As we come to the end of a truly cosmopolitan Olympic summer, free from international prejudices and rich in cultural diversity, it seems appropriate to look back at an exhibition that has represented our city through the unfamiliar eyes of the foreigner. Reading like a social retrospective, Another London at Tate Britain frames London life between 1930 and 1980 with all its smoky intrigue. A collection of 180 monochrome stills, the photographs are selected from 1,400 works from The Eric and Louise Franck Collection. The exhibition explores London through the lens of an outsider and chronicles a diverse and rich city full of affluence and prosperity, but also tinged with a smouldering underbelly.

Chronologically arranged and covering themes of class, identity and race, the exhibition explains London’s hugely diverse existence. Some of the photographs give voices to the unspoken lives of the beggars and street vendors and talk of hardships unbeknown to the upper-classes. Others capture traditional symbols of London life: red buses, bowler hats and even the rock musician Lemmy. Photographers such as Val Vandenberg depict a city of increasing cultural diversity, whilst Neil Kenlock’s ‘Keep Britain White’ Graffiti, Balham (1972) shows the prejudices towards those with dark skin.

In terms of upper-class portrayals, Queen Charlotte’s Ball (1959) by Henri Cartier-Bresson depicts swirling dancers, rhythmically waltzing and dressed in tails and ball gowns. London (1951) by Robert Frank, a Zurich born photographer who was deeply interested in the extremes of the English class system, captures a stoic banker walking with purpose through London’s financial quarter. Evidently a man of wealth and power, the figure is given an identity and wears a dazzlingly white, crisp shirt that contrasts heavily with the bland darkness of the background. The other figures in the shot walk in the other direction, faceless and with their backs to the viewer, stripped of all individuality and towards the sooty, uncertain mist…

…tired and forlorn look that contrasts with the naivety of the fluffy kitten…

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the works of Bruce Davidson. A master in his field, the Magnum Agency member was born in American and is most famous for his documentation of Harlem, New York. Girl Holding Kitten (1960) portrays a boyish looking girl, with piercing eyes and a lonely, tired and forlorn look that contrasts with the naivety of the fluffy kitten. Describing London as having a “claustrophobic” effect, Davidson’s photograph captures a girl who has been choked by London’s loneliness. Carrying nothing but a blanket as her bed and a kitten for company, she has been coughed up by the vast metropolis like a fur ball and left isolated and alone.

Perhaps reflecting the spirit of the English ‘stiff-upper-lip,’ it seems hard to get close to the figures; they appear distant and unapproachable and there is a distinctly un-engaging nature to many of the works. Markéta Luskacová for example, chronicled the harsh lives of the people of Spitalfields and Brick Lane and although People Around a Fire, Spitalfields Market, London (1976) contains a number of figures in close proximity, the interaction is minimal. Perhaps English stubbornness was all to easily captured by the foreigner.

…working-class tradesman, upper-class bankers and the urban poor…

Rather than depicting 20th century London through the tainted eyes of an indigenous dweller, the exhibition enables the true identity of the city to be exposed. Juxtaposing working-class tradesman, upper-class bankers and the urban poor, the exhibition encapsulates London in all its vast diversity. The opinions of the 41 photographers that have lived, worked or simply visited as a tourist have not being diluted by an extended life in the city and the seven rooms of the exhibition depict a fresh and vibrant view of our famous capital – Another London that the native dweller is blind to.

 

 

About The Author

A University of Reading English and History of Art graduate based in London and embarking on a career in journalism.

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