Romano Cagnoni at Blacks Club, London

I’ve rarely been to a Gentleman’s Club, being the wrong gender for membership. Blacks has its own particular atmosphere - undulating wooden floors covered by woven Persian rugs, kilim covered sofas and cushions, foxed antique mirrors, dim lighting, small rooms you can squeeze half a dozen people into, gin and tonic drunk out of porcelain cups, poured from a Prohibition coffee pot. The entrance to the Private View was through the basement bar, crammed with men, drinking in a frankly pub ambience. A strange place for a feminist.

The reason for my visit is that one of Italy’s best photographers (we’re talking Italy’s equivalent of Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa here) is exhibiting at Blacks. Romano Cagnoni is one of that generation of photographers who covered the social revolutions of the sixties, the Vietnam war, Biafra and, more recently, the conflict in Croatia. He is one of those whose iconic images were seen by millions on the covers of Time, Life, Vogue, and Paris Match, without any of us knowing who exactly had clicked the shutter.

Two collections of black and white photographs are on the wall - images of London and Italy. There is a very young Mary Quant measuring a hem, a policeman arresting a barefoot girl wrapped in a sheet in Hyde Park, side by side with images of sheep in the ruins of a Tuscan hill village, and old women on church steps in Romano’s native Pietrasanta. One of his most striking images is the one above, of the Chelsea twins with their matching hats and frilly dresses.

By coincidence, I’ve just been reading Roland Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’, and that has made me think very hard about photographic images and how we read them. Barthes poses a number of philosophical questions about photographs - do they actually exist? Apparently not - without a subject there is no photograph, only a blank sheet of emulsion. So, of themselves, they don’t exist. And then there is what he calls the ‘punctum’ - a detail or section of the image not deliberately intended by the photographer (so not engineered), and probably different for everyone. It is the part of the image that makes the photograph sing for each of us individually.
For me, it was the black sole of the girl’s bare foot as she stood in a ballet pose, wrapped in a white sheet like a blonde angel on the tail gate of the Black Maria in Hyde Park. Or perhaps it was the no 19 bus passing by and caught in the upper segment of the photograph like a surreal score card.
But, having so recently come back from Asia, my favourite photograph has to be this one, which catches the precarious beauty of the region so perfectly.

Anyone interested in knowing more about Romano's work or viewing the exhibition should contact Sandra Higgins -


  1. Thankyou Kathleen. As always I am inspired and informed by your posts. I love black and white images as I think there is more space in them for the imagination.

  2. Yes, I agree, WEndy. I'm fascinated by black and white photographs - and people seem to migrate to them in workshops too.

  3. As a photographer I find his work fascinating. I am also a member of Blacks and it is not a 'Gentlemen's club' as you mention. It is generally run by women and it appears that more women are members than men. I am annoyed to discover that you were served a G+T in a porcelain cup. They only serve mine in a boring glass with ice and lemon. I got to have a word with them.

    The staff are very accommodating and they sensed you come from the country and presumed that is how you drink your G+Ts there and wanted to make you feel comfortable.


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