There is something fascinating about London at night. Maybe it’s the contrasts: the difference between the noise and bright lights of the West End and the quietness of residential streets. The glow of skyscrapers against the black of the Thames or the night sky. The night bus, with its odd mix of sleepy children and workers in uniform and drunken friends munching on late night snacks. The city takes on a new life as the sun sets, as offices empty and pubs fill up and commuters retreat to the suburbs, and depending on where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing, it can be a beautiful, lonely, liberating or frightening place.
A new exhibition at the Museum of London aims to capture these contrasts – and the changing face of London’s nightlife – with a mix of contemporary and historical images. London Nights features work from a diverse group of photographers who have all been inspired by the capital after dark.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. London Illuminated explores the different ways in which photographers have captured light. There are abstract, silvery prints of slick modern buildings by Antony Cairns alongside historic photographs of central London lit by gas lamps and a beautiful composite of a London skyline combined with a picture of a starry sky above the Kazakhstani desert (photographer Thierry Cohen travelled thousands of miles along the same latitudinal line to capture the sky as we would see it if it weren’t for London’s light pollution).
“It’s very much focused on the light itself and how photographers have approached that and been inspired by it,” explains Curator Anna Sparham.
Dark Matters explores a darker side to nocturnal life, with projects that explore the sense of fear and foreboding often associated with the night. Alexis Hunter’s Dialogue with a Rapist (1978) is based on a real interaction with a man in Bermondsey and will resonate with any woman who has ever felt threatened or vulnerable while alone in London after dark. This appears alongside work presenting fictional narratives: Brian Griffin’s London at Night is an ominous vision of London in an imagined attack (the series was created during the Cold War) while Tom Hunter’s ‘Rat in Bed’ (from his series Living in Hell and Other Stories) presents an odd and unsettling bedroom scene inspired by a headline from the Hackney Gazette.
“It’s all about the different emotions that people attach to the night and the different connotations around the dark in the city. There’s a blend of fiction and reality and it’s much more conceptual in terms of the content,” explains Sparham.
The feeling of watching or being watched is a central theme in many of the images in this section (and the exhibition as a whole): “A lot of the exhibition brings into play that idea of voyeurism and there’s a mix of insiders and outsiders in that respect,” says Sparham. It also explores the heightened emotions we often experience at night and how the dark can bring with it an unknown but pervasive threat.
The final section explores the many different ways in which people spend their time at night, from commuting to clubbing and working. There are Nick Turpin’s lovely images of people on the night bus (see more here), glass lantern slides from the 1920s showing women in decadent evening gowns and striking portraits of London drag acts by Damien Frost (many of which were shot on the fly in alleyways, despite looking like carefully composed studio shots). The section ends on a euphoric note with an image of a packed dance floor at Fabric – the London clubbing institution that was nearly shut down for good after someone died on the premises in 2016 but was reopened after a campaign to save it.
One of the most challenging aspects of curating a show like London Nights is trying to reflect the diversity of the capital – not just in terms of people but its varied buildings and landscapes and the many different experiences to be had within the boundaries of the M25 after sunset.
It would be impossible to capture every aspect of London night life in a single exhibition but Sparham has curated a brilliant collection of work that reflects the experiences of a wide range of communities and subcultures – offering a glimpse of the sheer variety of life that makes London such an inspiring subject for image-makers.
There are images of homeless shelters and empty car parks, of office parties, lavish living rooms, tall tower blocks and market stalls, intimate shots of London’s grime scene alongside black-and-white images of Mods in 1970s Borehamwood and sepia portraits of black teens in Lewisham dressed up for a night at their local dancehall (from John Goto’s 1970s series Lover’s Rock). Photographs of cab drivers and cleaners hoovering deserted office buildings also reflect the many, many people for whom the fall of darkness means the beginning of a new day.
