Exhibition Review: London Street Photography

London Street Photography 1860-1910, Museum of London  February 18 – September 4, 2011  Curated by Mike Seaborne

Nick Turpin, Street scene Piccadilly, 2009

One of the great joys of being a specialist researcher is to have the ability and enjoy the experience of looking at everything through the lens of your interest.  I challenge myself to see the dress history in nearly everything, and thus relate to a broad range of topics with my fashion glasses on so to speak.  In the case of the current exhibition London Street Photography, it is no great surprise that the photographs selected provide a sampling of the fashions of the past 150 years as well as the changing face of London as a whole.  Photography is an overwhelmingly present form of fashion documentation.  It is arguable even that our whole experience of clothes, both historic and contemporary, relies more on photographic images than what we actually see, touch or wear.  Carefully constructed advertising images in glossy magazines amplify fashion, and are widely regarded as “artificial” or “unreal” depictions of people existing in clothes. In seeming contrast, the proliferation of “streetstyle” candid photos as initiated by i-D Magazine, and now a prevalent form of fashion photography owing to blogs such as The Sartorialist and Facehunter, record the supposed everyday wear of fashionable denizens of locales around the globe.  These photographs are indeed a valuable record of what people are wearing, and often where they bought it, where they are going and sometimes how much it cost.  But, the subjects of these photos have been selected and informed that they are about to be held up as an example of fashion. These photos may be candid in some sense, and use chance locations as a backdrop, but they are not really street photographs.  The London Street Photography exhibition borught me to this realisation if i had not been conscious of it before, and furthermore brought to light the beauty and importance of stret photography as a medium by which fashion in context is visible and thus a more poignant and accurate source of fashion information than other manifestations of photography.

The exhibition’s introductory text celebrates street photography’s ability to capture the ‘curious incidents and unexpected juxtapositions,’ of life in London, and the sartorial is often a protagonist in these fleeting urban dramas captured on film.  The exhibition scribes an arc spanning one hundred and fifty years, and featuring the works of fifty-nine photographers, but never seems over-laden with information.  In fact, the selectivity and presentation of the photographs inspires a slower pace of looking – slower than the pace with which we are accustomed to viewing images generally, and absolutely slower than the pace at which I flick through even the most artful fashion magazines.

The photographs are presented chronologically, and each twenty to thrity year period is introduced by brief text outlining the social, technological and aesthetic climate of that space in time.  These texts remind us of what we may remember or know about each period historically, and tune us into how street photography captured, and now reflects these moments.

Inspired by the immediacy of street photography, and thrilled by the wealth of fashion information in the exhibit, I thought the best way to review the exhibition would be to caption some of my favourite images from the show with the fashion associations, questions and affirmations they conjured.

You can find out more about each of the individual photographers featured in the exhibition by visiting the Museum of London exhibit page.  The exhibition catalog comprises almost all of the work in the show. I highly recommend it, and am pretty certain you will shelve it with your fashion books and find it a valuable and enjoyable visual reference on dress and urban life, the power of the photograph and the acceleration of fashion and other social phenomena in our times.

Paul Martin, A Magazine Seller at Ludgate Circus, 1893

Early street photographs such as this one often recorded the daily activities of working people in the capital. These images allow for a counterpoint to “fashion history” as being the story of the clothes of the middle and upper classes, and show how working class dress differed from the prevalent fashions, and was wholly utilitarian.

Anonymous, Woman Walking in Hyde Park, circa 1895

This anonymously taken image was described by the curator as an ‘extraordinary photograph in an otherwise unremarkable album of amateur snapshots.’ I find it remarkable not only for its capturing of dress details, but also because of its striking similarity to Jacques Henri Lartigue’s famous image of a woman walking with her dog on the Bois be Boulougne from 1911, long after this photographer captured a similar riverside moment.

Jacque-Henri Lartigue, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Paris 1911

Anonymous, Passersby walking along Sutton High Street, circa 1930

This photo is one of a series of around two hundred that anonymously recorded people on a suburban high street in the 1930s. The subjects are not usually aware of the photographer or are posed, but do seem to foreshadow the type of street fashion photos we are used to nowadays. Here we see two friends wearing the same coat – still an occasional sight among London’s teenaged girls. Whether this was a choice to appear as fashion doppelgangers or a common occurrence due to lack of variety of styles, it is a whimsical and curious image.

Nigel Henderson, Outside a Hammersmith Pub on Boat Race Day, c. 1952

Just look at that peplum! And, here is proof that women really did always wear hats in case you needed convincing. This photograph made me think that photographing people enjoying drinks outside pubs in different parts of the city would make a fabulous candid record of London fashion today. If anyone takes up the task, send along your photos…

Roger Mayne, Teddy Boy and Girl, Petticoat Lane 1956

I became familiar with the work of Roger Mayne a few years ago when researching the fashions of London’s teddy boys and girls for a play I was designing. It was neither the first nor the last time I would marvel at these gritty and alluring images of one of the most important British youth subcultures, which still continues to influence both rebellion and fashion today.

Roger Mayne, Southam Street W10, 1956

Kate Moss PRNewsFoto/TOPSHOP.COM

While I don’t propose the photos above to be proof positive of the enduring legacy of the teddy girl, it is an illustration of the fact that Mayne’s photo of a young woman on Southam Street, reminded me of a young Kate Moss.  While many early images of Kate evoke youthful mischief and precocious sexuality, this more recent image of her promoting her Topshop range of clothing, is pretty close match to Mayne’s photo in composition and demeanor.

A far cry from the marching of the teds, Cory Bevington’s photos of 1950s London show the splendor and anticipation of shopping in the city’s Portobello Road Market. The photograph shown in the exhibition of a mother and child at a girls’ dress stall is one of a series taken at the market over time. A quick look online turned up another photo of the same stall, perhaps same day, with different shoppers, illustrating that then as now, London is a diverse and multi-cultural consumer space.

Cory Bevington, Portobello Road Market, 1950s

Cory Bevington, Portobello Road Market 1950s

Back to subcultures, Terry Spencer’s photograph of late 1960s Skinheads is a powerful document of the image and impact of how fashion can be a signifier of an ideology, and how uniformity emphasizes the effect.

Terry Spencer, On the steps of Eros, Piccadilly Circus, 1969

The distinct opposite of walking with the fashion crowd, is seen in Paul Trevor’s haunting and serene photo of a cloaked woman strolling in London’s East End. Some older male visitors to the exhibition remarked that this one was, “straight outta Harry Potter,” proving that these photos fire up associations of all sorts! At first I presumed that this photo captured a Goth or New Romantic walking home at dawn after a night out clubbing. But perhaps I was just inserting a photo memory of a similar experience. She could be old or young, a fashionable trendsetter or an eccentric anachronistic recluse.  It does have the air of magic about it…a fashion mystery that is keeping its secret. It was by far my favourite image in the exhibition.

Paul Trevor, Lolesworth Street E1, 1978

Lastly I zoom in on one of the most recent and few colour photographs in the exhibit. The accompanying texts explain how in the digital age, street photography is seeing a resurgence despite the increasing fears about privacy and security.  However, the photos depicting “right now,” were a little disappointing, and seemed reductive , even a little bit sentimental. However, Paul Baldesare’s work was n exception. In a snapshot that could have been taken almost anywhere, he captures the particular feeling of rushing down Oxford Street, in the faces of three laughing women.  They have similar hairstyles, sunglasses and coats, and oneof them clutches a Primark shopping bag.  In the future, this photo may seem unremarkable, but to a dress historian, it will speak volumes about consumer culture, social behaviour and mass fashion.

Paul Baldesare, Laughing women, Oxford Street, 2008

Looking back on the images that resonated most for me, I have become aware that they all correspond not only to fashions I am interested in, but also to places on my own mental map of London that are significant. I set out to view London Street Photography objectively as a fashion researcher, and came out with a greater awareness of my own affinities and psycho-geographical narratives. I can conclude by saying that like the subjects in the many of the photos, I was caught off guard. London Street Photography is a collection of moments that will stay with you long after you emerge from the gallery.  And I suspect you may have a new perspective on the power of the snapshot to record that which is unremarkable now, but may be extraordinarily significant in days to come.

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