Strange things happen when night falls over a city. In his book Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, writer Matthew Beaumont describes the atmosphere of the night as uncanny. In the dark, the familiar takes on a new shape; our senses are heightened, the way we see is different. Both seductive and threatening, these conditions have attracted photographers to the night since the birth of their craft. The Museum of London’s show London Nights pays homage to this night vision, mapping out the capital and its many layers through more than 200 photographs, including historic works from their collection as well as many contemporary images and video pieces.
Divided into three chapters—London Illuminated, Dark Matters and Switch On, Switch Off— the exhibition takes us on a nocturnal journey through London’s geography, history and social landscape, covering all the nooks and crannies of its sprawling mass. Taking us to the familiar landmarks that have captured our collective imagination, the route extends into the dimly-corners of London’s suburbs, exploring the margins of the city that are as important as its nucleus, as well as the different people that inhabit and shape it. After dark, the city’s layers reveal themselves, prompting the many photographers that make up London Nights to act on a common desire: to somehow grasp its mystery through the lens.
As photography is a process that depends on light, how does one set about doing it in the dark? This technical question is what drives many of the photographers we see in the first chapter of the exhibition, London Illuminated. Early 20th century photographers such as George Davison Reid captured floodlit views of the city’s iconic statues and buildings, while American pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn rendered London’s historical sites through a melancholic and romantic haze. With their imposing buildings and no people in sight, these picturesque views establish a grand and monumental image of the capital. Artificial light soon creeps in and becomes a defining factor in creating a globally recognizable image of London’s nocturnal landscape.
The twinkling lights of the West End draws the attention of photographers such as Bob Collins, who lose the tripod and attempt to capture the energy and excitement of central London’s bustling nightlife in the 1960s. Signs and spectacle become the backdrop of these new iconic cityscapes. But on London’s urban peripheries, we find a melancholic edge to these neon glows. Niall McDiarmid’s late 2000s drift around the suburbs of South West London is a very solitary one, save one or two lonely commuters, while in William Eckersley’s eerie man-made landscapes, cast in strange magenta and cyan hues, there are no people to be seen. Built to respond to everyday human needs, at night, Eckersley’s vast supermarket parking lot transforms into an cold and isolated urban desert.
Dark Matters, the show’s second chapter, explores London’s underbelly and its dangers. Herbert Mason’s iconic 1940 image St. Paul Survives—the dome of the cathedral emerging from plumes of dark smoke—anticipates the nightmarish events of the German bomb attacks known as the Blitz. Darkness become the norm during wartime London, with blackouts minimizing outdoor light to prevent enemies from identifying their targets. This also presented photographers with new opportunities. Bill Brandt discovered a “new beauty” under the soft light of the moon, shooting the ravished buildings of wartime London using a long exposure time. Brandt also journeyed below street-level to photograph underground air-raid shelters, makeshift communal bedrooms for city dwellers under threat. Amidst the darkness, he still makes out the defiant spirit that typified the capital’s spirit during the Blitz.
Fear of commonplace threats, as well as the intangible and the imagined are also present in the city’s shadows. The sense of impending danger that any woman who has walked through the city at night will know all too well is visualized in the powerful Dialogue With A Rapist by Alexis Hunter, which revisits a horrifying experience from the past through a series of double exposures. The heightened paranoia of the night feels heavy in David George’s series Shadows of Doubt which imagines the East End landscapes that Alfred Hitchcock spent time in as a child, evoking the auteur’s signature tense atmosphere. Fear for an unknown future is a catalyst for Brian Griffin’s dystopic 1980s staged images of a fictional nuclear attack on London, while the dizzying monochrome abstractions of skyscrapers in Lewis Bush’s Metropole anxiously ponder the fate of the city’s historic architecture and soul.
In the third and final chapter, Switch On, Switch Off, the diverse mass of people that make up the city flood onto the gallery walls. For some, it’s the beginning of the working day: we see from the perspective of someone that clocks on when most people clock off in the work of Chris Shaw, who started bringing his camera in to his night porter job to entertain himself whilst working. For the solitary commuters in Nick Turpin’s sumptuous On the Night Bus, each framed by the rain-stained window of a bus, their journey through the night is homebound. For the hungry photographer Philip Ebeling, it enabled the crux of his 250 km walk around London’s forgotten edges, documenting the faces and places he encountered on his 10-day odyssey around outer London. For many, London at night is a place of euphoria and transgression, liberating us from the organized structures of the day.
From Sophy Rickett’s subversive Pissing Woman to the decadent alt-drag stars in Damien Frost’s Night Flowers, the night provides a backdrop to play out the different facets of our identities. Subcultures have historically blossomed in every corner of the capital, allowing people to express themselves through music, fashion and dance. John Goto’s series of young British African-Caribbeans at the Lewisham Youth Centre is entitled Lovers’ Rock, after a sub-genre of reggae that grew out of the South London music scene in the mid-70s. The pre-night out portraits were an important counterpoint to the negative media representations of black youth that emerged from the Battle of Lewisham demonstrations of 1977—an explosive year of heightened racial tension and prejudice. Bringing us into the now, Vicky Grout’s chronicling of the emergent years of the UK Grime scene pays testimony to London’s more recent musical tribes.
Lingering with the night owls of London Nights in the final chapter of the exhibition, our expectations are heightened as we are about to stroll out into our own experiences of this city that never sleeps.
Editor’s Note: The Museum of London’s exhibition London Nights is open until November 11, 2018, including special after-hours visits on Fridays.