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Interesting and sometimes fascinating book
on 21 June 2012
As indicated in the title, this book covers 150 years of street photography in London, almost from the beginning of the art. There is not a continuous flow in time and there are sometimes rather longer gaps than I would have preferred but you cannot include in any retrospective collection that which does not exist or is unknown. The book reflects an exhibition held in the Museum of London in 2011 and is published by the exhibition's curators. I don't know how the collection was chosen but I do know that most of the photographs come from the museum's archives and may likely have been donated.
To the early photographers, taking a photograph in the street was a major and complex task and the Victorians were fascinated by it. The technologies and cameras used were crude and, until Kodak, most photographers would have needed to prepare their own plates and process them, unless they were able to afford an assistant. Photography was mainly a rich person's hobby the cameras were large and cumbersome and required the use of a tripod. The technologies were sometimes extremely hazardous, either in the preparation of the plates which had to be prepared and used almost immediately and which would have required a portable darkroom to be available on-site or in the processing after exposure. One process required a large volume of liquid mercury to be heated beneath the exposed plate, and no-one today would be quite so adventurous with something that dangerous.
The early cameras were relatively simple and did not initially need a shutter; to expose, the photographer uncapped the lens for whatever period of time he guessed to be needed, and it could amount to many seconds. In some of the earlier photos, you can see ghosted images where someone has stopped for a moment or two before moving on. Later, when technology improved and film rating systems employed during production only then did exposure times reduce and a means of controlling exposure times then down to a larger fraction of a second could be used. By the 1880s-1890s, photography was cheap enough to be affordable by the middle classes and the slightly wealthier working class. The photographers represented in this collection are, in the main, unrecognisable names rather than the Cartier-Bressons of their time.
The photographs evidence several different technologies up to and probably including digital; it is not the technologies that matter but the images. Most are fascinating in that they reflect the fashions and transport of their day. It is interesting to see well-known locations in a previously unknown way, empty streets, horse-drawn vehicles, and even animal fairs of which there still a few remaining up to the early 20th century but the increase in traffic forced them to close or move.
Of necessity, very few of the images are in colour and that is very appropriate. However, the use of colour is not a very modern technology but was available in an early form from the mid-1920s and it might have been interesting to include one or two of those vintage technologies. I know of one relatively famous collection shot using the Dufay process where photographers were sent around the world just to take photographs; several were shot in and around London.
It is easy to suggest that images could have been added, but an exhibition is of necessity limited to the amount of display space available. Some of the earlier photographs may well have been the actual exposed plate from the camera and therefore perhaps no larger than a few square inches. Others may have been enlarged from a negative and therefore be much larger, but they all require their own space. The representative images included are quite varied and for that the curators must be congratulated.