M de St Croix: Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, 1839
Our definitive list of the best photographs of London ever taken, ever, for proof that pictures of our city are as diverse as London itself
How do you sum up a city that changes its look as often as its underwear and always has plenty to say? It sounds impossible, but that’s the challenge we set ourselves when we decided to draw up a definitive list of the best photographs ever taken of the capital. In making our selection we had help. We couldn't do it all by ourselves, obviously. So we enlisted people like Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller, Nick Waplington, Dorothy Bohm and Eamonn McCabe. Those are just some of the names among the world-famous photographers who shaped our selection. We also picked the brains of the top London photography brass at museums including the Tate, V&A, Museum of London and Imperial War Museum. So it's not just our taste, it's their taste too. The result: a celebration of London’s architecture, its icons and its geography, but also of us: Londoners at work, at play, protesting, rising to a challenge and always ready for our close-up.
With thanks to: Dorothy Bohm, Michael Hoppen, Charlie Phillips, Dennis Morris, David Chandler, Helen Trompeteler, Tina Barney, Bruce Gilden, David Campany, Nick Waplington, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rob Greig, Simon Baker, Eamonn McCabe, Jim Dow, Alona Pardo, Martin Barnes, Brett Rogers, Juergen Teller, Fariba Farshad, Michael Benson, Anna Sparham, Hilary Roberts,
By Gabriel Coxhead, Matt Breen, Phoebe Trimingham and Martin Coomer
You can tell that Wolf Suschitzky has been a cinematographer as well as a still photographer. In this quiet evocation of the drama of reading, the main figure almost looks like a posed actor; while central London itself, bathed in slanting, early-morning light, resembles nothing so much as a giant, empty stage set. There's a nice autobiographical touch to this image: Suschitzky comes from a family of booksellers and publishers.
© Wolfgang Suschitzky. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery
Where’s a jacket potato hawker when you need one? Crowned jauntily with spuds, portable ovens such as this were a regular sight on London’s streets during autumn and winter in the late nineteenth century. Scamell took the photograph for the National Photographic Record and Survey (1897–1910), a project to document our buildings, ceremonies and customs. It’s thought that around ten tons of potatoes were sold in this manner every day. Baked beans were unlikely to have been a filling, though – they didn’t arrive in the UK until 1886 and were sold by Fortnum & Mason as a fancy foreign delicacy.© V&A
Two years after the end of World War One, Nicholls was granted special access to Westminster Abbey to photograph the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, an unidentified British soldier killed on the battlefields of northern France and brought back to the UK to represent the multitudes who died ‘for king and country’. The eerie timelessness of the picture is lent an extra human dimension by the fact that Nicholls lost his eldest son on the Western Front.© Imperial War Museum
At the beginning of WW2, Bill Brandt (1904–1983) returned to London from photographing the industrial north of England. ‘The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since,' he remembered. The blackout was in force but serious hostilities between Britain and Germany had yet to begin in earnest. A year later, as the Blitz began, Brandt was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to record bomb shelters like the one in this picture. In its bid to bring the US government on side, the ministry sent Brandt’s photos to Washington. In fact, Brandt’s pictures were used widely to illustrate Londoners’ stoic resistance. What he remembered most about these long, fearful nights deep underground, though, was 'the long alley of intermingled bodies, with the hot, smelly air and continual murmur of snores'.
You have to wonder what Cartier-Bresson, a native of republican France, made of this scene, shot as the Queen’s father hastily ascended the throne in the wake of his brother’s scandalous abdication. From the bronze Trafalgar lion, to the medals gleaming on the serviceman’s chest, this image perfectly describes a very British patriotic fervour. You can see this quirkily brilliant shot as part of ‘Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers’ at the Barbican Art Gallery.
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, on show as part of ‘Strange and Familiar’ at the Barbican
Martin was one of the inventors of what we now call street photography, using a detective camera camouflaged as a satchel to take quick, impromptu snapshots of candid, quotidian moments. The raw, unposed honesty of his images, and his choice of working-class subjects, offended polite society but revolutionised photography.
© Museum of London
Before Robert Frank produced one of the greatest and most enduring of photographic projects, ‘The Americans’, the Swiss-born artist spent a couple of years documenting postwar London. This shot of an anonymous street has all the hallmarks that would go on to define his style, with its grainy, slightly off-kilter composition, and its powerful sense of melancholy.
A pioneer of street photography, Sergio Larrain was hired by the British Council to produce a reportage project on British cities in 1958. The Chilean’s ethos was all about capturing spontaneous, fugitive moments – and what could be more iconically fugitive, more quintessentially fleeting, than Trafalgar Square’s pigeons?
This image can be seen as part of the exhibition 'Sergio Larrain' at the Magnum Print Room, London until Apr 22 2016.
© Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos
Emerging from a hole in a London pavement, the boy in Native American head-dress aims his gun at the camera. Shooting back (with his Leica, a camera he protected so fiercely that he used to take it to bed to keep its shutter mechanism warm) is the legendary Fleet Street photographer (and south London lad) Thurston Hopkins. In his 101 years, Hopkins (1913-2014) went on assignments in Africa, India, Australia and the Pacific, but he’s best known for the work he did in the 1950s for Picture Post of London picking itself up from the war, much of it featuring kids finding their own fun on the streets and bombsites of the city. London photography gallery owner Michael Hoppen met Hopkins a number of times and remembers ‘the glint in his eye when reminiscing about making this picture.’ But he loves the images most for what it says about a certain type of London childhood at a certain point in history. ‘It reminds me of my own carefree existence as a child, which sadly seems a rare thing these days.’
