The cross-town transect is often the first approach of anyone wishing to grasp a city in its entirety. There’s something intuitive about it: abandon the abstractions of Tube schematics and reshuffled A-Z squares, clear your head, and measure the distances against yourself, the way we learn to size up everything else in life. Watching the neighbourhoods change from edge to centre and back again, letting this journey of a single line represent the whole unknowable urban plane. While some just dive right in with a camera and a good sense of direction, a city like ours provides an obvious — if meandering — guide in the form of a river.
We followed the Thames from Richmond to the Barrier when we were first getting to know London, and a few of our readers have no doubt undertaken similar treks. Richard Holt’s photographic project, London – The Thames: North Bank from Kew Bridge to Canary Wharf, attempts to put the experience between two covers. Commissioned by Italian photography publisher Vianello Libri as a follow-up to a similar work on Venice’s Grand Canal, it’s a long book: thirteen metres long, if we were to take it out on the pavement and completely unfold the accordion binding. It is in fact a pair of ultra-panoramas, front and back, employing the simple marvel of digital photo stitching to picture the entire riverside strung out like a Chinese scroll painting. The only bits of text, after a brief introduction, are subtle labels placed above and below buildings of interest.
The best the book has to offer is this initial conceit. The execution holds few surprises. A long-time boat man, Holt shoots from the water, giving us low angles and the undersides of bridges. The limitation of the transect becomes clear: like the straight line walker, we can’t always choose the path of greatest interest or best perspective. Chelsea’s World’s End Estate commands the horizon more effectively than the towers of the City; Wren steeples are lost behind expensive but dull waterfront offices. The only structure flattered by the wide format is the Palace of Westminster.
The west-skewed choice of start and end points is odd and telling: we’re only to Wandsworth Bridge when we reach the middle and turn over the page, and the trip ends just as the docks start to get interesting. This is what gives away Holt’s interests. It’s a Thames boater’s trip, lingering among rowers in Putney, giving as many vertical centimetres to river as to sky. Despite the double-barreled title, the river is not a spirit guide to the city but the destination in itself. This 26-metre voyage might disappoint your average Londonist, but could make an excellent gift for anyone who likes messing about in boats.