indeed, a disarmingly positive artist.  Larger problems appear to be set aside, as his attention is drawn to an immediate movement, shadow or problem.  It is this immediacy that so eloquently describes the culture and social character of the time.  Where else but bohemian Chelsea would locals be engaged in rescuing an old woman in a drain?

John Bignell - Woman in a Drain

John Bignell – Woman in a Drain

John Bignell’s ‘Chelsea Photographer’ and ‘Chelsea Seen from 1860 to 1980’ are both available from our King’s Road shop.  For details please call 020 7352 9376.