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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

One photograph: A broadening

A young woman stands on the steps of a building; another, taller woman stands next to her. The clothes could be from any of the last few decades, though the spectacles suggest one. The architecture around them is Victorian, perhaps Edwardian – a cluster of company name plaques suggests commercial premises. Who are they, and where are they? Bianca Stigter’s new documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening asks the same questions of a three-minute home movie shot in Poland in 1938, manipulating and elongating it in an attempt to find some answers. Last year I did something similar with this one photograph.

Moving pictures can be “stretched, slowed” and thus analysed, as Jonathan Freedland notes in his own review of Stigter’s acclaimed work. Still images cannot, but they are very partial to another technique he mentions – magnification. And whilst a piece of film footage usually contains a range of camera angles, it is possible to find the same subject photographed from a different point of view. Personal testimony always helps, and indeed features in both investigations. It ought, then, to be possible to expand our view into the world of this photograph a little by using these techniques…

The woman in glasses is my mother, pictured with a friend from work, and they are outside the side entrance to Kelly’s Directories Ltd, the trade directory publisher, in central London. It is the very late 1950s and the building is in Arundel Street, south of the Strand. At the corner of both roads stands an Italianate block erected a century earlier as the head office of, and newspaper clearing house for, W.H. Smith – Kelly’s later took space in the same building. On the opposite corner is an ABC tea room and shop, one of dozens operated by the Aerated Bread Company: “Once our boss bought us a doughnut as we were working late!” Next door is a branch of clothes retailer Etam, founded by a German and named after the etamine fabric he used. It had launched its first range of ready-to-wear clothing only a few years earlier.

Arundel Street was laid out in the late seventeenth century on the site of the Duke of Norfolk’s London home, in a grid with Howard, Norfolk and Surrey Streets. Two hundred years later red brick and terracotta buildings in Flemish or ‘Tudorbethan’ style went up, to designs by the estate’s surveyor, agent and architect John Dunn. Kelly’s duly expanded into the first of these buildings on Arundel Street, locating a warehouse there and their advertising department, where my mother worked. Looking downhill toward the Thames the hanging Kelly’s sign is visible, along with - by complete chance - what appears to be two other women running into the building: “We would go in to a small hall with a lift but we went down the stairs… the office was behind those windows with railings but only the first four or five were ‘ours’. We were below but could see legs of passers-by.”

Reversing the viewpoint at Howard Street, which runs east-west between Arundel and Surrey Streets, shows the same building, whilst turning around reveals the view toward Temple station with the famous Underground roundel on a pole. With a final glance back up Arundel Street once again – No. 4, Howard House, is pictured – we reach the tube and the way home.

Much of this world has vanished. None of the companies named exist today, whilst the buildings that housed them have also been demolished. Indeed Howard Street itself has gone, erased in the early 1970s by a comprehensive redevelopment scheme that replaced every building in that Restoration-era grid.

But one moment in time, preserved in one photograph, can be seen in more context than most with a little effort...

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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