Night can suggest excitement, possibility, danger, despair, drunkenness, druggery, drudgery. Sometimes all at the same time. This show covers more than 100 years of photographers exploring the nighttime capital. It sometimes feels a bit fragmented, but that’s to be expected: the animal bit of everyone’s brain reacts to night differently. All these images share something, though: in one way or another they reflect that darkness transforms the city.
Early photographers loved night effects. Paul Martin’s ‘Embankment at Night’ of 1896 is full of mystery. You realise that for people from smoggy towns and the pitch-black countryside, city lights were a real draw: an artificially moonlit romance in an atmosphere choked with pollution. As nightlife became something for ordinary people rather than the super-rich, the city played on this allure, training spotlights on landmarks to show off its best side. There’s a great glass slide of the half-finished Battersea Power Station from 1930, lit up like a cathedral. The London between the wars is pretty attractive in certain lights, if you don’t look too closely. Some do, of course. By the time Bill Brandt takes his 1942 portrait of a West End prostitute, the figuratively shadowy side of the capital is being laid bare. Louchely self-possessed, smoking a fag, she seems indifferent to the camera. The hand of an unseen stranger emerges from the darkness behind her as if about to drag her back into it.
The same year, Brandt also takes a stark photo of a bombed house: it’s opened up like a body, its white interior paint standing out in a grey nightscape. It’s a dramatic foil to the photojournalism of Bert Hardy, who joined fire crews tackling night time bombing raids. He bust his camera and singed his suit to capture a London bathed in flames, literally alight.
In a way, you could say that the Blitz intensified London’s sense that the night is a time to grab, but also to fear. From the immediate post-war period to the present day, ‘London Nights’ reveals a fractured response to the after-hours city, with darkness symbolic of the marginalised and unseen of London’s night economy. Bruce Davidson snatches a shot of the misery of the human billboard in ‘Man Holding Curry Sign’ (1960); Tish Murtha’s series ‘London by Night’ (1983) looks at the ambiguous place of Soho’s sex workers and Chris Shaw’s 1993 series ‘Life as a Night Porter’ is full of creepy surrealism: a naked man wanders a hotel corridor, keys hang ‘like bats’. It’s not all alienating weirdness. From John Goto’s 1977 portraits of reggae fans to Vicky Grout’s photos of London’s grime scene, there’s plenty of nighttime exuberance too.
There’s a lot here, but few answers. London is seen from far away (Tim Peake shoots it from outer space) and close-up (Nick Turpin peers into night buses to shoot tired commuters), but London’s nocturnal alter ego is always remote and unfathomable. As it should be.