London Street Photography Exhibition at the Museum of London
OCA Study Day – 15th April 2011
I was already planning to visit the Exhibition and it was a nice surprise when the OCA newsletter arrived giving the information about the planned study visit.
We all met up at the entrance to the Museum to be welcomed by Jose Navarro and Clive White, OCA tutors. Jose explained the format of the morning – relatively informal, for us to view the Exhibition however we wished, being joined at various points by either himself or Clive to share thoughts/views. We would have around an hour and a quarter and then meet in the Museum café for lunch (provided by OCA which was another nice surprise).
My first impression on arriving at the bottom of the stairs into the Exhibition area was of it being rather gloomy, with low lighting. The explanation was that a lot of photographs were old original prints which could be damaged by too much light. Even so the low lighting made it harder to see the older photographs and I noticed that others as well were craning forwards to be able to read the descriptions.
I made brief notes as I went round, also noting particular photographs which interested me for one reason or another so that I could do further research later. The following are just my initial, snapshot impressions.
1860 – 1890 Origins
The early cameras required long exposures and the small format photographs were mainly of buildings. These sometimes included people who were either posing for the camera or self-posed. In these early photographs I particularly noticed how the photographers were utilizing perspective, lines, diagonals and shapes and was thinking how much they had been influenced by architectural principles.
The first series of photographs was “Street Life in London’ in 1877 produced by John Thomson. One of these is ‘Hookey Alf”
‘But in the fore-ground the camera has chronicled the most touching episode. A little girl, not too young, however, to ignore the fatal consequences of drink, has penetrated boldly into the group, as if about to reclaim some relation in danger, and drag him away from evil companionship. There is no sight to be seen in the streets of London more pathetic than this oft-repeated story- the little child leading home a drunken parent. Well may those little faces early bear the stamp of the anxiety that destroys their youthfulness, and saddens all who have the heart to study such scenes. Inured to a life crowded with episodes of this description, the pot-boy stands in the back-ground with immoveable countenance, while at his side a well-to-do tradesman has an expression of sleek contentment, which renders him superior to the misery around.’
The above was taken from a web site about the publication
The description in the Exhibition is that it provides, ‘a compelling image of childhood’. Personally I can’t see this. To me, the girl looks clean, reasonably well cared-for and not unhappy.
Some photographs have a 3D effect and are stereophonic. Jose explained that the effect was gained by having 2 lenses on the one camera. An example of this was ‘Temple Bar’ taken by Valentine Blanchard. (more information on http://www.billjayonphotography.com/ValentineBlanchard.pdf )
Blanchard used a small-format stereophonic camera, utilising a cab as a darkroom so that he could process the film instantly.
I was then drawn to ‘Bishops Court’ 1882 by Arthur Ephraim Eason.
You can see the effect of the light in blown-out highlights in the sky. The perspective leads to a triangle. My eyes were immediately drawn to the slightly off-centre cart and I could see the little boy sitting at the bottom with white knees drawn up. For me this made the picture and he was my focal point. I had a discussion with Jose about this. He couldn’t see the boy as quickly as I had and wondered whether Eason had actually noticed the boy when he took the photograph. I think it possible that Eason could have unconsciously noticed it flash across his peripheral vision but we’ll never know now.
Technical developments in this period led to the first hand held multi-shots; off-guard photographs and then a growing number of amateur photographers due to Kodak. An ‘anonymous’ photograph of a toy seller taken around 1920 attracts me due to the short depth of field and bokeh effect which I hadn’t noticed so far.
‘Derby Day’ c1910: Large profile view of a woman with a cigarette. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/london-street-photography-museum-of-london-2238534.html
“There is a photograph by Horace Nicholls at the Museum of London’s excellent London Street Photography that neatly encapsulates the elusive magic of street photography. It was taken at the Epsom Derby in 1910 and features a well-dressed lady in her thirties, who sits slumped at a table resting her head in her hands with a cigarette in mouth, lost in thought. But what thought? Street photography can capture a fleeting moment in a stranger’s life for eternity, but it will never tell you what they were thinking. That’s for the viewer to ponder.”
She is large in the frame and actually reminded me of a photograph my husband took in France of a back view of a lady sitting at a table and smoking. I am obviously looking for reference points, continuity and similarities in styles.
1930-1945 : Observing the street
This period saw the Weekly Illustrated (1934 onwards) and Picture Post (1938 onwards). At this time there was an influx of émigré photographers from Central and Eastern Europe who held up a critical mirror documenting London’s social contrasts. Felix H. Man (1893-1985) was one of the pioneers of modern photojournalism, introducing picture stories such as “A Day in the Life” and methods of working only with natural light. I enjoyed a misty image of a foggy Cambridge Circus on Charing Cross Road (Wolfgang Suschitzky b1912)
George Rodger (1908019950 who co-founded Magnum in 1947, was a World war Two photojournalist and one of the first photographers to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2008/02/06/060208_george_rodger_feature.shtml
He also wanted to show the lives of ordinary people and how they coped with the vicissitudes of war. “Painting an Oxford Street Shop front” 1940, shows an attractive young woman in turban and overalls perched on a ladder.
1946-1979 Capturing the Street
Henry Grant’s photograph “Trafalgar Square” taken around 1955, shows a woman absolutely surrounded by pigeons.
It reminded me very much of a 1992 photograph “Lola in Central Park with birds and snow” by Bruce Davidson which I saw on the Magnum website.
When I mentioned this to Clive, he told me that this was a particular genre. I’ve obviously followed it (as have others) having taken two photographs of people and pigeons in St, Mark’s Square, Venice last year.
As I’d been walking around I’d realised that I was less interested in the photographs taken during the period when I was an adolescent/young adult. Probably because they were of scenes I could see every day then and also I probably saw them at the time so they are not new to me. When I mentioned this to Clive he took me to see some photographs by Lutz Dillie (1922-2008) explaining that these were American style which are more contrasty and manipulated –
This was taken in 1961 and I could see how this and others were composed more close-up/”in your face” – well at least to me.
“The Whisperers’ John Benton-Harris (b. 1939 and UK based) caught my eye. A dual portrait! Quite close-up with two older ladies wearing headscarves whispering together, whilst there are two policemen wearing helmets, talking together at the back.
1980-2010 Reclaiming the street
By this point in the Exhibition there was more colour and the influence of digital photography and web-sharing was referred to. My husband had also gone to the Exhibition but walked round separately. I talked with him briefly and he was commenting how little colour there had been so far and did this type of photography need colour anyway. I mentioned this to Jose and he took me to a colourful panorama of a London street by Mike Seabourne. It shows both sides of the tree with the sensation of pedestrians and traffic rushing towards the viewer. Red is a predominant colour. I discussed this with Jose, and what it would look like in black and white or even what it would look like if it was de-saturated and then the red put back. I wasn’t sure it would look good in black and white
Further search informed that Mike Seaborne is Senior Curator of Photographs and Curator of the Exhibition. I think he’s done an excellent job here.
There was a lot to take in in the relatively short period of time there. And I’ve only referred to a few of the many photographs. I found it very interesting to see the development of street photography in London and also to see how similar themes continue – ordinary people doing both ordinary and extraordinary things and contrasts between wealth and poverty. I will go again before the Exhibition closes in September so that I can absorb more.
17th April 2011