London Nights at the Museum of London

I can still see the shimmering lights, the deserted and mysterious corners, the vast bird-eye views and glamorous skylines. ‘London Nights’ is one of those exhibitions that make the familiar special, and stay with you even after you’ve left. So much so that, as I cycled home last Friday night after the exhibition, I couldn’t help noticing a myriad of details that would otherwise remain neglected.

Exhaustive, enriching, multifaceted – the exhibition gathers snapshots of London by night. The variety of the material and the impressive scale of the display are quite astonishing. A city that never sleeps, London has been a very popular subject among photographers, almost since the very beginning of photography, in the 19th century. In his 1896 series ‘London by Gaslight’, Paul Martin captured the city with an almost pictorial touch, while focusing on unpretentious sights.

After a chronological start, the exhibition takes a thematic approach, which is where things really take off. Curator Anna Sparham does an excellent job, creating a nocturnal narrative, which unfolds in a compelling way. The exhibition has allure and glamour that just hook you, much as you might be by a book or a movie.

The room that brings together different shots of Piccadilly Circus is a true gem, providing as many different versions of the square as the photographers who captured it. My favourite was a photograph by Jim Friedman, taken in 1988. Far from your stereotypical take of Piccadilly Circus by night, the rather low viewpoint and just the right amount of distortion draw the viewer in, without even showing the well-known flashy neon lights. Another great work is ‘Stairwell Down From Shadows’, by William Eckersley (2011). A gorgeous tunnel of light at the bottom of the stairs leaves everything else, including the bottom corners of the picture and the foreground, in the complete dark.

Stairwell Down From Shadows, SE1

William Eckersley, ‘Stairwell Down From Shadows, SE1’ (2011)

The exhibition features not only traditional or analogue photography, but also modern media. The digital reconstruction by Thierry Cohen of a “switched off” skyline, set against a breathtaking backdrop of a starry night, is stunning. The work portrays the nocturnal sky we would be able to see if it wasn’t for light and air pollution. I felt the magnetic charm of that Milky Way speaks louder than a thousand environmental campaigns.

London 51° 30’ 17'’ N 2015-02-17 lst 10:39

Thierry Cohen, ‘London 51° 30’ 17’’ N 2015-02-17 Lst 10:39’ (2015)

A substantial part of the display focuses on night as the centre of intense activities, almost as much as daytime. At night, “the senses are heightened” and our awareness increases. Night equals vulnerability, threat, danger, and fear. In her series ‘Dialogue with a Rapist’ (1978), Alexis Hunter captures the sense of menace created by a nocturnal encounter, exploiting the frankness of the photographic medium and telling a story with hand-written captions.

Night is also the time where we let go of the hustle of the day and enter a meditative state, where memories resurface with more vibrancy. British-Iranian photographer Mitra Tabrizian documents Iranian immigrants living in London. In ‘Somewhere in the Night’ (2005-2006), there is a sense of other-ness and displacement, as a taxi driver lights a cigarette and stares into the the distance. We can almost read in his face that he’s thinking of somewhere else, in a pensive state of mind that is catalysed by night.

‘Somewhere in the Night’ from the series ‘Border’, 2005-2006 By Mitra Tabrizian.jpg

Mitra Tabrizian, ‘Somewhere in the Night’ (2005-2006)

Inherent part of London nightlife is the work of cleaners, stockbrokers, and sex workers, as they busy the streets of the city. These activities, which can only take place during the night, are special precisely because they often go unnoticed, and are dignified through the lenses of photography.

‘London Nights’ is likely to make you see the city by night with new eyes, with an enhanced appreciation of the secrets and hidden corners that London has to offer. Whether it is for their arresting aesthetics or their evocative resonances, these are photographs with huge significance. Uncovering the incidental, the neglected, the seemingly unpretentious, ‘London Nights’ pays a tribute to London’s nocturnal alter ego. When the sun goes down, it’s time for the elusive magic of the city to come out, and for photographers to take up their cameras and capture this magic by impressing it on film.


Featured image: George Davison Reid, ‘Trafalgar Square; fountains with St. Martin’s from South side’ (1920-33)

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