The Museum of London is normally a hidden treasure. Previously hidden in plain sight on the edge of the Barbican Estate but now following an incredible refurbishment it is becoming a destination in its own right and with “London Street Photography” has an exhibition that is drawing huge numbers of visitors. I popped down in my lunchtime and joined the throng – and was well-rewarded for my efforts.
It’s about as straightforward an exhibition as you could hope to find – the context of the development of London over the period covered (1860-2010) being given by Modern Galleries within the Museum of London itself. It all takes place over a couple of rooms in the lower galleries – a main exhibition space with two smaller rooms to the side showing connected films about street photography. The photos are presented in chronological sequence around the room. There you go. If this was at Tate we’d need a conceptual essay just to get us past the ticket desk.
More than 70 photographers have their work shown beginning with Valentine Blanchard’s 1860 image of Covent Garden Market: through the sepia grain a top-hatted man is caught looking at vegetables whilst behind a scarcely recognisable world continues in its busy way. In the catalogue at least the final shot is from 2009 – there are images from 2010 in the exhibition, the results of various public entry approaches I believe – Nick Turpin shows in well-defined colour a group of girls leaning out of the back of stretched limo, behind them it is Piccadilly Circus which provides the bustling context. Both of these images show what is exciting and interesting about great street photography: the intrigue of the personal activity and emotion combined with its context of taking place within a world that can’t be fixed. There’s as much interest in the long gone Covent Garden Market as there is in Mr Top Hat; in 150 years we’ll still wonder what the girls are thinking but Piccadilly will be fascinating in its datedness.
In between these two photos there are about 200 others. I’d love to tell you more about them but if there is one problem with this exhibition it’s that it is a victim of its success. There must have been three people to every picture when I was there and it was hard to get close to some of the smaller prints – and I gave up altogether attempting to read the descriptions. The very pleasant attendant I spoke to said this was one of the quieter times. That said, even with glimpses between the crowds – how very apt for street photography – this is a very well chosen selection, and one that doesn’t dwell on the obvious. No lingering on the Blitz, no Coronation madness … aside from a hurried anonymous shot of someone selling trumpets for the coronation in 1902 of Edward VII (they look like vuvuzelas).
The move into colour is delayed and doesn’t become evident until after we’re past 1980 – reflecting perhaps the British belief that black and white is the better medium for documentary and street storytelling (which it is, obviously). The thread woven through the whole collection is that of disparate and often unrelated communities coming together in the city. Whether that’s immigrants in the East End, Portuguse people in Lambeth dancing in delight at victory over England or simply the poor brushing up against their betters in the City – what the chosen works show is a restless, ever-changing place that somehow remains and may always be: London.
So this is the London of the street. The exhibition deserves its success and the Museum of London deserves the many visitors it is now receiving. I only hope the coming cuts don’t mean it has to charge for exhibitions like this. Show your support by going along and then – whether you get a good look or not – buy the catalogue, itself as straightforward and splendid as the exhibition (although lacking the descriptions featured in the exhibition). And then tell your friends and get them to go …
(You can see the photo above here.)