Octogenarian's photos evoke era of luxury liners

New York 1954 ‘A Misty Dawn on the Hudson’

‘A Misty Dawn on the Hudson.’ This was taken at 6:30 am, 1954 from the forward deck of RMS Queen Elizabeth as the ship cruised up river to berth at Cunard Pier 90 at West 51St and 12th Av New York. - Credit: Ivan Berg

Ivan Berg is a sprightly octogenarian from Parliament Hill but in 1953 he was a teenager living in post war Hackney and dreaming of foreign travel.

As he explains: "I joined the Merchant Navy as a 16-year-old escaping drab and miserable London in search of adventure. I found it in South Africa, South America, New York and the Caribbean working on passenger liners including Cunard's iconic Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary."

Ivan Berg aged 18 in 1954 in New York

Ivan Berg aged 18 in 1954 in New York - Credit: Courtesy of Ivan Berg

Before the dawn of the jet age, the two 1930s ships dominated the transatlantic passenger market, operating from Southampton via Cherbourg to New York - taking around three days and 17 hours. Ivan visited the American city 55 times while serving from 1953 to 1957 and says: "It was like a dream from a Hollywood movie. Politicians and film stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra were regulars, and while rationing was still in place in London when I joined, New York was a glamorous place where you could buy luxury items like records, coffee and transistor radios. I still have my copy of Walk The Line by Johnny Cash."

He took along his Voigtlander Perkeo camera and built a "sizeable archive" of photos. Always interested in photography, the 13-year-old Ivan had run an entrepreneurial film development business from the back of a cupboard at home in Danesdale Road Hackney.

'Central Park South from Central Park’ New York 1954

'Central Park South from Central Park’ New York 1954 - Credit: Ivan Berg

"I was working in a camera shop in Leadenhall Street and along the street there was a shipping office with a card in the window about free training for boys in the Merchant Navy. It seemed a good opportunity to get away so I went in and signed up. I thought I should take a decent camera with me so I bought the Voigtlander. I later left it in a phone booth on Grand Central Station while rushing to catch a train."

Ivan worked as a waiter, lounge steward then ship's writer looking after the crew's documentation. Luckily his sea legs always held up. A letter to his parents from Cape Town describes coming through a storm in the Bay of Biscay and taking over the tables for a waiter who was laid low.

"One of the best jobs was opening and closing the doors of the first class restaurant. It was a real moneymaker. We had ship's postcards and they would guess how far we travelled in a day. The Brits were very bad tippers but the Americans were great. Running a table of six in the first class restaurant you could earn $300 each way. Those staff were called 'Cunard Yanks' because they dressed in nice clothes from New York."

New York 1956 20th Street Looking towards Union Square

New York 1956 20th Street Looking towards Union Square. The teardrop ‘gas light’ can still be seen around the Gramercy Park area. - Credit: Ivan Berg

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The staff pub on liners was always called The Pig and Whistle and would host singalongs and entertainment, including memorably by one cabin waiter on Mauretania called Tommy Hicks.

"I helped him get the job of swimming pool attendant and we became friends. Back in London I introduced him to my friend Lionel Bart because he wanted to get into showbusiness - he became the UK's first rock'n'roll star Tommy Steele - and Lionel wrote songs for him."  

Caribbean Cruising 1956 the RMS Mauritania at anchor off Kingston Jamaica

Caribbean Cruising 1956 the RMS Mauritania at anchor off Kingston Jamaica. This was taken from the promenade deck looking down on the lifeboat shuttle awaiting passengers and includes a steel drum band and half a dozen rowing boats with coin divers. - Credit: Ivan Berg

After leaving, Ivan joined the RAF, then wrote children's adventure stories, before setting up the first four track recording studio in Hampstead with wife Inge, making dramatized stories and histories. They lived in Greencroft Gardens then Parliament Hill where, during lockdown, Ivan dusted off his old negatives, scanned them, printed them, and framed 28 which go on display in Hampstead Garden Suburb. 

Ivan Berg

Ivan Berg in 2020 aged 84 - Credit: Ivan Berg

"During the enforced isolation of Covid I got out the negatives. I hadn't seen them for years. When I printed them I was very pleased with how good they were. They are a piece of heritage."

Ivan Berg Teenage Clicks runs at Fellowship House Gallery in Willifield Way, from January 1.