In darkness, everything changes. The environment becomes unpredictable, the streets we walk by day shift from familiar to not, buildings masquerade as monsters, and ordinary people are imbued with an extra magic.
That’s the premise behind the Museum of London’s new exhibition, anyway. ‘London Nights’, an ambitious showcase of the work of some 60 photographers, tells the story of the capital from dusk until dawn, putting the moonlight on urban creatures and spaces to celebrate the city’s dynamism even after much of it has shut up shop.
That means London’s parks when they are silent and eerie, snapshots of the seedy streets of Soho in the small hours, or photographs of traffic swirling around already busy roads as commuters race home after a day of work. It means images of strobe lighting in a club and of skyscrapers dotted with windows like tiny eyes gazing at the world outside.
It means an array of photographs from the war years, whether civilians jostling for space in Underground station air raid shelters or an evocative shot of St Paul’s Cathedral taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building on one of the Blitz’s most calamitous nights. It means scenes of wealth and evening leisure – canapes being snaffled and glasses clinking – juxtaposed with those of poverty and homelessness, collated by virtue of somehow representing the city during its witching hours.
In many of the photographs on display here, what is concealed is every bit as important as what is revealed; a quiet Victorian terraced street is made sinister by the absence of any living souls; a band of friends walking home becomes ghoulish because their surrounds are masked by a gloomy night. Bill Brandt’s 1930s print ‘Footsteps coming nearer’ portrays a woman cowering in a doorway and a suited man approaching, leaving you wondering whether he is he friend or foe. In Rut Blees Luxemburg’s close-up of a puddle of liquid on a night street, what appears to be water emerges at closer inspection as a congealing pool of blood or booze, the sordid goings-on of the night-time city reflected within.
On display we have everything from love letters to the city’s most luxurious landmarks – Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace lit up and dazzling – to portraits of the rich cast of characters that make up London’s nocturnal theatre, from cabaret artists to cabbies, clubbers and convenience store owners. Although the exhibition theme feels contemporary, many of the works on display date back to the early years of the medium; Paul Martin’s 1886 work ‘London by Gaslight’, for example, which looks almost like a black and white line drawing, with a stream of lights showcasing an unnerving vista.
Perhaps the starkest image is on arrival, when Blees Luxemburg’s portrait of a London tower block stares out at you, a scene that has taken on a new association in the year since the horrors of the Grenfell fire. A similar picture later on by Mike Seaborne shows another high-rise that becomes almost cartoonish as the night sky brings out the warm lights inside the flats and the austere brutalist architecture of the block itself. Both act as a sobering corollary to the many shots contained here of London’s more poetic scenery.
‘London Nights’ is a vast exhibition – some 200 photographs – and it’s impossible to take in everything, but there are plenty of highlights; a series featuring passengers on a rain-soaked night bus, or Bob Collins’ ‘Piccadilly at Night’ negatives from 1960, depicting people in any and every situation; lovers and friends, rich and poor, the entertainers and the entertained. Tim Peake’s aerial view from the International Space Station shows a maze of lights criss-crossing the city’s sprawl; another series imagines how a darkened London would look during a nuclear attack (although it seemed more akin to the aftermath of an alien invasion). Perhaps my favourite was from Chris Shaw’s series ‘Life as a Night Porter’, in which rows of keys in a hotel cupboard take on a bat-like appearance.
This is an exhibition that requires plenty of time to fully appreciate it – but for those that are willing, it’s well worth it.
London Nights is at the Museum of London until 11 November 2018.