Today street photography is a vibrant part of London’s visual culture. It seems to reflect perfectly the diversity and controlled chaos of one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Contemporary street photographers are attracted by the endless supply of curious incidents and unexpected juxtapositions that contribute so much to London’s character.
However, street photography in London is far from new. The first ‘instantaneous’ street scenes – those where traffic and people are captured in mid-motion – were taken in the early 1860s and by the 1890s candid street photographers with hand-held, and sometimes hidden, cameras were snapping Londoners unawares. The 20th century saw many famous and lesser-known photographers document life on the street for a variety of reasons. Their collective body of work provides us with a unique visual record of social and environmental change.
The London Street Photography exhibition traces the development of the genre from its earliest days to the present. It showcases some of the very best of British photography derived from the Museum’s own superb collection.
I have always been fascinated by street photographs because they seem to be so uncontrived and ‘real’. Street photographers – of which I am one – rarely have an agenda much beyond simply going out to see what they can find. It is a very reactive pursuit which requires an open mind and a quick response. Nevertheless, many street photographers do have something to say and often work on extended projects.
Whilst it is probably true to say that all street photographs are documentary, it is certainly not the case that all documentary photographs are taken on the street. However, the street has been, and continues to be, a favoured location for documentary photographers because it is a significant social space where photography is permitted. There is no better place to observe and report on ‘life as it is’ and that is exactly why street photographs are so important as historical documents.
Things are changing, though. Traditional high streets are gradually being replaced by privately-owned shopping malls and, in some cases, whole town centres are being transferred into private hands. When this happens, the automatic right of the public to take photographs disappears, though the number of CCTV surveillance cameras seldom does. I think we would lose a vital element of our culture if we reached the point where photography was effectively banned in public places.
Several people have asked me if I have a favourite photograph in the exhibition. The answer is a resounding ‘no’ because every picture is one I personally like as an image. Pictures from different periods in the history of photography have different qualities and technological progress certainly hasn’t meant that photographers have automatically taken better pictures as time has gone on. It is interesting that now, in the digital age, interest in traditional photographic darkroom processes is actually on the increase and film manufacturers are still introducing new emulsions. Long may photography in all its forms continue to thrive and to enthral!
Senior Curator of Photographs
Mike Seabourne, Senior Curator of Photographs and Curator of the London Street Photography exhibition @ Museum of London
On the last Wednesday of every month, enjoy free daytime talks by Museum of London curators, conservators and archaeologists. Find out what our experts get up to behind-the-scenes and what current research or recent finds they are working on.
Audience: Adults only
Dates and times
Wednesday, 30 March, 15.00 – 16.00