I took up photography seriously a few years ago. After a wordy life practising law, I thought it would make a change to focus on my visual sense in retirement. To my surprise it has become important to me. So when I received an invitation to attend the press preview of a new photography exhibition at the Museum of London, I accepted with curiosity and a little dread. Why dread? Well photography was disdained as a merely mechanical process in its early days and pioneering art photographers, in their anxiety to be taken seriously, rather tended to overdo the worthiness of their subjects. They concentrated on the dark and dismal and sought out "social" meaning in every frame. Their successors have tended to follow suit. Too many photo exhibitions exist in what I call "Magnum World" – a parallel dimension named for the ineffably "worthy" Magnum Photo Agency – where dismal and depressed denizens raise their sickly children in squalor and without hope. Any happy, successful people appear there only to heighten the sense of injustice and despair.
If when I die, I go to hell, it will be Magnum World.
Fortunately though the night life of our capital involves, of course, a fair share of misery the curator – Anna Sparham – has taken a more nuanced approach. She has included images ranging from the dark to the celebratory. The subject of the exhibition – London at night – is ambitiously broad. It could easily have resulted in a meaningless jumble of pictures that left no lasting impression. The exhibition features photographs by pioneers like Paul Martin and "greats" like Bill Brandt, but also by amateurs shooting for their camera clubs. It features early images from when long exposures could first be made by gaslight through to the modern era. Anna has arranged them into three broadly themed sections entitled "London Illuminated." "Dark Matters" and "Switch on, Switch off". Taken together they create a very satisfying portrayal of a great city and its people at night.
The London Nights exhibition is running at the Museum of London from 11th May to 11th November and tickets can be bought here. The museum has other interesting collections (currently including one about the suffragettes) and is always worth a visit anyway.
Finding myself near my regular haunts at the Barbican, I also took the opportunity to visit the Another Kind of Life photo exhibition now running there (but soon to close). This features many works by famous photographers and so there is a lot of high quality imagery. Alas, almost all of it is not only from "Magnum World" but also shoe-horned into a politically-correct narrative.
I enjoyed some of the work from a technical point of view. I could not fail to appreciate the photographs by the late Mary Ellen Mark, for example. I even actually liked some photos by Igor Palmin of Russian hippies in Soviet times. These were rebels – unlike their narcissistic Western counterparts – with an actual cause. There's good photography here but I am glad I had another, better reason to travel to the City from West London!