London Street Photography: a curators view by Mike Seaborne

By other museum staff on 28 Feb 2011

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.

John-Galt, c.1900 © Ian Galt

John-Galt, c.1900 © Ian Galt

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.

Wolfgang Suschitsky, Courtesy of Museum of London

© Wolfgang Suschitsky, Courtesy of Museum of London

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.

© Cara Spencer Courtesy Museum of London

© Cara Spencer Courtesy Museum of London

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no better place to observe and report on ‘life as it is’ and that is exactly why street photographs are so important as historical documents.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.

© Mike Seaborne, Courtesy Museum of London

© Mike Seaborne, Courtesy Museum of London

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!
Mike Seaborne
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
FREE
Dates and times
Wednesday, 30 March, 15.00 – 16.00

4 thoughts on “London Street Photography: a curators view by Mike Seaborne

  1. Joe in Germany says:

    Hello Mike,
    Regretably I won’t be able to see the exhibition as I am living in Germany and won’t have the opportunity to travel over.
    However, I wonder if it were possible to find old photo’s of Glasshouse/Sherwood Street at Piccadilly Circus beside the old Regent Palace Hotel showing photos of “Snow’s Chop House” of 3-4 Sherwood Street – or “Snow’s of Piccadilly” as it was later called in popular parlance from the mid 1970’s.

    I have only been able to find one photo that Bert Hardy took at the entrance to the former Regent Palace Hotel, and It shows just a side glimpse of the pub. source: http://www.gettyimages.de/Search/Search.aspx?contractUrl=2&language=de&family=editorial&assetType=image&ep=4&p=regent+palace+hotel+bert+hardy

    Perhaps you may be able to suggest as to where I might locate more photos of the pub?

    I remember that in this same pub were very old murals (in Hogarth or Punch Magazine style) painted in a continuous panel frieze on the bar’s interior walls and depicting the dissipation, drunkenness and debauchery leading up to the London Gin Laws.

    I have in my endeavours to find out more info on this matter of the old murals (which were unique to my mind) started a rather intensive thread at http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php/topic,562287.0.html

  2. Joe in Germany says:

    Hello Mike,
    Regretably I won’t be able to see the exhibition as I am living in Germany and won’t have the opportunity to travel over.
    However, I wonder if it were possible to find old photo’s of Glasshouse/Sherwood Street at Piccadilly Circus beside the old Regent Palace Hotel showing photos of “Snow’s Chop House” of 3-4 Sherwood Street – or “Snow’s of Piccadilly” as it was later called in popular parlance from the mid 1970’s.

    I have only been able to find one photo that Bert Hardy took at the entrance to the former Regent Palace Hotel, and It shows just a side glimpse of the pub. source: http://www.gettyimages.de/Search/Search.aspx?contractUrl=2&language=de&family=editorial&assetType=image&ep=4&p=regent+palace+hotel+bert+hardy

    Snows continued in business as a pub up to around 1983. It was then totally gutted and then remodelled with the old wooden pub façade removed and turned in to a Pizza restaurant and later in 2003 converted to a club bar by the name of “Blanca”
    Perhaps you may be able to suggest as to where I might locate more photos of the pub?

    But I seem to remember that in “Snow’s” were very historic – old murals in Hogarth or Punch Magazine style – painted in a continuous frieze panel on the bar’s interior walls and depicting the dissipation, drunkenness and debauchery leading up to the London Gin Laws.

    I have in my endeavours to find out more info on this matter of the old murals (which were unique to my mind) started a rather intensive thread at http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php/topic,562287.0.html

  3. http://tinyurl.com/fcgdhayes07921 says:

    How much time did it take u to publish “Inside the Museum
    of London ? Blog Archive ? London Street Photography: a curators view by Mike Seaborne”?
    It also has a bunch of high-quality information.
    With thanks -Fannie

  4. http://tinyurl.com/dacmruth11781 says:

    Regards for composing “Inside the Museum of London ? Blog Archive
    ? London Street Photography: a curators view by Mike Seaborne”.
    I reallymay certainly wind up being back again for even more reading through
    and writing comments shortly. Thanks a lot, Eileen

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