In a major exhibition the Museum of London takes a tour of London under the silver gloom of moonlight and neon billboards, as Oliver Atwell discovers
In 1930 Virginia Woolf left her home in search of a pencil. She didn’t really need one but she needed an excuse to leave the house. Woolf was an inveterate walker and explorer of city streets. She would often tread the walkways of London under the blaze of day and black of night, allowing her mind to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the early 20th-century cityscape. So often she would look into the faces of fellow travellers and imagine what it must be like to occupy their bodies. The result of this particular 1930 expedition was her beautiful essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure, which captures the bliss of urban wanderlust. In particular, it encapsulates what it is to move like a ghost through the streets of London in the hours of night, never knowing what you’ll see.
This essay is an ideal complement to this collection of images presented by the Museum of London, all of which show the many faces of the capital as it sits under the blanket of night. In all, the works of 50 photographers are presented, and all have their own distinct take on the nocturnal metropolis.
The exhibition, perhaps in an effort to compartmentalise such a free-ranging subject, is divided into three sections. London Illuminated shows us the capital lit by the gloaming of twilight and, as the sun gradually vanishes behind the horizon, the artificial light of streetlamps, neon billboards and car headlights. Dark Matters explores the more unsettling side of the city. Anyone who has had to tread the back streets of London will know the feeling of threat and vulnerability only too well. Last, we have Switch On… Switch Off… where we witness Londoners throwing off the shackles of work and drinking themselves insensible while brushing past those trying to reach the comfort of home or, in some cases, just arriving at their place of work for the night shift.
First of all, you must be sure to check out Damien Frost’s ‘Night Flowers’, which has some of the most striking portraits I have ever seen.
In 2014 Frost set out to document London’s most ornate drag kings and queens, club kids, alt-queer, transgender, goth and cabaret performers. The result is a spellbinding rogues’ gallery of London’s transgressive elite, at once inviting and awe-inspiring.
In the AP 28 April issue, we reviewed the accompanying book by Anna Sparham, published by Hoxton Mini Press, and released to tie in with this exhibition. In that review, the subject of Nick Turpin cropped up. It’s worth mentioning him again. Turpin’s images were all taken around the bus stop outside Elephant and Castle’s shopping centre.
Each frame offers us a carefully composed shot of a condensation-soaked bus window, behind which we see the abstract, painterly figure of a commuter. Turpin’s intuitive eye has carefully incised these scenes from the everyday and in the extraction has rendered them as absorbing tableau sketches.
The one that perhaps gets to the heart of the London night is German photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg. Here we find the nocturnal landscape of London captured post-diaspora. There is no one to see. The people have vanished. Office blocks and underpasses, shot with a large-format camera, seem to be haunted by the absence of people. You can almost hear the low hum of wind now untroubled by the screeching of car tyres and the caterwauls of inebriated underage drinkers.
This is, of course, but a sliver of the work on display in this exhibition. You can also see Bill Brandt, Brian Griffin and Tish Murtha, all of whom are in great and diverse company.
The point is, there can be no single definitive portrait of London. London exists like a fractured mirror. Every shard contains a grain of the reality but is no more or less real than the images that surround it. And that makes London an inexhaustible source of inspiration for any photographer.
‘London Nights’ runs at the Museum of London until 11 November. Tickets cost from £10. Entry is free for those under 16. For more details, visit www.museumoflondon.org.uk.