‘Leap of Faith’: J A Hampton

Review by Ashleigh Mahoney


By J A Hampton

Leap of Faith By J A Hampton

J. A. Hampton was an English photographer who is most widely known for his photography in London in the late 1930’s and for possibly his most famous image, Leap of Faith, from the Hulton Collection, taken in 1939.[2]  I came across the image by chance a few years ago, and as soon as I saw it I was fascinated by it.  To this day it is my favourite photograph.  Black and white, or grey scale, photography of the 1920’s and 1930’s still remains one of the most captivating forms of photography to date.  The period itself was one of photographic pioneering, with developments in camera technology, moving away from ‘bellybutton’ photography with the introduction of and greater use of portable cameras, such as the Leica.  This advancement allowed for greater movement within photography, no longer restricting the photographer to a solitary position. With this, new forms of photography were being explored, leading into the modernist movement of the early 20th Century, which led to the developments of other new techniques with faster shutter and film speeds.

When I first came across the image, I was unable to appreciate the lucidity of the picture itself.  This is due to my naivety in appreciating the technological advancements of the period contemporary to the photograph.  Considering it is an image from 1939, the high quality of the photograph surprised me; a factor for this clearness is most certainly the black and white composition of the piece allowing for a sharper focus.  There is a level of clarity with Hampton’s work that I have found, that would be difficult to capture on colour prints.  The image above could be re-created today, with newer technology and faster film, but would lose some of the essence of the piece.  It has a raw quality that draws me to it, unlike any colour images I have seen of London.  Absence of colour in photography, in this case in particular, allows the audience to focus on each component separately, without the distraction of colours.  The punctum of the piece for me is the rain in the puddle.  The ripples in the water catch my eye and draw my attention more towards the reflection and I therefore focus more on the elongated perspective that the water gives the image.

There are two ways in which Hampton has captured depth of field in Leap of Faith.   In the background we have a section of Hyde Park, with a well-focused view of the buildings and cars behind the man in the foreground, even whilst the cars are in motion.[3]  The second way in which we get a sense of depth in the image is with the use of reflection as I previously mentioned, which is also seen in Winter Plunge and Cold Plunge, taken in 1935.  It is this use of reflection that caught my eye when I first saw the photograph.  The water adds a deeper level to the image.  The reflection of the man jumping, gives a different perspective to the length of the picture.

Even though the image is located in Hyde Park, it is done in such a way, and at such an angle, that it is not automatically identifiable as such, and therefore gives the piece a state of anonymity.   This, at least for me, adds to the allure of it.  Without knowing exactly where the image was shot, the audience is not distracted by the location, and is instead focused on the central figure.  In some cases, when a location or scene is easily recognisable, it detracts from the main point of the image.   Hampton’s photographs were mostly observational pieces, focusing on Londoner’s with images such as Pressure Boiler, where he took a photograph of ‘Workmen completing the construction of a high pressure steam boiler for the Shipping, Engineering and Machinery Exhibition at Olympia, London’.[4]  This observational style focuses on the person, not the place, which helps the audience make a connection with the piece.  However, there is a clear sense of ‘Englishness’ with the locations of his photography being in London.  This combined with the British eccentricity of the character in the piece, makes an image that originally seemed unremarkable, became a somewhat iconic piece, because of the essence of the era and culture it captured.

The use of light in this piece, and in others by Hampton is another striking feature of the photograph, which is heightened by being a black and white image.[5]  It brings with it a further depth to the picture, and particularly with Leap of Faith, gives the title of the piece additional significance.  With the leap across into the shadow, or the unknown, the man in the image is taking a ‘leap of faith’ into the darkness.  The use of light in Leap of Faith is also used to create balance and contrast in the piece.  The dark trees on the edges highlight further the centre of the piece and it draws your attention to the dark figure over the puddle.  The puddle itself is practically illuminated from the reflection of the light from behind highlighting the man above the water, and the reflection of the man in the water.

Leap of Faith is a key example of how the rule of thirds is used within photography.  The tree on the left hand side of the image, with the vertical line of the building and the continuation with the shadow into the puddle, gives the vertical divide of the image, with the landscape of the building and road dividing the picture horizontally in half.  Both of these things split the image into component parts that balance it out.  As well as this, there are parallels between the edge of the water and the cars in the background, with leading lines drawing your eyes back to the singular figure.

[6]winter plunge

[7]cold plunge

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