New David Olds photo exhibit looks back on 1970s England, Wales

The work of East Lansing photographer David Olds recalls a time when you could wander around, virtually invisible, with a camera around your neck, your pocket filled with 35mm film cassettes and your mind’s eye filled with whatever was in front of you. Olds, 63, has spent much of his life behind a camera. If you’ve lived in Lansing anytime in the last 40 years, you’ve likely seen his images in the Lansing State Journal, on campaign brochures or at galleries.

But what you haven’t seen are the black and white images in his upcoming gallery show, “The British Seen,” which opens at the Robin Theatre Friday. Olds took the photos in London and Wales from 1973 to 1978 while on a journey to visit his girlfriend, who is now his wife, and while studying documentary photography in Wales with the noted Magnum Photos photographer David Hurn from 1975 to 1976.

While overseas, Olds wandered the countryside, capturing British people at leisure at horse and dog shows, flower shows, regattas, village festivals, at the seaside and in small villages.

“I’m an anthropologist,” Olds said more than once as he finished mounting the exhibit of 25 prints carefully selected from thousands of negatives. “I wanted to show everyday stuff with no specific point of view or cause in mind.”

A sense of invisibility is found in many of the photographs, as the subjects go about their business, sometimes even looking directly at him but not really seeing him.

“Blending in was my forte,” he said as he described using his old, beat-up Leica M3 covered with black electrical tape.

Olds also pays close attention to framing, as in the symmetrical photograph “At the Sea,” which records a day at the seaside town of Blackpool, England, or in a photograph of show dogs, all in a row, at the West of England Ladies Kennel Society Champion Dog Show in Malvern Wells.

“Even the dogs have personality,” he said.

In another photograph, “The Winner,” a young woman and her Afghan hound stare off in opposite directions, aloof from the scene.

“Black and white photographs are all about geometry and content,” Olds said. “People will need to study them and take a little more time to discover what’s in them.”

He sees the photographs as a snapshot of society at a particular time, comparable to books like “Suburbia” by American photographer Bill Owen, which shows suburban Californians at everything from Tupperware parties to Cub Scout meetings.

“All the photographs in the show are spontaneous,” Olds said of his collection.

After shooting the thousands of photographs, Olds stuffed the black and white negatives in a shoe box until relatively recently, when he digitized and curated them for a book project. Some of the photographs are almost quaint in today’s world, like one showing two British women taking tea from the trunk of their car.

“The photographs definitely have a 40-year-old vibe, with the dress and settings,” Olds said. “If you went back today, everything would be different.”

Then again, some things never seem to change. Another photograph shows an arcade at the Blackpool Pier with a sign reading “The Good Old Days.”

Olds said doing this type of documentary photography today would be very difficult, if not impossible. He imagines shooting similar photos today and hearing subjects yell “Why are you taking my picture?” and or being confronted by the parents of the little girls in another picture.

“You are going to be accosted if you tried to shoot these photographs today,” he said.

Olds said if he took on a documentary project today, he’d go to Florida to shoot “pirates” — not literal pirates, but cultural outsiders. He added that he would like to shoot them in the style of legendary photographer Richard Avedon, whose minimalist celebrity portraits have graced magazines like Rolling Stone, Look, Life, Vogue and Harper’s Bazar.

The Robin Theatre, with its bare-bones, New York gallery vibe, is a perfect backdrop for a small photo exhibition. The photos will be hung for several months, and they are for sale. Olds said he hopes to do a lecture on the history of British documentary photography at the theater.

For now, his book project, which includes more than 70 photographs, is on hold until he can find exactly the right printing company. He said he’s gone through three prospective printers so far but has not been happy with the product. Until then fans will have to settle for a show catalog, which has reprints of several of the pieces in the show. The catalog includes Olds’ favorite photo, “Above the Wall,” which shows a member of the upper crust, complete with top hat and tails, watching the action on a raised viewing platform at Derby Day in Epworth while below him kids in jeans try to climb a wall to see. The catalog has a descriptive essay of Olds’ work by Dean Brierly, editor of Black & White Magazine.

And many will love the photograph “The Poser,” which shows a beagle on a chair looking warmly into the lens as his owners, their backs turned, are looking toward the arena and have seemingly forgotten him.

“The British Seen” Opening reception 5-8 p.m. Friday, May 19 FREE, donations accepted Robin Theatre 1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing (989) 878-1810, therobintheatre.com