© Getty Images
© Estate Bob Collins/Museum of London
Who could have predicted that a nondescript thoroughfare in St. John’s Wood would become one of the capital’s most popular sights? And what do the thousands of annual tourists do when they get there? They stage their own, parodic snapshots in emulation of the iconic original – a testament to the ritual power of photography.© Iain MacMillan/BNPS
Photography was central to ‘Swinging London’, with its culture of fashion and celebrity chic. Inevitably, the era saw the emergence of the photographer as a star in his (and it was pretty much always his) own right. Handsome, socially connected, sexually charged – it was a stereotype that David Bailey, above all, did his best to live up to.
© Getty Images
Smoking? On the tube?! Those who fondly remember the days before BoJo banned drinking on the tube (in 2008) might look at this picture with equal nostalgia. It was in the ’70s that Aldgate-born Bob Mazzer started surreptitiously snapping his fellow passengers, creating intimate pictures that are full of all sorts of London characters, but always the same warmth and humanity.© Bob Mazzer
Ray-Jones was a master of framing multiple narratives within a single shot, capturing different people looking at different things, often to paint a gently satirical picture of British life. In this image, the starting point for the linked network of glances is more than evident.© Tony Ray-Jones / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
It was dubbed the Second Battle of Trafalgar – the afternoon when anti-Poll Tax demonstrators, kettled within Trafalgar Square and attacked by riot police, finally responded in kind, and London witnessed its worst riots for a century. And Hoffman’s shot, indeed, resembles some classical battle scene, with the array of bodies and poses conveying a sort of desperate grandeur.© David Hoffman
London in the early ’60s, before it began to swing, was really more like the ’50s: a little bit dismal, a bit pokey and dowdy – still dusting itself off from its postwar blues, not yet ready to embrace the Technicolor future. Arnold’s wonderfully moody photograph seems to capture that in-between era perfectly.© Eve Arnold/Magnum
In this photo, Nick Waplington's lens transforms kids on London Fields into fairies in a golden-lit Arcadia – a reminder that, if we only stop to look, we’re constantly surrounded by such magical scenes in our day-to-day lives. And that the city has some fantastic green spaces to enjoy. Roll on summer!© Nick Waplington
There’s a hallucinatory, almost watery feel to Polly Braden’s study of London’s Square Mile. It’s as if she’s evoking the collision between two fundamental, opposing tendencies: architectural lines and grids, and the rigid demarcation of territory, on one hand; and the way that workers and capital ceaselessly flow and morph, on the other.
© Polly Braden
Downing Street has witnessed major political events, of course, but the actual drama mainly happens behind closed doors. Not so with Margaret Thatcher’s tearful, final departure from Number 10 in 1990, when it was hard to know which was more startling: the suddenness of her ousting, or the Iron Lady displaying human emotions.© Ken Lennox/Mirrorpix
Bathed in a beautiful morning light, Tom Hunter’s young woman looks likes she’s stepped out of Johannes Vermeer’s seventeenth-century masterpiece ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’. The narrative, though, is pure late twentieth-century. Fillipa is a squatter reading an eviction notice from Hackney Council. Hunter, at the time a fellow member of Hackney’s squatter community, shot the image for his ‘Persons Unknown’ series. It went on to win the John Kobal National Portrait award and has shown around the world. ‘I never envisaged this response to a photograph I took of my neighbour and friend in a squat one sunny morning in Hackney,’ he says. ‘But its intimate depiction of the mother and child in a moment of vulnerability seems to resonate in a universal way.’
© Tom Hunter
Though it only lasted six months, The Shop, Emin and Lucas’s studio-slash-gallery-slash-actual shop just off Brick Lane, has achieved legendary status – the sort of place where everyone retrospectively claims to have hung out. Famed for its parties, its debauchery, its selling of cheap arty tat, it marks one of the starting points for the YBAs and the Shoreditch scene.
© Sarah Lucas; courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London/Tracey Emin; photo: Carl Freedman
While many artists in the 1990s were busy getting thrown out of the Groucho, German photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg was casting a more sobre eye over the city at night, using long exposures to create poetic images that are the photographic successors to Whistler's 'Nocturne' paintings.
© Rut Blees Luxemburg, courtesy V&A
We screamed a lot during the 2012 London Olympics: at the telly, at home, in pubs, and at each other. But nowhere was the din as loud as in the Olympic Stadium when Mo Farah claimed his second Olympic gold by winning the 5,000 metres. The sound of the 80,000-strong crowd was so loud that the camera at the finish line started to shake, warping the image. ‘Nothing captures the fervour, the noise and the enjoyment of London 2012 more than this image,’ says Time Out photographer Rob Greig. ‘It’s a picture taken by 80,000 people.’
We’ve all been high on a Saturday night but, orbiting 400 kilometres above the earth, British astronaut Major Tim Peake takes the (freeze-dried) biscuit for altitude. Shot from the International Space Station at midnight on Saturday January 31, 2016, his image of London, its skeins of twinkling lights shining brightest around Oxford Street and Regent Street, is the most recent image in our top 40 and the ultimate establishing shot. ‘I’d rather be up here… but only just!! #toughcall,’ Peake told Twitter as he flew past at 17,150 miles per hour.
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