Museum Of London’s ‘London Street Photography’ Exhibition: An Introduction

A magazine seller at Ludgate Circus, 1893. Paul Martin

Yesterday I went to one of the ‘Meet the Expert‘ events at the Museum of London, held on the last Wednesday every month. The event normally consists of a curator, or other resident expert, talking about an area of their research or recent discovery. It’s held in the theatre on the 1st lower level of the museum – something I didn’t realise and was late for the start!

This was held by Mike Seaborne, the Senior Curator of Photographs, on the subject of the Museum of London’s newish ‘London Street Photography‘ exhibition. This exhibition has met with huge success, and I know the couple of times I’ve gone to have a nosey it’s been full of people absorbed in these intriguing images.

Admiralty Arch on the day before Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, June 1st 1953. Bob Collins. London Street Photography Exhibition, Museum of London

I know nothing about photography, I was a little familiar with the history of the development of the technology, but as a practice I am clueless. Consequently the talk by Mike Seaborne, was great for filling in some context and history of some of the images on display. I also learnt a bit about the theory of ‘street photography’ and recent debates on the subject matter.

For the Museum of London’s exhibition, they took a strict definition of street photography; that people should be the main focus rather than landscapes, that it should be in the street (though there are a few exceptions in parks), they should look at the everyday rather than important or unusual events, like festivals or protests, and finally the best ones, or perhaps the most interesting visually, have an element of chance or a juxtaposition of people and place.

The historical significance for these sorts of images almost goes with saying, but I’m going to say something anyway. As with written documents, photography all too often focusses on the big events and the important people. Street photography gives social historians, as well as architectural, cultural, and many other sorts of historians, an insight into the everyday life of the everyday person. From simple clues as to what people are wearing or carrying, to looking at more complex relationships, such as how people appear to be interacting, and what sort of people are in this particular place at a particular time.

As with any historical document the context of the creator, the photographer, is an important, if not crucial, part of understanding the image. I think this was the main point that Mike Seaborne was able to put across in his talk. He told us about the nineteenth photographers like John Thomson, who worked on a project with a journalist and would normally have some sort of arrangement in his photographs, but was not afraid to let the unexpected interrupt his composition. Also Paul Martin, who was one of the first to disguise his camera and take pictures of people on the street who were unaware of the camera under his arm. What was interesting about Paul Martin’s work, recording life at the turn of the century, was that he was an amateur photographer and part of a camera club and consequently expected to be trying to take more artistic photographs. His work was eventually appreciated later in the mid twentieth century, thankfully when he was still around to discuss his work.

Big Ben, April 2007. Stephen McLaren. London Street Photography, Museum of London


Paul Martin eventually became a photo journalist, an occupation that became possible from the 1910s due to developments in technology to print photographs, and over the course of the twentieth century the role of the photo journalism in street photography began to increase in significance. By the 1930s the genre was reaching a wider audience than ever before through the publication of specialist magazines, in which photo stories were featured. Seaborne described the post-war period, approximately 1950-1970 as the hey-day of street photography, possibly because it was a time of such change and redevelopment, photographers saw their role in recording the here and now.

Roger Mayne worked predominately in North Kensington and his photographs looked at the use of the street as a social space, being from North Kensington myself these images really intrigued me, especially as you realised that some of the streets in his images no-longer exist, torn down from redevelopment possibly replaced by Trellick Tower. The work of Charlie Phillips from the 1960s also captured the changing face of North Kensington, as he looked at the social interaction between the white and newly arrived West Indian residences.

Charlie Philips was born in Jamaica and is evidence of the increasing role of the immigrant photographer in twentieth century, bringing over new ideas and concepts they play a significant role in the street photography exhibition. They also continue to play an important role in street photography as Mike Seaborne informed us that many photographers make the trip to London specifically to take street photography here. Don’t we have very special streets?!

The final thing I’ll mention is the question Mike Seaborne left us with, which is where is street photography going? Photo journalists are now focused on either international disaster or celebrities in the street, and digital advancement allow photographs to be manipulated in ways never possible before. Many of the modern street photographs have a humorous element to it, but is there any documenting going on? And what can be call documentary now and at what point does photography become art? It seems street photography will continue to evolve and throw up interesting themes and maybe tell us something interesting about ourselves.


4 Responses to Museum Of London’s ‘London Street Photography’ Exhibition: An Introduction

  1. trickygirl says:

    I enjoyed this exhibition too, and I very much agree that street photography tells us something interesting about ourselves – I think that is partly why I am so fascinated by it. As a medium it allows the viewer a small but intriguing glimpse into the lives of ordinary people, which offers another view of history that is quite separate from the conventional readings, as well as very clearly showing both continuities and changes in society and environment.

    Thanks for this very interesting post!

  2. Tim Allen says:

    I can speak from experience that shooting street is both fun and nervewracking as it’s the opposite of what you’re used to doing – normally you’re waiting for people to leave the scene not be the focus! I love it though and although it’s perhaps a little overexposed at the moment hopefully things will calm a little and we can just get back to shooting 🙂

  3. PK Koduri says:

    You make an interesting point towards the end about many modern street photographs trying to have a humorous element in them. Unfortunately that seems to be the predominant trend. Also gone by the way side are proper framing techniques with shoot from the hip and crop later being used more and more. Also some shock jock photographers who in the name of art jump on people with flash in hand and scare the crap out of them. How is that documenting reality when your actions change the situation completely?

  4. Pingback: Psychogeographies – Street Photography – Jan's Foray into Documentary

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