Godfrey MacDomnic

The quiet photographer who recorded England in post-war transition

Anyone who writes about art knows how easy it is to fall into a trap of categorisation, putting an artist into a box that the public will recognise. This composer is modernist, that one conservative; this writer is experimental, that one conventional. How often we miss the point.

“Number 2 bus at night in North London”, Godfrey Macdomnic, 1950s

I slipped up the other day when looking through a pile of photographs unearthed by the family of Godfrey MacDomnic after his death, aged 84, last year. I had known MacDomnic as a photographer of classical music, one of an elite group who spent days and nights in record studios documenting the golden mid-century of classical production. He worked for EMI at Abbey Road, as Don Hunstein shot for CBS at West 30th Street and Siegfried Lauterwasser for DG’s Karajan in Salzburg and Berlin. Discreet and invisible, they clicked music in the making and were trusted not to disturb or distort. MacDomnic’s sets of Jacqueline du Pré, of Boult and Barenboim, of Stravinsky and Tennstedt, exist as a sub-artform in their own right. They define him as a portraitist of high calibre.

“Group of children running through a bombsite on Bread Street Hill”, Godfrey MacDomnic, 1950s

Who knew that he was so much more? The portfolio that his son John uncovered among his effects contains a pristine record of England in transition, a country fumbling for identity amid the detritus of its past. In his own time, away from the studios, Godfrey captures the old and new: a lamplighter at his evening duties, two middle-aged ladies dry-testing a Vespa, perfectly behatted. Children scramble in bombsite rubble near St Paul’s Cathedral, their exuberance a bustling counterpoint to the surrounding desolation. A man of substance examines the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in exquisite isolation (no hint of daylong queues). More than the period, the 1950s, what defines these images is their transience. They record a world that is dying before the lens. Technically, the precision is stunning. Not one picture required adjustment for scanning. MacDomnic, a shy artist, saw the world in 20/20 vision, even as it faded.

“Park lamp cleaner sillhouette in Regent’s Park”, Godfrey MacDomnic, 1950s

“Two middle-aged ladies riding a vintage scooter”, Godfrey MacDomnic, 1950s

“Man looking at sculptures at the British Museum”, Godfrey MacDomnic, 1950s

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