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Picadilly at Night, 1960, Bob Collins (c) Estate of Bob Collins

London Nights at the Museum of London

22 May 2018 Suzanne Frost

Every evening, as darkness falls, London is transformed, from the bright-lit glittering West End to lurking shadows in dimly lit corners in the outer reaches of the city. The Museum of London is paying homage to the nocturnal metropolis through an exhibition of photography, both historical and contemporary, to truly shine a light into every corner of London nightlife.

Bringing together over 200 photographs from the museum’s own extensive collection and a number of loans, the exhibition is divided into three sections:

Glass lantern slide of the Embankment at Chelsea photographed at night made by Mercie Lack (c) Museum of London

London Illuminated takes a closer look at how artificial lights transform the aesthetic of the city after dark, allowing it to ‘stay awake’ after the sun went down.  Journeying through the centuries, this section showcases early work from pioneering photographer Paul Martin capturing a gas lit 1836 London to floodlit landmarks of classic postcard scenes and tourist imagery, that depict the romanticism and glamour of a glittering Piccadilly Circus or the shimmering skyline of slick high risers. Whilst astronaut Tim Peake shot the illuminated city twinkling from outer space, Chloe Dewe Mathews’s video installation offers gorgeous moving images of shifting lights dancing on the River Thames.

From the series 'Dark City' by William Eckersley © William Eckersley 2011

But London isn’t all sparkle and glamour. It was very important for Curator Anna Sparham to include the “darker, more uncomfortable” side of the capital as well as the bright lights of the West End. Dark Matters explores the murkier corners, examining how darkness evokes feelings of threat, isolation and vulnerability, both real and imagined. Eerie deserted car parks in outer boroughs, cold lights from completely empty corporate office blocks and the warm illuminated living rooms of suburbia are images familiar to all Londoners. Legendary mid-century artist Bill Brandt photographed homeless men gathered in a night shelter at Blackfriars in the years before World War One and underground shelters during the Blitz. Perceptions of danger are explored in the provocative series Dialogue with a Rapist by 70s feminist artist Alexis Hunter.

London: A Modern Project, 1995, Rut Blees Luxemburg (c) Rut Blees Luxemburg

Royal College of Art tutor Rut Bleet Luxemburg’s A Grief From Elsewhere shows a large scale zoom onto a suspicious liquid on a street suggesting anything from spilled drinks to human waste to a crime scene, proving how it is our imagination that creates unease in darkness. Luxemburg’s modern perspective of the urban landscape has been immortalised as the album cover of The Streets Original Pirate Material, an iconic image which opens the entire exhibition.

On the Night Bus, #34, 2014, Photograph by Nick Turpin from 'Through a Glass Darkly', (c) Nick Turpin All Rights Reserved

The last section Switch On Switch Off chronicles the way we work, rest and play after dark, shining a light on the night workers, cleaners taking over deserted office blocks, night nurses, 24/7 grocery stores and late shift employees. Chris Shaw’s 1993 series Life as a Night Porter shows the mysterious activities in a hotel at night. The commute, such a big part of every Londoner’s life, is given a central spot with contemporary street photographer Nick Turpin’s work On the Night Bus, depicting people going home at night shot through the blurred windows of London buses. There is a sense of voyeurism and surveillance but also freedom and revelations: the night is the playground of subcultures, of course, the darkness offering a sense of liberty to graffiti artists, Soho strippers, the queer and the costumed, portrayed in Damien Frost’s series Night Flowers. London’s buzzing club scene is represented with photographs of the legendary electronic music club Fabric shot by Sarah Ginn, who documented the nightlife at the venue for 8 years. The final image of the still heaving dancefloor was taken at 5am, ending the visitor’s walk through London’s night at dawn.

Fabric, 2017, Sarah Ginn (c) Museum of London

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of talks exploring further the many faces of the city at night but for a full nocturnal experience we recommend going to one of the Lates; the museum is open after-hours every Friday night.
 
London Nights will run at the Museum of London from 11 May - 11 November.
 
 

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