There are certain scenes that come across as so quintessentially, unmistakeably London; wideboys at a market hawking their wares, the blur of the rush hour commute, gadabouts in Soho, or optimistic families picnicking during national sporting events. Uncomplicated scenes that conjure up an idea of how life was, once upon a time.
Our familiarity with these types of scenes is thanks in no small part to a generation of photographers like Bob Collins, who took great pleasure in capturing the daily life of the city and its inhabitants. While hardly a household name, it’s easy to see why the Museum of London have dedicated a new display to the work of Collins, who was born 90 years ago and worked as a photojournalist and street photographer from the 1950s onwards. The Museum was given a large donation of his work several years ago, and it certainly seem to have found an appropriate home.
Quite simply, Collins’ photos are charming, elegant and nostalgic; a reminder of what London has to offer and the ordinary personalities that give it its character. It is clear Collins felt not only interest in but real enthusiasm for his subjects, which, as the exhibition shows, led to warm-hearted, insightful photographs.
Two sets of images in the display focus on royal events; the first on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, including a brilliant shot of another photojournalist thrusting himself through the railings, his eye set unwaveringly on the unfolding scene, his concern that he might miss even a second palpable.
Then there’s the housewife, camped out overnight in anticipation of the big day, bundled up but impeccably neat and still with her hair covered modestly by a scarf. Collins also photographed the royal celebrations three decades later when Prince Charles and Princess Diana married, and the passage of time is clear. In this set, his subjects look more suspiciously at the camera.
You’ll smile wistfully at the shots of Wimbledon, taken in 1960 on what we now refer to as Murray Mount; the men in suits and waistcoats, the women in floral dresses and pearls, and the sun, remarkably, shining. Likewise, the scenes from the West End in the 1950s – the smart attire, the bright lights, the foggy setting – will you make you long for the glamour of a long-gone London.
Collins, a photojournalist first and foremost, clearly had a great appreciation for the everyday, the banal and the uneventful. His photographs are of people like us: a woman watching a parade and clutching an old fashioned Marks & Spencer’s carrier bag, children gawping over comics at a market stall.
There are photos of Londoners doing what Londoners do best, of men and women waiting for a bus, queued up in a way that only the British can. There are the crowds protesting against the Vietnam War, but in an orderly fashion, or the woman at Speakers’ Corner raging against the world. There’s a housewife inspecting the catch of the day at Billingsgate while the traders look on with good humour, or the couple embracing at a party in Soho while another man and woman look on rather dismissively. And outside London, my favourite shot of the display: a quartet of pensioners spread out on the stony beach at Brighton, identifiably uncomfortable but clearly determined to get the most from the sunshine.
Unremarkable scenes, but with a simple generosity about them, and certainly more informative than the dozens of camera phone selfies we focus on snapping today. Catch it while you can.
Observing the Crowd: Photographs by Bob Collins
Museum of London, free, until 13 July