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
M de St Croix: Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, 1839
The oldest photograph in our top 40 is the oldest photograph in the V&A collection. It was 1839 when a Monsieur de St Croix arrived from Paris to promote the newfangled photographic process invented by Louis Daguerre earlier that year. To demonstrate, much like every tourist in his wake, he took a few snaps, the difference being that the results are among the first photos of the capital in existence. Which means the figures seated by the railings in this shot could well be the first Londoners ever photographed. Merci, Monsieur de St Croix for dragging your crazy photo machine across the Channel all those years ago.
Wolfgang Suschitzky: Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, 1936
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.
Edgar Scamell: London Street Hawkers, Selling Baked Potatoes, 1890
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.
Horace Nicholls: Coffin of the Unknown Soldier rests in Westminster Abbey, 1920
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.
Bill Brandt: Londoners near Liverpool Street Underground during the Blitz, 1940
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'.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, 1937
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.
Fashion and society photographer Cecil Beaton was an unlikely war photographer but he quickly became a great one. Commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1940, his images of a blitzed London were circulated round the globe and credited with raising sympathy for Britain in its hour of need (especially in America, which had not yet joined the war). This is one of the Imperial War Museum's 7000-strong collection of Beaton's war images.
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.
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.
Roger Mayne: Football, Addison Place, North Kensington, 1956
Mayne repeatedly visited a few, favoured pockets of Notting Hill, capturing the hustle and bustle of the insalubrious backstreets before they were razed, some years later, in the name of slum redevelopment. His shots of children at play are particularly, and justly, celebrated – little did his subjects know they were participating in one of the most significant social documents of the decade.
Is she distracted? Sad? Lonely? Clutching a doll, the woman in this mid-1960s photograph is an enduring mystery. Armed with her trusty Rolleiflex camera and blessed with a brilliant eye and endless patience, Dorothy Bohm has taken some of the most iconic shots of London street life over the past 70 years. Now in her nineties, Bohm, who moved to England in 1939 to escape the threat of Nazism in her native East Prussia, counts this picture, taken for a book about 1960s London among her own favourites. ‘She was standing quite motionless, absorbed in her thoughts,’ Bohm explains. ‘She seemed totally unaware of the market, which was noisy and full of people. I was intrigued.’ Half a century later, we’re still intrigued by this enigmatic woman.
Thurston Hopkins: A boy hiding in a coal hole, 1954
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.’
The clothing’s certainly different from today, in Collins’s wonderfully dynamic, impressionistic image from over half a century ago; and the street ironwork and signage similarly seem quaintly old-fashioned. Yet it’s somehow reassuring to know that overcrowding on the London Underground is the same as it ever was.
London isn’t just for Londoners – the hordes of gawping, snap-happy tourists also contribute to its complex character. Turning the camera back on to these same temporary visitors, then, was a typically astute and subtle move by the late Jane Bown, of the most esteemed of British photojournalists.
A cool shot of a stylish couple. What could be simpler? Taken at a party in Notting Hill in 1967, this isn’t the most immediately momentous of Charlie Phillips’s photographs, which include images of global icons such as Muhammad Ali and the first images of a fledgling Notting Hill Carnival, as well as intimate photos of Windrush-generation west Londoners. But it’s a picture that speaks volumes about London living and loving. As Phillips remembers, at the time being in a mixed-race relationship meant you'd get ‘louts shouting "nigger lover" from the windows of their cars as they passed’. Thankfully, those days are gone, but issues of race, visibility and Notting Hill’s heritage still occupy the photographer. ‘What really pisses me off,’ Phillips told us when we spoke to him last year, ‘is when they made that horrible film, “Notting Hill”. There wasn’t even one person of bloody colour in it!’
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.
Paul Graham: Baby and Interview Cubicles, Brixton DHSS, South London, 1984
The 1980s weren’t all big hair, shoulder pads and brick-size mobile phones. Under Margaret Thatcher, unemployment figures reached three million – and London suffered. Taken in a Brixton dole office, this photograph by fine art and documentary photographer Paul Graham is startlingly evocative of that era’s hardships. Barbican Art Gallery curator Alona Pardo singles the image out for ‘a sinister quality that immediately brings to mind the dark days of Thatcherism: the rise of the City and the fall of the unions, the energy of a renewed entrepreneurialism and the entropy of a new, entrenched unemployment.’ It’s a bleakly beautiful image of a desperate environment.
Terry O'Neill: Bailey showing Jean Shrimpton how to pose, 1964
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.
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.
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.
Dennis Morris: Kids Protesting over the closure of their squat, Hackney, 1976
Primarily known as a music photographer, Morris also produced a scintillating chronicle of Hackney in the ‘70s, back when the borough was more than a playground for hipsters, and mixed-race communities embraced radical politics as a matter of course.
German-born Brandt produced mainly portraits and landscapes – and this study, ostensibly of the painter Francis Bacon, shows his mastery of both. It’s hard to tell which aspect is the most severe, the most sullenly evocative: the dark, stormy sky; the angled stripe of pathway up Primrose Hill; or the glowering snarl across Bacon’s face.
Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon: Destroy, from the Punks Series, 1976
While punk had a lot of front and was all about in-yer-face attitude, shot from the back, this image is a super-stylish distillation of its spirit – ‘Destroy London’ indeed – by photographers, one Swiss, one German, who arrived in London to study just as the punk scene kicked off.
David Hoffman: Poll Tax Demonstrations, Trafalgar Square, 1990
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.
Eve Arnold: One of Four Girls Sharing an Apartment, 1961
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.
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!
Polly Braden: Appold Street, from London’s Square Mile, 2006
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.
The closest thing that London has to homegrown royalty, Vivienne Westwood is our punk fairy godmother, our wickedest of grand dames. In Teller’s shot, she becomes elevated into an emblem for our great city – a totally individual mix of the gleefully coarse and the gracefully refined.
Ken Lennox: Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street, 1990
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.
Tom Hunter: Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1998
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.’
Carl Freedman: Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas outside The Shop in Bethnal Green, London, 1993
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.
You don’t know what the crowds are reaching for in this slice of social commentary – some sort of free giveaway, presumably. But with its illuminated atmosphere of religious devotion, its mood of mass delirium, it’s clear what the satirical target of Reas’s image is: London’s reverence for rampant consumerism.
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.
Things you should remember to carry with you on the tube: copy of Time Out, bottle of water. Things you should remember to carry with you on the tube if you’re having your photo taken by Wolfgang Tillmans: ambivalent expression, nipple clamps. ‘I knew I had to stop shooting when Lars’s face turned from pleasure to pain,’ recalls Tillmans, who took this photo on the Jubilee line as part of a series about Germans in London for a German magazine. Yes, that’s a lot of Germans (Tillmans was born in Remscheid) but it’s a defining image of London and its embrace of, ahem, underground culture by a much-loved adopted son who became the first photographer and non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in 2000, and was elected a Royal Academician in 2013.
Mo Farah winning the 5,000 metres at the London Olympic Games, 2012
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.