London Street Photography

Did I mention I was in London last week? Well, I will make sure that that doesn’t go unnoticed. I intend to milk it as much as I can, because I went to see five fabulous photo exhibitions while I was there. All squished into a mere 36 hour stay, and yet, where there is a will there is a way. I have to admit, however, that the actual reason for my trip was not a round of the current photo exhibitions but an invitation to the taping of Stephen Fry’s hysterically funny quiz show QI. (There, milking another one *haha*. Anyway, click here if you want to see an earlier episode of QI with nearly the same cast, including Jimmy Carr, Alan Davies and Johnny Vegas who were there at the taping on Tuesday.) Anyway, back to the topic in hand, which is photo exhibitions. I already gave you a review of Paul Graham’s unmissable retrospective Photographs 1981-2006 last week, now I’d like to review the current exhibition “London Street Photography” which is currently running in the Museum of London.
Music Lover on Trafalgar Square
Street Photography is not really as old as photography itself. The beginnings of photography were “hampered” by the fact that exposure times for Daguerreotypes or Calotypes were rather long (several minutes, initially) – and thus only really lent themselves for static objects or subjects. Photographing busy street scenes was impossible. In fact, the first instance of street photography, if you want, was an image by Daguerre made in 1838 when the photographer tried to capture a busy Parisian boulevard. The outcome was a picture devoid of people – except for a single man having his shoes shined: The only non-moving subjects caught in the frame while all other moving subjects did not show up in the exposure. (Image here.)
Of course photographers have always had an interest in capturing the world around them. And that included the streets of London. But even if photographers took long exposure times into account and decided to attempt street photography – a concept, by the way, that was not even formulated as such until the 20th century – an essential element of street photography was usually missing: the candidness of the shots. Wherever photographers turned up with their large format cameras, they would sure attract some attention from onlookers and passers-by – and the chances of an unnoticed and unposed shot would be gone. Thus, street photography began in London in the 1890s when an amateur photographer called Paul Martin found a way of hiding his camera in a parcel and went around the streets capturing the scene. His images give interesting insights in the realities of London life. 
London Street Photography from 1930 to 1945 is characterised by the outsiders’ view of London. With the wave of emigrants coming into the British capital from pre-war and then war-torn Continental Europe, a new documentary approach is visible. Photographers such as Hans Casparius, Felix Man, Wolf Suschitzky, Bert Hardy or Laszlo Moholy-Nagy critically looked at the scene – and also brought new aesthetic ideas about framing and modernist photography to the medium. 
The post-war period is characterised by social change in the wake of the war. With the documentary approach firmly in place, photographers such as Roger Mayne, Henry Grant, Jerome Liebling or Lutz Dille focussed on the vanishing traditions particularly in working-class London. Many of the captured street scenes seem very far removed from our contemporary reality indeed, such as Grant’s monkey act in Petticoat Lane Market or the obvious class differences in Liebling’s “Outside Claridge’s Hotel“.
Finally, the examples shown for 1980s to 2000s street photography underline the shift from documentary photography to a more aesthetic, concept-driven approach. Finally, colour has made it into photography, which adds a new layer of realism. With the theories of post-modernism and deconstrunctionism looming over all art, photography becomes more self-referential and critical of itself as a medium of documentary, questioning reality, validity and universality of interpretation. In this context Chris Dorley-Brown’s Photoshopped image combinations are particularly interesting, constructing new realities from a number of documentary images.
The exhibition boasts too many interesting images than to go into all or even a few of them in detail. For anyone interested in London, it gives a short ride through London history. Likewise, anyone interested in photographic art history, this is a nicely illustrated step-by-step time line of the development of (street) photography. However, the exhibition’s strength as a concise historic overview of street photography is also its weakness: There is little space given to the art-theoretical development of photography. The texts displayed beside the images refer to biographical data of the photographers, their place in and take on art theory is duly ignored. And considering that the main drive for a continued development of photography as an art form rather than an informative discipline of social documentary or even journalism happened from the 1960s onward, there is far too much space given to the earlier documents of London Street Photography and not enough focus on contemporary photographic practice. Alas, what can you expect from an exhibition staged in the Museum of London??

London Street Photography 1860 – 2010
Until 24 September 2011

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