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London Street Photography: Developing for Decades

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With the Olympics starting this week, the whole world seems focused on London. And that includes the Museum of the City of New York, which just opened a new exhibit London Street Photography July 26.

The exhibit features over 70 photographs recording the people and streets of London, and you walk through them chronologically from 1860 to present day, watching photography develop alongside the bustling streets.

The room is white and wide open; it’s as if you can see decades of time sprawled out before you in one glance. The late 1800s saw photography in its developmental stages, as exposure times finally became short enough to freeze a city as busy as London. The 1910 photo by Horace Nicholls, “Derby Day,” looks like it came straight out of My Fair Lady, with the man in the foreground chewing merrily on his big cigar opposite a jolly woman in a giant hat.

Throughout the early 1900s photography became more than a magical way to freeze time, it became a social tool, used to hold a critical mirror up to British society. Here there’s more focus on individuals instead of just zoomed out scenes; a little boy grins adorably, a nun pauses in Kensington gardens. There’s even a scene of a rent collector calling on a tenant, and as he scribbles in his notebook she smiles for the camera anyway.

Just like it changed everything else, World War II altered street photography too, and with more action and American influence, attention shifted to motion itself. Now it’s not just a child smiling, it’s a child smiling because he’s running through the park with friends. The photos here show the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, car crashes, and social collisions, as more and more immigrant groups entered the city and the city itself experienced the turmoil of change.

The last section of the exhibit is dedicated to the last three decades and features the only color prints. Here the photography is what we’ve come to expect from the medium today, a more formal mix of art and social critiquing, with shots of pigeon’s feet alongside business men’s, and homeless curled up in the street.

It’s interesting to witness photographic technology develop while watching the artistic medium develop alongside it – the pictures become clearer and clearer as the focus shifts from mere documentation to a political tool to an art form, with the city of London as the constant.

Across from the open gallery plays a 20-minute film, “Behind the Lens,” a conversation with four street photographers featured in the exhibit. Photographer Paul Trevor said that the one thing all street photographers have in common is “the passion and curiosity to observe and capture.”

Also in the film, photographer Polly Braden remarked, “I try to find the individual, the individualism within the mass,” a feat I imagine to be impossible in London right now, at least for the next couple of weeks.

London Street Photography
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
212-534-1672

Credits:

1. London Street Photography
Henry Grant (1907-2004), “Street playground,” April 1967
© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London

2. London Street Photography
Matt Stuart (b.1974), “Trafalgar Square,” 2006
© Matt Stuart/Courtesy Museum of London

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