As soon as the medium of photography was invented, people started taking photographs in the street. Mind you, initially they didn’t have much choice. The first cameras were so bulky and exposure times so long that it perhaps made sense to stand in the middle of London and take advantage of natural light.
And indeed, the first images you see when you visit the superb “London Street Photography” exhibition, which has just opened at the Museum of London in the City, are quite blurry thanks to long exposure times. It’s fascinating to see that, in terms of the subject matter, what London-based photographers and visitors to the city upload to Flickr or capture via Instagram in 2011 doesn’t differ that much – broadly speaking, of course – from what the forefathers of street photography captured 150 years ago.
The crowds, the buzz the city generates, the odd characters, the various social classes and behaviours have always attracted crowds of people wanting to capture all that for posterity. This hasn’t changed much. But what has changed is the perspective.
The 19th century “early adopters” documented the city itself – its vastness, grandness, its architecture and vitality. Some of them also already tried to document certain aspects of London’s life. As you progress through the exhibition you notice how the focus shifts from large scenes to more intimate moments, where London – while still recognisable – defines and shapes the subjects and their behaviours, but doesn’t dominate the scene.
I’m still mesmerised by a mini-collection of images by Wolf Suschitzky. There were just three images of Charing Cross Road he took in 1937 and I absolutely loved them. Make sure you spend some time listening to Suschitzky himself, who talks about street photography in a video played in one of the rooms.
The Museum of London has collected these street photographs over the years and eventually decided to share some of them with the wider public this year. Strangely, many people didn’t even know about this exhibition, which is a shame. But it’s open till early September, so there’s plenty of time to visit. Do so.