London Street Photography – Museum of London 18th February - 4th September 2011
Review by Roger Hargreaves
Photography is endlessly conflated and co-joined. The book and the photograph have been fused into the ‘photobook’, standing not for all books of photographs but for a certain type of book which operates as the primary site of mediation for certain sets of photographs usually produced as a series by a single photographer. ‘Street photography’ in turn is not meant to refer to all photographs taken in the street but a specific type of photograph with an aesthetic, a set of defined subjects, principally people, and an attitude; humanist, empathetic and alert to chance.
The location fashion photographs made by Richard Avedon in Paris soon after the war which re-cast the distressed backdrop of the city with a new allure are not acknowledged by street photography’s self appointed brand managers to be part of the product. Sophie Calles’ conceptual work, The Detective in which a private eye followed and photographed her as she trailed around the city aren’t considered to be a chapter in the story. And yet arguably the street photographs of fashion, advertising, conceptual practice and topography are as much threads in the photographic fabric of the city as purist documentary photography.
The Museum of London’s exhibition, London Street Photography: 1860-2010 channels its photographic choices down a particularly narrow avenue. 164 photographs are arranged chronologically in a single and double hang with almost no deviation from the tight rubric the curators have evidently imposed. The criteria implied by their choices prescribe street photography as predominantly black and white, taken with available light and exclusively documentary in intent. Every frame bar one is populated.
The ‘street’ in this exhibition means the unyielding pavement, with the only the occasional turning off into the park. The camera is always made to stop short of the domestic or commercial threshold. The London of the exhibition is the London of Zone One. Just four photographs venture out beyond the East and West End, variously to Barnet, Sutton, Wimbledon and, somewhat bizarrely, Epsom Downs, which technically isn’t in London and even on Derby Day is soft underfoot. It’s as if the mythical figure of the flâneur has been subjected to a restraining order.
There’s a clue to one of the exhibition’s most narrowing constraints in the catalogue’s cover image, Wolfgang Suschitzky’s photograph, A milkman, Charing Cross Road, 1935. It’s one of those perfectly framed, layered narratives that created the foundation for Suschitzky’s subsequent career as a cinematographer. The backlit, front layer has a carthorse and a delivery man leaning heavily into pushing a barrow of milk. The source of the light on this sleet sodden evening is the Cameo Revudenews cinema across the street. A new delivery van is parked up by the cinema. The modern shines onto the soon-to-be-obsolete. And, should we miss the point, at the centre of the neon rimmed canopy is the title of the film on show, ‘Museum Piece’. In time, Suschitzky’s photograph has ceased to be an ephemeral piece of news, channelled through the magazines he supplied, and become a museum piece in its own right. But the constraint that so limits this exhibition is that it is constructed almost entirely from the Museum of London’s own pieces. I could spot only one loan.
This may be an institutional policy. If so, it limits the history the exhibition aspires to tell. Bill Brandt is there only in his photobooks, laid out in a vitrine of cameras and other books. There is no Don McCullin or Martin Parr and no sign of those occasional, pivotal visitors Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.
The cameras in the vitrine underpin a proposed narrative of technological limitation preceding the advent of the street camera, described as ‘the first multi shot, hand held cameras with exposure times short enough to capture moving objects.’ John Thomson’s, Street Life in London published in series in 1877 are proffered as fine examples of attempts "to record street life using the conventional large format cameras of the day". It’s an approach that privileges restraint over possibility, negating the strategy of staging and direction Thomson employed to depict his street archetypes.
Missing from the vitrines are any of the magazine spreads that provided the commercial bedrock for street photography’s halcyon days from the 1930s to the 1980s. Stefan Lorant, the founding editor of Picture Post proudly proclaimed that in reaching sales of a million copies a week in the first few issues of the magazine, circulation paid for production, leaving advertising as pure profit. Michael Rand, art director of the Sunday Times magazine from 1963 to 1994 relates how advertisers were invited to early editorial meetings and that it was they who pressed the magazine to commission the renowned international names of documentary photography to produce work that would match the production values of the surrounding advertisements. Claims in the exhibition that "the need to maximise advertising revenue, increasingly turned magazines attention away from the harsh reality of everyday life" in the 1980s and 1990s, somehow miss out this prior history.
And it is a shame that there were no magazines on display since the skill of the best art directors in selecting, sequencing and laying out the photographs made them dance across the pages. It’s an inspiration missing from the exhibition itself. They are too many middle distance street shots on display and too few paced and clever plays between the images on the wall.