What Photographers Were Like In 1960s London

By Kevin Mills Last edited 20 months ago
What Photographers Were Like In 1960s London

A weekly look at Len Deighton’s London Dossier, a guide to 'modern' London published during the height of the allegedly swinging 60s.

Photo by Mike King in the Londonist Flickr pool

Adrian Flowers, the author of this chapter, was a big name in advertising and editorial photography during the 1960s and 70s. It was he who took the shot of Twiggy whose delicious eye can be espied through the keyhole die-cut of the London Dossier's front cover.

Everyone is a photographer these days, of course, but in the mid-60s it was comparatively rare for anyone to own a camera more sophisticated than your basic Instamatic. So rare in fact that the beach photographer was still a common sight at Britain;s holiday resorts. He wasn’t there to photograph the beach. His job was to get tourists to pose for snaps, often using his small, maltreated monkey as a reluctant prop. He'd take your picture for five shillings or so (the man, not the monkey), you'd give him your name and address and a month or so later — hey presto! — you'd realise you'd been had.

Anyway, back in London, Adrian begins by suggesting where you can buy your camera if you've arrived in the capital without one and 'don’t wish to hire one'. A familiar name on his brief list of recommended camera shops is the Oxford Street branch of Dixons. Presumably this was when the chain's staff could offer competent advice about cameras and not exist solely to sell a five-year extended warranty for that box of screen wipes you popped in for.

Adrian's no camera snob in any case. If you're not after anything sophisticated, he's quite happy to recommend an Instamatic or the scary-sounding Voigtlander Bessy K. For the more adventurous, there are 'half-frame' cameras such as the Olympus Pen D2.

And that’s about it, kit-wise. He doesn’t fill the chapter with camera-babble or reveal how he likes to shoot with Fujichrome ASA 100/21 at 100th of a second on gas mark 8. In fact his main advice is to buy an umbrella. 'It will make you feel part of the scene and can be leaned on nonchalantly while waiting for the right moments,' he says.

So, armed with camera and brolly, Adrian Flowers takes you on a tour of London’s best photography spots. As a guide to shooting the well-known as well as some of the less familiar landmarks around the capital, his advice is as useful now as it would have been 43 years ago. Some of the details might have changed, however:

"During the day Nelson can still look admirable without his column, apparently standing on a wooden box when viewed from Carlton Hill Terrace. At the end of this terrace is an unusually well-preserved example of bomb damage."

"The Shell Building has a viewing terrace which you can visit for 2s 6d."

"A phenomenon of the City is the bowler hat. Swarms of these peculiar black objects pour forth over London Bridge at 8.30am every weekday. From the north end of the bridge, with a long lens, you can compose a sea of bowlers which if it rains suddenly will be transformed into a sea of umbrellas."

Ah, to have these days back again. Photo by Linda Wisdom in the Londonist Flickr pool

"On Portobello Road, look out for Tubby Isaacs’ jellied eel stand."

"The London Policeman is a must. The type you want to photograph looks well fed, wears heavy boots and is ready to smile. Peak-capped, straight-faced policemen ride beautiful horses or drive Z-cars." *hums theme tune*

If photographing in Soho, Adrian advises caution. "It would be as well to look like a tourist to avoid being lynched." Instead, "hire a taxi to take you round in circles, up and down the one-way streets. You won't have to ask the driver to go slowly! With the window down, using a pre-set automatic camera you can get many fascinating shots." We’re sure you can.

"What I like about London," says Adrian in conclusion, "is its infinite variety, complexity and subtlety. Everything everywhere is different." As an example of this boundless variety, Adrian picks the unlikely candidate of the ordinary railing. But he's right. "There are hundreds of different designs," he says. "Railings, balustrades, street lamps, gates; all can play an important part in your silhouette of London".

Thanks, Adrian. Does Len Deighton provide any additional hints or tips in his introduction to the chapter?

His credentials are good, after all. Few people would have travelled as widely as Len in the mid-1960s. He'd been in the RAF (Special Investigations Branch), worked as an airline steward for BOAC (the forerunner of BA) and had a stint as an illustrator in New York — and that was all before he started researching the cities that would feature in his books The IPCRESS File and Funeral in Berlin.

"You can't get up Nelson's Column unless you're a pigeon." Photo by Matt Brown in the Londonist Flickr pool

Having said that, few people would have adopted his particular MO when arriving in London.

"When I reach a city I don't know, I follow a well-tried course of action. I buy a large map and a guidebook. I take a sight-seeing bus trip and then I study the photo shops." To compare film and equipment, yes? No. What Len did was peer at the shop's selection of photo slides to decide "which parts of town are worth investigating".

"Then I make contact with the people who live there, for by then I am in a position to understand the descriptions and directions they give me. Residents refer to major railway stations even if they never enter them so it's as well to know where they are."

But surely your map would have done that? No matter. We’re not going to argue with Len. A modern version of the Dossier would need updating when it comes to suggestions for taking bird's-eye view shots of London, however.

"Try the Shell Building or New Zealand House. …There's also the Vickers Tower on the south bank of the Thames …and the G.P.O. tower."

"You can’t get up to see Big Ben unless you’re a horologist. And you can't get up Nelson's Column unless you're a pigeon."

At least that last bit is still accurate. Not sure about following this advice in the paranoid, terrorfied London of 2016 though: "If you want portraits in crowded places… it's surprising what you can do by pointing the camera one way while taking an intense interest in something the other way." And you might not wish to follow Len's footsteps here: "I know of nowhere as atmospheric as Westminster School. Take a camera there just as the light is failing." Yes, that and the name of a very good lawyer.

Speaking of risk, the next instalment is a double-header on Soho (by Len), and the Underworld (by Eric Clark). Pip-pip.

Other instalments

Introduction
Chapter 1: Teenagers
Chapter 2: Food
Chapter 3: Drink
Chapter 4: River
Chapter 5: Music
Chapter 6: Self Indulgence
Chapter 7: Mood
Chapter 8: Children

Last Updated 10 June 2016