It’s an interesting time to document London’s nightlife. The capital’s once world famous club scene is dwindling (half of its nightclubs closed between 2011 and 2016, though new venues such as Printworks and Oval Space have offered a glimmer of hope) and Mayor Sadiq Khan recently appointed a Night Czar, Amy Lamé, to help boost the city’s after dark economy. In 2016, the long-awaited night tube finally opened after various strikes and setbacks.
London has inspired many a brilliant photo project since the invention of the camera. But the arrival of Instagram and London centric publisher Hoxton Mini Press (which has published a book to accompany the show) have also offered new platforms for photographers documenting familiar scenes and hidden corners of the city.
Sparham had the idea for a show about London at night around six years ago and has been on the lookout for suitable projects ever since.
“I’ve been [at the Museum of London] for 14 years, so I know the works in our collection well … and over the years, because I’ve always been interested in this theme of the night, I’ve kind of tuned in to it. The research has been gradual … and then of course it stepped up when we started curating the exhibition.”
The show is made up half of historical photographs from the Museum of London’s collection and half of contemporary pieces on loan for its six-month run.
“Our collections alone – although they are contemporary – couldn’t do the subject justice,” explains Sparham. “The key to a photography exhibition of this scale, for a museum like us, is being able to integrate the historic and the contemporary, so it’s about trying to find the perfect balance of the two.”
Some images allude to historical events such as the Blitz but the exhibition is not a history of London after dark. Instead, it focuses on the different ways in which photographers have captured the city at night from the Victorian era to the present day.
Sparham has curated a dynamic display which includes large-scale prints, films, postcards, slides and rarely seen contact sheets (including a lovely contact sheet of images by Tony Ray Jones, which, offer an insight into his process when capturing life on London’s streets) as well as digital prints.
“I’m really keen, particularly with our audience, because we have a really broad audience, to try and make people aware of or introduce them to the materiality of photography,” she explains. “It’s why we have things like lantern slides, negatives, contact sheets and magazines … and the other aspect, in terms of the design, was making sure we had a very eclectic hang.”
There are plenty of photographs of landmarks and dramatic vistas – from graphic shots of angular glass buildings to historical shots of Battersea Power Station and the River Thames – but the show is as much about the people who make up London as it is about the city’s aesthetic appeal.
The exhibition is filled with intensely personal series (such as Tish Murtha’s photographs of her friend Karen Lesley working as a dancer in a strip club or Hunter’s Dialogue with a Rapist) as well as striking images of familiar buildings and streets.
By pulling together work from various decades, by photographers with very different outlooks and life experiences, it shows how London at night can mean many things to many different people. It’s a compelling look at the beautiful, the glamorous and the grittier sides to London after sunset, told by image-makers who have lived, worked and in some cases grown up in the city.
“We could have done something – and it would have been much easier in some respects – to do something that was all celebratory, images of people going out and having a great time, but it would not have reflected a true picture of London. To me it’s all about these contrasts and different experiences,” explains Sparham.
“The show is also about photographers interests and what photography existed. We could easily put some stock Time Out-style pictures [of London] on the wall but it wouldn’t have had the same power, so it’s very much led by the photographer’s inspiration and interests.”
The show’s strength lies in the range of work on display – in the diversity of its subject matter, aesthetic styles and formats. It’s a broad but fascinating snapshot of London that brings together an unlikely mix of rare, historical, contemporary and experimental series.
It also shows how London has changed beyond recognition and at the same time, hasn’t really changed much at all. Before the drag clubs there were music halls. Before the grime nights there were jazz nights. There has always been debauchery, crime, excess and poverty in London after dark – and while the city’s skyline might have changed dramatically, the things we do after dark has not.
London can be gloomy, it can be frightening, it can be beautiful – but as the exhibition demonstrates, it is a rich source of inspiration for image-makers, whether they are documenting the frenetic pace of life there or constructing their own imagined narratives.
London Nights is open at the Museum of London until November 11 2018. See museumoflondon.org.uk for details. An accompanying book, also titled London Nights, is published by Hoxton Mini Press and costs £19.95. You can order copies from hoxtonminipress.com
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