|Born: Frederick James Wilfred |
Other: Fred Wilfred
|Dates: ||1925 - 2010|
|Born: ||England, London, Islington|
Professional photographer in west London, Hampton, Hampton Court and Hampton Hill, who also took photographs of street life in London during the late 1950s and 1960s. For further information contact the Museum of London.
My memories of Fred Wilfred
Back in 2006, I was working a job I didnít much care for. It was my first in London, although being stuck out behind the Tate Modern, it didnít feel too much like the exciting London I wanted to experience.
I found the South Bank lovely to stroll down, but working there every day as I did for a year, I found there wasnít not too much going on.
Every lunch hour for the nerve wracking first week I went and sat in the Tate Modern cafe, sipping a tea and wondering what on earth Iíd let myself in for with this new job as Sound Designer on a new videogame, a career path I had been on for five years but was still not fully confident in.
As the weeks and months passed I got more adventurous, seeing how far afield I could go in my lunch hour and what interesting places I could find. I spent many of those lunch breaks in various cafťís writing or reading. However the most interesting and fortuitous lunch break was the one that spawned a chance meeting with a man called Fred.
One particular December day I went to the gallery in the OXO building. On the walk into work that morning Iíd seen that there was a photography exhibition ĎRetrospective Imagesí, by Colin OíBrien.
I studied photography at college and while Iíve never been a professional, I have kept a very active interest in the subject, taking many photographs and going to exhibitions. After Iíd perused the photographs, that captured ĎFifty years of working class London life,í I decided I liked them enough to buy Colinís book, so I joined the small queue of people doing the same. Next in line to me was an older man holding a portfolio.
Somehow we got chatting and he introduced himself as Fred Wilfred. I recall he had an immediate likeability; a head of grey hair swept back, frozen in a 50s style, his characterful face wearing a seemingly permanent semi-smile. His body language forthright and eager. Though clearly of retirement age I would not have had him down as an octogenarian, so sprightly and vivacious was he.
I asked him what was in the portfolio and he told me that he had taken many similar photos as Colinís and that he had brought a few of them along to show him. I asked if I could take a look too and Fred said yes.
I would be a bit late for work but what the hell. I fully hated the job by now anyway!
Fred and I bought our copies of Colinís book and then we went to one side and he showed me the pictures. They were amazing, at least as good as Colinís pictures to my eyes.
Fascinating, brilliant images of late 1950s and early 60s London, one that particularly struck me was a shot of three little kids on a street using an old car as a trampoline and a Wendy house, while a woman looked impassively on in to the lens through the window of the house in the background. Somewhat shockingly for the era, scratched into the wall just left of the window there I could clearly see the words ĎBrian a C**T.í
Another, of a tailor at work in the humble, primitive surroundings of his workshop captured the subject so naturally, in an era when the camera was still an object of some fascination, I wondered if Fred had somehow adopted a cloak of invisibility when taking it. A true fly on the wall shot.
He explained to me that he had been a professional photographer, in the portrait business, but the street photography was a passion he would indulge in most weekends.
After Fred had shown me all the pictures and weíd chatted a while I decided I really had better get back to the office and avoid any trouble from my boss.
The rest of that day I couldnít stop thinking about Fredís pictures. He told me he had hundreds more at home. I decided to write to Fred, obtaining his address through Colin OíBrien, who luckily for me, had his details.
Fred had no email so I wrote a letter. Sometime later he called me and we chatted on the phone, feeling very comfortable almost immediately. Fred invited me over to his house in Ham.
One Saturday I drove over to Ham, taking a picturesque route through Richmond Park as Fred had suggested. I followed Fredís directions to his house, a modest semi-detached on a typical 1980s estate. Fred welcomed me and ushered me through to the kitchen, stopping only briefly in the living room to introduce me to his wife, where several portfolios were stacked on the table, ready for viewing. He got some tea and biscuits on the go and we began looking through the photographs in earnest. Fred had an energy about him, an urgency that he maintained throughout the visit. As he opened the first portfolio, I was aware that this was a special event, something I would treasure. One of those moments that donít come along often in life. Clearly not many people had seen these pictures, and here was I, someone who had only met Fred once and spoken once on the phone, sat in Ham about to open a box of photographic treasures in the company of their creator.
I wasnít to be disappointed. The pictures were amazing, reportage photography at its finest. They ranged from London in the 50s to very recent shots in Paris. There were so many photographs, there wasnít the time to dwell on any one picture. So many of the pictures before me on the table, were exceptional. Not just good, or pictures that were automatically interesting simply because they were captures of a bygone era. No, these pictures were simply brilliant. Some of the best photographs Iíd ever seen.
I was awed with Fredís ability to capture people at just the right moment, before they even knew they were being photographed and had time to change their expression. I asked Fred if anyone had ever taken exception to his shoot first, talk later approach. Fred told me he had only once experienced anything physical, shoved by a French youth in Paris a few years ago, after he had taken pictures of a group of youths, but the situation didnít escalate.
Some of the pictures I had seen before, back at the OXO building. Again the striking image of the children playing with the old car, the ghostly image of a shopkeeper in a grocery shop window, a horse and cart outside a Charringtonís pub at Wapping Old Stairs. Seeing these pictures again gave me a chance to absorb more detail. Hundreds of other pictures I was seeing for the first time, a dilapidated building with six figures passing by graffiti that read ĎBAN THE BLOODY BOMBí. Many of the pictures showed startling contrasts of old and new. One picture shows a scene with a vintage car in the foreground, a rag & bone man with his cart in the middle distance and in the background, dominating the scene, a brand new high rise block of flats.
Another seems to be a simple, effective shot of a lady fishmonger arranging her produce in the wooden framed sash window, but closer inspection revealed impending social change when I noticed the looming modern building reflected in the glass.
