London is a photogenic city to capture given iconic buildings like the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. I am by no means a professional photographer, but when it’s sunny I enjoy heading down to the Thames to take snaps of structures – both old and new – along the riverside against a blue sky backdrop.
The capital may be a great place to photograph during the day, but it is an equally (if not more) fascinating place to capture at night – as a comprehensive photography exhibition currently showing at the Museum of London proves. London’s aforementioned landmark structures take on an intriguing and somewhat mystical guise when they are floodlit in the twilight hours, particularly during the hazy depths of winter. Nocturnal scenes became popular on postcards in the early 20th century and examples of these are on display in the London Nights show.
When people are sleeping at night London can seem virtually abandoned, but the lights remain on. The Museum of London exhibition features photographs of shopping trolleys in floodlit car parks and illuminated fire escapes outside buildings. Then there are the stairwells and communal areas of tower blocks which can be seen for miles around thanks to powerful fluorescent lights beaming through vast floor to ceiling windows.
But in reality London – at least in part – is a city that doesn’t sleep. There are the porters at the capital’s markets who are hard at work while many people are still in bed. Open-all-hours general stores, with floodlit fruit and vegetable stands outside, can be found serving customers through the night. Revellers party until the early hours (the 2017 photo they have of Fabric depicts the packed nightclub dance floor at 5am during a non-stop Saturday to Monday event).
We see pictures of the familiar sights of people fast asleep on night buses after finishing a late shift or a drink-fuelled evening out in the West End. If this exhibition was repeated in years to come, we would no doubt be given a glimpse of passengers on the Night Tube or all-night London Overground services.
One of the exhibition’s photographers worked as a a night porter for more than a decade and we are shown pictures he took while on duty. There’s someone asleep on a sofa in what looks like the bar and a naked man roaming the corridors after seemingly being locked out of his bedroom.
Night time also helps bring out stories of individuals, families and other groups which during the day could easily be missed. The hardship of an East End family is demonstrated by a 1930s photo showing three children, side-by-side in a bed, with another youngster forced to sleep on the floor. Then there are rows of people at a Salvation Army shelter in Blackfriars in 1902 who have paid a penny for the privilege of spending the night on a sit-up bench (there is no option to lie down). And during the Blitz, people packed into Underground tunnels to shelter from enemy bombs.
Many of the photos depict natural shots of people and nocturnal landscapes, however they also have some colourful Photoshopped images that come across as striking pieces of art. But the biggest thing I took away from the exhibtion is that we shouldn’t take light at night for granted. During the Second World War, a blackout was imposed and so after the fighting was over there were celebrations. ‘London’s Night Carnival,’ was the newspaper headline on an article describing with joy how London’s major buildings would be floodlit for a week. These days it would be hard to find an area of the capital that wasn’t lit in one way or another.