Review: London Through A Lens

Dean Nicholas
By Dean Nicholas Last edited 123 months ago
Review: London Through A Lens
London Through A Lens
Huntsmen and their hounds in Oxford Street, London. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Back in days of yore, before Flickr gave ordinary Jones' ample opportunity to display their badly-framed mobile phone snaps to the world, the rhythm of London life was captured by various professional photographers, from a variety of sources, including the influential Picture Post. Such work has been diligently collected over the years by Getty, and the fruits of their Hulton Archive have been cracked open for a book, London Through A Lens, and a similarly-titled exhibition at their West End gallery.

Unlike Eugene Atget's studies of fin de siècle Paris, London's photographic history lacks a singular body of work responsible for shaping the way we view the city in retrospect. Our visual history is more impressionistic and piecemeal, and the collections captures this by amassing the often startling idiosyncrasies thrown up by London life. To whit: an elephant extends a leathery trunk into a Wandsworth-bound tram, while elsewhere a shot from the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 in White City shows well-dressed visitors travelling through the Oriental-style pavilions on a boat carved into the shape of the swan. One of the earliest photographs shows the luxury days of mass transport in its infancy, with posh ladies' crinolines loaded onto a Fleet Street omnibus, while a vertiginous shot captures a certain Mr Larkin (not that one) cleaning the face of Big Ben, armed with just a duster and clinging for life on a rope - one to disturb the constitution of a modern-day Health & Safety officer.

The modern day obsession with 'before they were famous' snaps is nothing new, as shown by a prelapsarian portrait of the teenaged Kray brothers, wearing boxing gloves and standing proudly with dear Ma. But perhaps the most resonant images are those that crawl across the decades and speak to the city's current concerns. A thrilling shot captures a myriad of transportations in a traffic snarl at Elephant & Castle, with the jostling trolleybuses, trams and pedestrians being beaten by sole backfiring jalopy, a precursor of the ultimate domination of the car and the congestion charge. Elsewhere, a snap of flooding in Bermondsey is accompanied by a caption noting that the Thames burst its banks as far as Hammersmith.

A photography album "amassed by a long-lived relative with wide-ranging tastes" is how editor of the book describes it, and that’s as good an advert as any. Still, with modern photography built on an impermanent digital medium, and crackdowns by authoritarian forces who want to curtail amateur snappers, it's hard not to wonder if a similar exhibition in 2108 would have the same legacy to draw on.

London Through A Lens, at the Getty Images Gallery, Eastcastle Street, W1W 8DX, until September 27th. Entry is free. The accompanying book is published by Time Out.

Last Updated 26 August 2008