International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-1980
(Tate Britain, until 16 September 2012)
The haunting image stares out from posters all over London at the moment. Even though she isn’t looking at the camera, but somewhere off over the viewer’s right shoulder, there’s something captivating about her eyes. Large, wary and so, so vulnerable. Standing alone by the side of a road, with a rolled sleeping bag on her shoulder, she cradles a tiny kitten in skinny hands. It has a collar made from a rough piece of twine. Two strays, you might say, bound together by a little piece of string.
She could easily be a boy, with her dishevelled crop of hair and androgynous clothes, but the photographer Bruce Davidson says that she was fifteen or sixteen. He was haunted by her too. Ever since he took this photograph, in 1960, he has been trying to track down the girl, to find out what happened to her, but he has never been able to find any trace beyond this moment on a street corner more than fifty years ago.
For me, this was the most compelling of the 100 photographs in Tate Britain’s new show, which focuses on pictures of the city taken by foreign photographers. It’s a fascinating glimpse of London’s recent history. Those of us who live here tend not to notice the small everyday moments which, many years later, can magically summon up the whole feel of a period. I’m not a Londoner by birth, but my grandfather grew up in the city during the 1930s and 1940s and so looking at these images let me imagine the London he would have known as a boy.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Londoners in the late 1920s didn’t look very different from Londoners in the early 1950s: the City workers in their top hats, striped trousers and sleek jackets; the cleaning women in their overalls and headscarves. The little boys in shorts and sleeveless sweaters who jostle in Trafalgar Square in Hans Casparius’s photo from 1929-30 are dressed virtually the same as the boys in Wolfgang Suschitzky’s 1940 photo of Stepney; and we’ve got pictures of my dad as a little boy in the early ’50s wearing much the same thing. This changelessness is so striking, I suppose, because I’m used to a world where fashion is constantly changing and two pictures twenty years apart will look very different.
However, costume isn’t the only thing which remains constant in these early photos. The class system of Edwardian London is still vividly present, everyone fully aware of where they belong in the hierarchy. The photos chosen for the exhibition show the gulf between the elegant diners at the Lyons Corner House on Tottenham Court Road, in Wolfgang Suschitzky’s 1934 photo, and the young East-End housewife swabbing her doorstep in Bethnal Green, photographed by Bill Brandt in 1937. Sometimes the contrast is more explicit, as in Jean Moral’s 1934 picture of a well-dressed lady buying flowers on Piccadilly from a weather-beaten old flower-seller who looks as if she’s stepped out of the early scenes of My Fair Lady.
Even in 1953, we find Inge Morath’s amazing photograph of Mrs Eveleigh Nash sitting in her car on the Mall, decked out in furs and a huge hat – you could put this lady in a photo from the late Edwardian period and she wouldn’t look out of place. I find it extraordinary that this photo dates from the year when Waiting for Godot premiered; when Elizabeth II was already on the throne; only three years before Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel. It feels like another age.
Around the late 1950s, things begin to change. People start going around without hats on, for a start, and aspects of the London I know begin to emerge. The battle between tradition and modernity is embodied in Jeanloup Sieff’s 1965 photo English Nanny, England. A formidably Victorian-looking nanny of the Nurse Matilda mould stands in the foreground, while in the background we see her employer: an achingly stylish woman with a sleek bob and a skirt already creeping above the knee. And from then on, we see London developing its unique, multicultural, liberal character. There are photos showing political demonstration, a disregard for authority, a sense of energy and possibility. I felt this whole sense of youth and opportunity was best embodied in James Barnor’s lovely photo of Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus from 1967. Mike strides down the deserted steps of the statue of Eros, with the neon adverts of Piccadilly Circus jostling behind him. He’s almost smiling, his arms are flung wide, as if to say, ‘All this is mine’. It might have been an optimistic gesture at the time, when so much work on cultural integration remained to be done, but it’s a fitting way to sum up the world that London has become.
This exhibition gives us a chance to peek into the past, to see London as it was – segregated by class and district, where poor families lived in Victorian-style slums and the wealthy dazzled in diamonds and the New Look – and then in its infancy as the modern cosmopolitan place we know. More than that, it brings us face to face with the people who once lived in the streets and the squares around us: people with amazing stories and incredible character to their faces – it’s true that people in the early decades of the 20th century had a certain look about them that no one has nowadays. And it gives us the chance to play games, to take a photograph that shows a fleeting second of someone’s life and to extrapolate on that, to create a story for this unknown person – to feel a brief empathy with them. To wonder what became of the girl and her stray kitten and to hope, against whatever reason and experience might suggest, that in the end she found her place in London.