In Pictures: The Wholly Unexpected Signs You See Around London

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 15 months ago
In Pictures: The Wholly Unexpected Signs You See Around London
Huge billboard saying 'sorry! the lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock'
Mile End. Photo © Paul Scane

Paul Scane's obsession with photographing London came in 2005, when he walked into Aperture Photographic on Bloomsbury's Museum Street. "It was not long after I had begun to consider taking up photography," says Scane, "and I had no real intention of making a purchase, but a few minutes inside was all it took — I walked out with a Leica M6 and a 35mm lens."

A launderette named 'Go Gay'
Fulham. Photo © Paul Scane

With his trusty Leica in hand — and later a Hasselblad 6x6, a Mamiya 6x7 and a Linhof 4x5 for good measure — Scane traversed the London streets, keeping a keen eye out for the unanticipated happenings this city is full of.

Victorian toilets with two doors marked 'men' and just one, 'women'
Tottenham. Photo © Paul Scane

"For me, possibly the main pleasure of photography is searching and discovering an image unexpectedly," says Scane, who has compiled quite the archive of oddball pictures in his 17 years on the job.

A sign on a lamppost: 'facing eviction? we buy any house cash'
Ladbroke Grove. Photo © Paul Scane

The photographer's flaneuring around the city has now led to a book, London Unseen — an urban miscellany that skips carefree from drag queens necking Beck's outside pubs to commuters deep in their phones to resplendently awful golden-lidded toilets in Mayfair bathroom showrooms.

A parody shop sign: sorry we're fucked
Spitalfields. Photo © Paul Scane

The book's almost dizzying in its array of subjects, but a recurring theme of London Unseen are the signs and graffiti which made Scane pause in his tracks, perhaps scratch his head or let out a chuckle, before snapping them.

An unassuming doorway labelled Mountain of Fire & Miracles Ministries
Hackney Wick. Photo © Paul Scane

Here is a parallel London, in which Batman will do your root canal, or you can enter through the Gate of Heaven off a busy road near Mile End.

Sign for the Batman Dental Practice
White City. Photo © Paul Scane

In this game, though, you have to be quick: "There have been times in the past when I've spotted something and not had the right camera, or the time," says Scane, "and when going back a few days later they had gone."

The mirror shop - a shop absolutely plastered in mirrors
Westcombe Park. Photo © Paul Scane

Such is the ruthlessly ephemeral nature of a city, in which wry street art is scrubbed out, and quirkily named businesses go to the wall.

A tuk tuk on the street with 'Booze after hours' written on the side
Chelsea. Photo © Paul Scane

We remember going past the Mirror Shop near Westcombe Park a number of times, and now that it's gone, regret never hopping off the bus, and having a snoop at its reflective wares. Is Scane ever tempted in by a sign? "If the premises are open, yes I'll take a look. St Paul's Church, Bow Common (Gates of Heaven) has an interesting interior and I did take a couple of nice shots."

Entrance to a modern church with the sign: This is the gate of Heaven
Bow. Photo © Paul Scane

Among favourite signs that he's snapped is the now-closed Sellfridges [sic], a white goods company that can lay claim to the best London pun of all time. "There are plenty that bought a wry smile to my face. Humour is important," says Scane.

A brick wall by a bridge with HOPE written out in huge letters
King's Cross. Photo © Paul Scane

"I think London does have its own sense of humour, but so do some individual areas, like Shoreditch, for example, which is where the majority of street-art and graffiti is."

A shocking pink shop called Trashy Lingerie
Soho. Photo © Paul Scane

Like many other intrepid photographers out there, Scane is doing the Lord's work — capturing a metropolis that moves almost too quickly to keep up with, and documenting all the silly little throwaway things that amuse or confuse us as we scuttle about the city.

A CCTV camera pointing downwards - directly beneath it someone has scrawled 'who are you looking at now?'
Marble Arch. Photo © Paul Scane

London Unseen by Paul Scane is published by teNeues, RRP £19.95

Last Updated 16 September 2022

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