I was so excited; I bombarded Fred with questions ďHave you digitized these? Have you ever done an exhibition? Are these the only copies?Ē
He explained that he had never scanned any of the pictures, hadnít done an exhibition since the early 60s and that these were the sole copies. He did however have all the negatives. His answers were delivered with speed and urgency. I got the feeling that Fred valued time as a precious commodity. I wondered if he had lived his whole life at this speed.
After we had seen all of the pictures on the table I showed him some of mine. Whilst a handful of them were good, they paled into insignificance next to the body of work before me. Fred was kind about my work though. He gave me advice and encouraging comments and showed genuine interest.
Over the following days I kept recalling images from Fredís collection. I craved access to them. I felt I had to see them again and believed that other people should be able see them too, although the knowledge that only a few people had ever seen them, in an age when we are used to easy access, did make me feel privileged.
A few weeks later we spoke on the phone again and planned a meet up in London along with Colin O Brien.
We met at a restaurant in Islington and the three of us ate lunch, shared a bottle of wine and talked photography. Fred had bought Colin and I gifts in the form of some vintage photography books. I revelled in the company of the two elder proven photographers. After we ate we headed out to walk around Islington and see what photo ops we could find.
We passed a boutique that was being fitted out. A bleached blonde girl, with an interesting look was stood up a stepladder, hanging a life size, fake sharks head on to a wall plastered with newspapers.
By the time Iíd recognized this as a potential photo op, Fred had already entered the shop and fired off several shots. The girl began to eye him quizzically but only after heíd taken a few shots did Fred make conversation with the girl, explaining that he was a photographer and then striking up a rapport. I would have done it the other way round if at all. Sheepishly approaching the girl, explaining myself clumsily, before taking the pictures. Thus losing the spontaneous moment and not getting the great shot.
We moved on to an outdoor book stall on Charlton Place where we took some more pictures. After a while Colin left. I walked with Fred a while longer. When it started to rain I decided to head off. We said goodbye and as I went into Angel tube station, I watched Fred stride off in to the rain, camera in hand saying he was going to take more pictures. At that moment I realised the difference between a keen amateur and a pro.
A fair few months passed during which I tried fruitlessly to bring Fredís work to an audience, either through a book deal or an exhibition. I have a pile of rejection letters in a draw at home. The only near success I had was with Amateur Photographer Magazine, who showed interest in running a piece, but we never quite got it together. Fred and I talked on the phone, had a few aborted meetings due to Fredís holidays and some health issues he was experiencing. Eventually we made a plan to meet in Kingston for lunch.
The day arrived and I brought along my friend Dan. I wanted to show Fred off to my best mate! We met in Kingston, went for lunch and drinks which Fred again insisted on paying for. Although Dan has nothing more than a passing interest in photography, he was as enraptured by Fred as I was, amazed at his energy and entertained by his conversation. Fred told us about his war years serving in the RAF and the army. How in the 50s heíd worked for Hawker Sidley Aviation, photographing flying trials of an early version of the Harrier. We talked about Spitfires, Lancaster Bombers and Tanks as though we were three wartime schoolboys. Fred seemed as interested to hear about our lives as we were his. I told him the ins and outs of videogame Sound Design, Dan explained the thrills of teaching Maths to secondary school kids for a living.
After lunch we walked around Kingston, at one point Fred told us to slow down as we were walking too fast. With Fredís youthful verve it was easy to forget that Fred was in his 80s, us in our 30s.
In 2009 Dan and I went to Prague, for a short holiday. Prague is the city in which I took my only photograph that could stand up to one of Fredís, back when I was 21 on a college trip. The shot was of a man in a trilby, stood smoking, whilst a shadowy figure lurked to his right. It was a scene straight from a Len Deighton novel.
We sent Fred a postcard saying hello from Prague and suggesting another meet up.
A few weeks after we returned home I had received no reply to the postcard. I sent another letter which again went unanswered. I called the house a few times but it rang off the hook.
A couple of years went by but I never forgot Fred and his pictures and wanted to know what had become of him. As he had told me, the last time we spoke, that heíd undergone a triple heart bypass, I had to consider the likelihood that he had passed away.
Now in the year 2012 I work in Soho, in a Sound Design job I love. Soho is more exciting to me than the South Bank and I frequent the fantastic Society Club cafť and bookshop. The Society Club people put on exhibitions regularly and have a retro sensibility that suits me perfectly. I thought that they would be interested in Fredís photography and dug out the dozen prints that Fred had sent me years before. They loved the pictures and showed real interest in them. The response I got from my Society Club friends spurred me to make a concerted effort to find out what had happened to Fred and resurrect my attempts to get the pictures to a wider audience.
I wrote a letter to ĎThe Wilfred Familyí and posted it to his address in Ham.
A few days ago the home phone rang. I answered it and Fredís daughter in law introduced herself. She had received my letter that morning and gave me the sad news that Fred had indeed passed away in 2010. However there was good news. Fredís exhibition, by amazing coincidence was to begin that very day at the Museum of London.
Fredís son Russell had managed to do what I failed to do. Now the Museum of London own Fredís archive, Amateur Photographer have run a beautiful article on Fred and there is a dedicated website with many beautiful pictures.
The loss of a friend saddened me, no more would Fred and I share a bottle of wine and a conversation, but the news about Fredís work couldnít be better. I am meeting Fredís family for the first time at the exhibition next week.
I wish Iíd met Fred years before, ideally when Iíd been studying photography at Leicester College. As it was he was a friend for a few years and will always be a mentor. I was lucky to have known one of the best street photographers of the 20th Century as I am confident Fred will soon be seen to be. Now when I see a photo opportunity I pluck up that extra courage and get the shot I want.
18 June 2012
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