First published with photography by T Magazine on 20 October 2016
When the American photographer Karen Knorr moved to London in the mid-1970s, she saw the city with an outsider’s clarity: She became fascinated by its class system, and in particular its gentlemen’s clubs, which functioned not only as exclusive sanctuaries for the wealthy, but as backdrops for discreet political networking.
Between 1981 and 1983, she took photographs inside three establishments: the Carlton Club, the Turf Club and Brooks’s, all located in the affluent neighborhood of Mayfair. Gaining access took considerable persuasion, and at the latter two clubs, she had to be vouched for by a friend of a friend: Lucius Cary, 15th Viscount Falkland. Once she was permitted to begin the project, she would enter the clubs through the back door; to minimize disruption she worked early in the morning, leaving around 10 a.m. Her photographs, in stark black and white, show a quiet, anachronistic world of three-piece suits, oil paintings and playing cards.
Her photo essay, “Gentlemen” — which has recently been republished by Stanley/Barker — is a study of a certain type of Britishness: one that focuses on tradition, colonialism and social hierarchy. Knorr was particularly interested in the exclusion of women, who might be invited into the clubs as guests, but did not have access to every room. “This was the early ’80s and Thatcher was in power, yet she was not allowed to be a full member,” says the photographer. The clubs themselves had evolved from 18th-century London’s coffeehouse scene; they were intended to give men a place to talk about politics and philosophy.
Though “Gentlemen” falls into the genre of documentary, it also has elements of performance and intervention: A few of the men who appear in the images were in fact inserted by Knorr. They were “friends whose parents had been members of the club, but they themselves were not, so in fact they’re actors playing the role of gentlemen,” she explains. She gave each image a piece of accompanying text — almost a poem — that she wrote herself, mimicking phrases she’d heard from politicians, such as: “Men are interested in Power. Women are more interested in Service.” “In a way I was sort of inventing a new type of photo essay, that was based on reading the speeches of parliament during this period, but also immersing myself in British colonial empire literature,” she says.
Her project coincided with the Falklands War, which dominated newspapers and parliamentary discussions at the time. “There was sort of a surge of jingoistic feeling about the Falklands that was being fanned up by Margaret Thatcher’s government,” she recalls. In her captions she adopted some of the words she’d heard used, which suggested domination of the enemy. “What I found very interesting was these metaphors of sport applied to war that were coming up in the media, and language being used — in particular the words of ‘capture of the territory,’ or war being like a big match or like a game,” she says.
Though the Carlton now allows women as full members, there are still several clubs in Mayfair that allow only men, and there are still many aristocratic gentlemen in the Houses of Parliament. The photographs, of course, are more than three decades old. But, as Knorr asks, “Don’t they resonate now?”