Another London

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Another London
© Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos 'Queens Guard Marching' (1960) by Bruce Davidson

In 1961, Bruce Davidson was asked to shoot a photo essay for Queen magazine titled 'Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us'. Some of the results appear in this cannily timed exhibition, 'Another London', which is in a sense a similar exercise, but broader: the perceptions of the eminent and the obscure who came to the capital throughout the twentieth century from all over, by choice or not. Henri Cartier-Bresson (French) began his photojournalistic career at George V's coronation, ignoring the royals and photographing the crowd; Robert Frank (Swiss) was obsessed with the visual possibilities of London fog. EO Hoppé (German) shot top-hatted 1930s bankers; 40 years later, Mario de Biasi (Italian) documented the 'look' of a young Londoner wearing the same headgear ironically.

The 41 photographers here include unfamiliar names as well as immortals like Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn and Eve Arnold and the commentary alongside is excellent (not least Marketa Luskacova pointing out that the Czech for 'to photograph' actually means 'to immortalise'). The exhibition also feels less disparate than Tate Britain's show 'Migrations', as there is inevitably more coherence to gathering foreigners' photographs of our city than to lumping together artists who happened to turn up here. But there are still some puzzling curatorial decisions.

Firstly, why 1930-1980? The Eric and Louise Franck Collection (from which these images all come) includes 1200 photographs ranging from the 1880s to the 2000s, so the mid-century moment feels arbitrary. And why show our city – colourful in every sense – exclusively in black and white? But the seminal question, one that brings us back to Davidson and a society magazine commissioning a Yank's take on London, is who this exhibition is actually for. It coincides with the Olympics; those careful commentaries also impart inane information (Oxford Circus is a major crossroads, apparently, and people can spout off at Speaker's Corner – are there even any tourists who don't know this stuff?).

Yet I can't imagine any visitor finding this half as fascinating as a resident will. It's a question of familiarity. So much of the background looks the same – Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, Hyde Park– but the hands are gloved, the feet apparently encased in bricks (during the war, anyway) and it's not just the homeless who look desperate. In 1942, Wolfgang Suschitzky shows a huge bombsite right next to St Paul's; in 1945, thanks to Felix H Man, we witness the miracle of lights after six years of blackout. In 1935, Dora Maar pictured someone collecting for charity in time for Empire Day. Who, apart from a denizen of the nation that once ruled the waves, would care about Empire Day? There are tramlines on Westminster Bridge, and the spikes of what is certainly not a fancy housing and retail development at St Katharine's Dock. And there are hardly any people on the streets.

Look really closely, and London 1930-80 is, it turns out, another country. Bill Brandt's wonderful grainy image of Park Lane could have been taken yesterday but his close-up of a morning doorstep with a picture-free Daily Telegraph, a News Chronicle (a what?) and several milk bottles seems practically prehistoric (both are 1930s). Davidson's hilarious image of nannies hauling prams through the park, backs to their little charges like mules dragging carts, is particularly intriguing; as is Neil Kenlock's picture of black girls with Black Panther school bags, although for different reasons.

Those outsiders who arrived with cameras were certainly looking pretty closely, often with wry wit: maybe Inge Morath didn't know that she was photographing rich Mrs Nash outside a row of Regency Nash houses but Ernst Haas probably got the joke when he pictured a speaker from the Pillar of Fire Society fulminating above her organisation's sign (strapline: You Are Cordially Invited). All human life is here: Windrush immigrants wander in and there are even a few Orthodox Jews, even if the greater upheavals of World War II go unrecorded – although the commentaries testify to the difficult lives beyond the frame. And speech is free, whether it's graffiti demanding Keep Britain White or the banner in another Kenlock image that says All Police Are Pigs Off The Pigs.

These strangers show our bygone city as an eerie mix of the foreign and the familiar, in every sense. Eventually, London absorbs and appropriates all strangeness, human or otherwise, while remaining itself: fascinating to look at – but hard to read, boldly modern – yet tinted monochrome with nostalgia. The real bone-deep difference between now and then is surely in the natives, who are no longer sure quite how to see 'ourselves', or indeed who else is looking.


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