Back in the 1930s, a group of amateur climbers scaled the centuries-old Gothic stonework and shaky water pipes to reach the spires of the Cambridge colleges. While not the first curious explorers to look at the architecture of a building and see it as a ladder to a new vista, they were some of the first to document their exploits. French artist Thomas Mailaender has compiled these black and white photographs acquired from the Cambridge climbers’ archives into a new publication with British independent publisher the Archive of Modern Conflict.
Released this month and bound in black velvet, The Night Climbers of Cambridge follows an exhibition from Mailaender, who often plays with found imagery, last fall at Roman Road Project Space in London, where the photographs were positioned on actual climbing walls installed in the gallery. Back in 1937, Night Climbers leader Noël Edward Symington published his own The Night Climbers of Cambridge (reissued in 2007 by Oleander Press) under the pseudonym Whipplesnaith, referencing the Middle English verb “whipple” meaning to dart quickly about.
England at the time was in a depression, unease was growing with the Spanish Civil War, and young men, sometimes in suit and tie, took out some of their unrest through trespassing. Before urban exploring had a name and a subculture, but adventurers like Geoffrey Winthrop Young with his 1899 Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity had laid the way, they were wedging between stone walls and weaving over precipices to get to forbidden places, hauling cameras to the precarious heights. As art historian Ian Jeffrey writes in an essay for Mailaender’s project:
These were, after all, formative years in photo-journalism. The climbers carried cameras and used lighting, which, of course, alerted the police, who sometimes feature as interested onlookers. The result is a staged photography, at a time when staged events were commonplace in both the German and the British press — reportage being a collaborative venture in which friends and passers-by acted parts.
Below are some of the photographs from The Night Climbers, where by handheld flashbulb, some intrepid explorers found a freedom in their city’s unruled spaces.
h/t Ida C. Benedetto
Thomas Mailaender: The Night Climbers of Cambridge is available from the Archive of Modern Conflict.