Two tales of a city

Photography byCharles Darwent

Look at the photograph of Francis Bacon in the Museum of London's new Terence Donovan retrospective, "The Eye that Never Sleeps", and something about it may strike you as odd. Yes, of course, the picture is literally of Bacon; but it is in a sense also not of him. The artist, striding purposelessly in anonymous profile down a featureless street, is scrunched into the left third of the composition. Much more visually interesting is the space from which the picture has been taken: the inside of a car, its dimensions strongly defined by window pillars and light reflected on window glass. Just in case our interest should wander beyond these to the photograph's supposed subject, Bacon is utterly upstaged by the reflection in a wing-mirror, angled so as to allow us almost - but, tantalisingly, not quite - to see who is taking the picture. The work, in other words, is less about the photographee than it is about the absent photographer. Like most of Terence Donovan's pictures, it is a portrait of Terence Donovan.

This autobiographical streak runs throughout Donovan's work, both in the fashion shots for which he was to become famous and in the casual images of family life mined here for the first time from the archive of close to a million pictures the photographer left at his death in 1996. In a 1960 fashion shot for the London Evening Standard, the icily soignee model is pushed into the background by a trio of little girls whose animation makes her elegance absurd. In another shot of the same year for Man About Town, the James-Bondy drama of the subject is put into literal and figurative perspective by an irruption of Donovanian reality: a pair of workmen peer over a parapet in the background, their heads carefully not cropped out by the photographer. In both cases, the subjects of the photographs look away from Donovan into the middle distance. It is the intruders who return his gaze, entering into a demotic game of us-versus-them.

All of this certainly makes Donovan's work subversive, but does it in any sense make it "London" photography? (That is the claim of the Museum of London's curators, who suggest that their show focuses "on [Donovan's] contribution to the cultural history of London".) Well, yes, it does.

Central to the subversiveness of his pictures is their sense of exclusion. The photograph of Donovan's daughter, Daisy, running towards her father is clearly about her, but it is also about him; she is the focus of his gaze but - more importantly, one senses, for Donovan - he is also the focus of hers. Family, children, the poor and working class are included face-on in his pictures and allowed to include back by looking at the camera. The rich or glamorous - models, painters, toffs on their way back from Glyndebourne - exclude Donovan from their gaze and are in turn excluded by him. There is in this the distant whiff of a prewar Punch, 'eave-arf-a-brick-at-'im view of London life; but there is also something more. Behind the jabbing two fingers of Donovan's art is a soulfulness that makes his pictures complex, maybe even great.

Less complicated but no less revealing a take on London is offered by the Dash Gallery's exhibition, "East", of portraits of the East End's Bangladeshi community by the photographer Phil Maxwell. Juxtaposing pictures of Brick Lane with others of Sylhet - the region of Bangladesh from which most of Brick Lane's current inhabitants come - Maxwell's reportage shots tell a tale of quiet victory. In Sylhet, old ladies lead blind men down streets strewn with garbage. In Stepney, a solitary boy plays among the rubbish bins of an estate called, unbelievably, Fieldgate Mansions. Plus ca change, you might say, and you would be right: what Maxwell detects in both places is a kind of stoical beauty that survives the hideousness of the world around it. Is his the sentimental eye of a well-disposed foreigner? Yes, probably. For all the gutsiness of Maxwell's reportage style, the darker side of Bangladeshi life is not on view here. Nonetheless, there is a directness in his work that allows it to look at the overlooked without blinking. You can't help feeling that Donovan would have liked it.

"The Eye that Never Sleeps" is at the Museum of London, London EC2 (0171-600 0807), until 1 August; "East" is at the Dash Gallery, London E14 (0171-364 5030), until 30 April

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong