Piccadilly at Night c 1960, by Bob Collin

When Night Falls on City Streets

18th May 2018

London after dark is a territory of twinkly lights and unsettling, shadowy alleys, says Jack Watkins: ripe pickings for all the imaginative photographers featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of London…

What sort of after dark vision of London do you subscribe to? The city-that-never-sleeps version, with its 24-hour supermarkets and secure, reassuring terraces where, whatever the time of night, there’s always the comforting sound of a black cab rattling up to a front door to safely decamp some tipsy clubber? Or is it the scary ghost city, where bad deeds are done in back alleys, rats the size of panthers can leap out of manholes to snatch your kebab, and a stygian gloom hangs over the Thames?

Thankfully, I’m usually tucked up in bed reading the adventures of Tintin long before either scenario becomes a potential headache for me, but the Museum of London’s latest exhibition brings the nocturnal city, both its reality and as it exists in our imaginations, entertainingly to life, thanks to the work of some of our most creative photographers, from the 19th century up to the present day.

Anna Sparham, the museum’s Curator of Photography, says she has drawn upon the museum’s large image archive, along with some choice loans, to explore a city “transformed in the glow of the night,” from Central London to suburbia.

One of the first people to ignite the genre of night photography was actually an amateur. Paul Martin was an engraver by profession who recognised that photos could be a useful resource for the illustrator. Gradually, he turned to street photography, taking pictures of London’s poor, but he also made a number of interesting images that indicate his fascination with the city illuminated by lamplight, such as The Embankment At Night.

Inner London and its popular haunts were the main focus of these late Victorian or early 20th century photographers. George Davison Reid, for example, was another prolific operator of the time, and his photographs of Trafalgar Square at night, with St Martin-in-the-Fields looking even more lovely under streetlighting than it does by day, and of Buckingham Palace, reflect how intrigued people must have been by the way a town’s landscape could be transformed by artificial lighting after dusk – something which, when you think about it, wouldn’t have been possible only a few decades earlier.

One of the finest photographers to take pictures around this time was an American, Alvin Langdon Coburn. He was influenced by the Impressionists and was a firm advocate of pictorialism, as evidenced by his glowing image from 1909 of the Empire, Leicester Square. Today we know this place as a nine-screen state of the art cinema, but in Coburn’s day it was the Theatre of Varieties, a vast music hall with seating for three thousand people. Coburn concentrated as much on shimmering reflections in the Leicester Square pavement and atmospherically deep shadows as he did on the brightly illuminated exterior of the building.

London’s neon-lit West End was still making for intoxicating images fifty years later. There’s a good picture of the Palace Theatre, the massive red brick Victorian edifice that still dominates the street scene where Shaftesbury Avenue runs into Charing Cross Road at Cambridge Circus. When Bob Collins rolled up with his camera in 1958, it was Frankie Vaughan whose was name was in lights, supported by such as Petula Clark and Harry Worth, an echo from the last years of the golden age of variety.
The grimmer side of London –the section the exhibition calls Dark Matters – figured more prominently in photographs in the Second World War. Along with Bert Hardy’s Picture Post photos of firefighters struggling to deal with incendiaries at London’s dockside warehouses, the pre-eminent recorder of the impact of enemy bombs on the London’s citizens was Bill Brandt. The descent of East Enders into the Underground tunnels has been mythologised as the Spirit of the Blitz. Yet inspecting Brandt’s photos in this show, it’s clear there was nothing romantic or wonderful about it at all. There was criticism at the time of the failure of the authorities to make adequate provision for London’s working classes, and conditions as revealed in these pictures were clearly disgusting, the squalor reminiscent of the grubby blankets and makeshift boxes utilised by the increasing numbers of homeless people on the streets today.

For those of us fortunate enough to have homes, however, how much is the modern idea of London being dangerous after dark an exaggeration? For William Eckersley’s Dark City it’s London’s empty corners that are on view, very much not the ones envisaged by the bland tourist brochures: the concrete stairwells, empty car parks, and the dead end of a road, with litter and scrub and heaven knows what else lurking beyond. Yet in 1978 Chris Moyse produced a striking image of a woman walking before dawn along Chelsea Embankment, looking calmly into the lens. The photo was selected for a New Society magazine cover for an article by the mystery fiction writer Celia Fremlin. She argued that London’s streets were actually safer for women walking alone at night than they were during the day. Fear, she maintained, was the true threat.
That psychological element is real enough though, for men as well as women. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of the suspenseful thriller that drew heavily on location for atmosphere, even though he liked to use studio sets. The director grew up in Leytonstone, Poplar and Stepney, so in 2011 David George, in a series of photos called Shadows of Doubt – a reference to Hitchcock’s celebrated film Shadow of a Doubt – went to the area associated with his upbringing to produce low-lit images, heavy in atmosphere and latent menace. What impact, George asked, did these slightly eerie urban landscapes have on Hitchcock’s subconscious and twisted creativity?

Of course, for a lot of people London after dark is just fun. When the 1960s London was (for some people, at least) ‘swinging’, ex-RAF fighter pilot Terry Spencer was one of several snappers who honed in on the youthful mood, making a series of definitive images of mods and skinheads. Meanwhile, Roger Perry concentrated on the Teds in their drapes and crepe-soled shoes. Then, in the 1977s, to counter the nasty racist aggression of the era and the negative representations in the British press of black youth culture, John Goto did a series of portraits called Lovers’ Rock. Goto clearly had the knack of getting his sitters to relax, because his images were beautifully natural, unpretentious yet quietly elegant pictures of young British Afro-Caribbeans in the clothing they would wear to the local dance halls.

I also liked Lewis Bush’s Metropole series of 2015, which majored on London’s corporate office blocks, the glass and steel towers, with their lights everlastingly beaming out into the night. These structures are disgraceful monstrosities – what a waste of energy for a start – and emblems of big money ultimately doomed to self-destruct (and bring the rest of us down with them). More immediately, as Anna Sparham says, their proliferation also threatens London’s “diverse and historic culture”. No doubt about it. However, they do also make for arresting photographs, in a show full of remarkable images.

‘London Nights’ continues at the Museum of London until 11 November: see www.museumoflondon.org.uk for more information

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