Caught by the River

London Nights

10th May 2018

Peter Watts reviews ‘London Nights’ – a new book of historic and contemporary photos of the capital after dark, published by Hoxton Mini Press.

A night in London can go from one extreme to the other at the turn of a corner. One minute you are in a street still heaving with ragged party animals, drunk on possibility and indefinitely deferring tomorrow’s reality. The next you are on your own in the dark, footsteps echoing like pebbles in a well, fears exposed – psychological, spiritual, physical, depending on mood, age or gender. Are you leaving the party too early? Should you have worked so late? Why are you alone? Is somebody following you? At night, the everyday becomes exciting – even Piccadilly Circus makes a strange sort of sense – while the mundanity of any car park or suburban street appears newly terrifying. A London night can change your life. It probably has.

The fountain at Trafalgar Square with St. Martin-in-the-Field Church floodlit at night, © Museum of London.

This transformation of London by night has fascinated writers from Charles Dickens to Sukhdev Sandu, but it has also been a canvas for photographers ever since Paul Martin began capturing the nocturnal city on film in 1896. Martin’s photograph of a gloomy, abandoned “Embankment At Night” from his London By Gaslight series is one of the first images in this absorbing new book from Hoxton Mini Press, produced in conjunction with an excellent exhibition of night photography at the Museum of London. The book contains essays by the exhibition curator Anna Sparham and poems by Inua Ellams, but it’s the 100 images that you are buying it for. These cover all aspects of the London night, from Bill Brandt’s WWII bombsites to William Eckersley’s Eggleston-like “Trolleys in an abandoned car park” from his 2011 Dark Cities series. Some photographers choose to emphasise the creepy sense of isolation, the shadows, the abandonment, dereliction and lurking danger; others focus on the people, the possibility, contrasts of dark with electric light, the workplaces, nightclubs, homes and bedrooms. It’s all here, from Bob Collins’ photos of suited theatregoers in the West End in 1960, anxiously anticipating an evening of fun, to Sophie Rickett’s 1995 image of a woman standing and impressively urinating on Vauxhall Bridge, M16 building lurking in the background. One of the most memorable photographs is the most mundane – a men exiting a brightly lit convenience shop, looking into a cheap plastic blue bag at his late-night purchase, perfectly framed by the shop windows and the terraced displays of fruit and vegetable. The familiarity resonates.

Somewhere in the Night: Ed 1/5. A figure in the street, a car behind, from the ‘Border’ series. Photograph by Mitra Tabrizan. 2005-2006.

It’s worth observing differences between men and women, both as subjects and as photographers. In Bill Brandt’s “Footsteps Coming Nearer” and Bert Hardy’s “Life In The Elephant”, women are surreptitiously observed leaning against shadowy walls in darkened cobbled streets. Intentionally or otherwise – and the title of Brandt’s photograph suggests the former – both scenes feel like the opening scenes of thrillers, or the closing moments of somebody’s life. This sense of impending horror is given full expression in Alexis Hunter’s series, Dialogue With A Rapist from 1978, where the voyeuristic camera is witness to evil. Tom Hunter also toys with this mood, taking it indoors for the lurid “Rat In Bed” from 2005, which shows a woman in bed, accompanied by rats. Is she dead or sleeping?

Passers-by on a London street at night. c. 1955. Photographer Bob Collins, © Estate of Bob Collins/Museum of London.

The sudden violence of the night is encapsulated by Colin O’Brien’s 1959 photograph of the aftermath of a car crash in Clerkenwell, “Accident At Night” but many images explore the same theme by implication. Brian Griffin’s staged shots from the 1980s imagine a nuclear attack on London, while Niall McDiarmid’s eerily lit image of a Morden semi invites the viewer to take the perspective of a potential home invader like a moment from a Michael Haneke film. Again and again, stillness is a prelude to terror. Harold Burdekin understood this in the 1930s, shooting an empty alleyway of mist and shadows and calling it “Sinister Street”.

‘Mods’ on the street, Borehamwood.1969. Photographer Terry Spencer, © Cara Spencer/Museum of London.

Others prefer to focus on the euphoria of a night out, time off from work and family, the chance to be somebody else, just for one night. Here are Mods, theatregoers, Blitz kids, Teds, ravers, MCs and two spellbound kids in Waltham Forest at an outdoor cinema screening. Best of the lot are John Goto’s posed photos of young black Londoners at a youth club in Lewisham in 1977, readying for an evening that might end anyplace, anytime and with anybody. But even Hardy, Brandt and Wolf Suschitzky – famous photographers who celebrated the escapism, romance and potential of London at night – don’t ignore the fact that for some the night offers no respite. Hardy photographed exhausted kitchen workers slumped at a table in the 1930s; Brandt’s “West Ham bedroom” has a woman knitting on a chair in a cramped bedroom, while four children sleep on bed and floor around her. Suschitzky’s photo of a brightly lit West End cinema is interrupted by a milkman, who trudges through the frame wearily pushing cart before him. For some to play, others must work. That’s a theme that is explored most explicitly by Tish Murtha’s photographs of Soho sex workers, where nocturnal fantasy and grim reality overlap each and every London night.

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London Nights (hardback, Hoxton Mini Press, 208 pages) is out now and available here. London Nights the exhibition opens at the Museum Of London on May 11.

Peter Watts on Caught by the River/on Twitter