The American photographer Al Vanderberg was best known for his work on the cover artwork of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but he was also a master of the street portrait. A new book, On A Good Day, collects images of London street life in the 1970s and 1980s.
The portraits in On A Good Day show young people dressed to go out, flushed with the excitement of the city. A young man carries a portable stereo in front of the remnants of a poster for the Notting Hill Carnival, a pair of men stand in 50s-inspired braces, a set of unreconstructed rockers drink in front of a tiled pub wall. Throughout, there’s a striking sense of empathy with every subject. As V&A curator Marcus Barnes puts it in On A Good Day's afterword, Vanderberg’s photographs have “an infectious tone of generosity that had no time for doubt or fear.”
Born in Boston in 1932, the Dutch-descended Vandenberg served in the Korean War before moving to New York to study photography. Here he learnt from such illustrious precedents as Richard Avedon, Alexey Brodovitch and Bruce Davidson. Inspired by Diane Arbus, his earliest work had a documentarian's focus on poverty in New York City.
Vanderberg joined an advertising agency after graduating, and continued to produce commercial work after moving to London in 1964 – including the famed Beatles cover. As the psychedelic abandon of the late 60s drew to a close, Vandenberg determined that his editorial work was damaging the world, and decided to pursue his own style. He returned to street photography, but with a difference: instead of urban deprivation, his focus would be uplifting.
Vanderberg died in 2012, after a long career photographing street scenes throughout the world. His work is now in the collections of several major museums, including MoMA, the V&A and the Tate. On A Good Day serves as a worthy tribute to his life and work.