London Nights was an exhibition at the Museum of London during autumn 2018. It is an exploration of the character of the city after dark, under artificial light, and the way in which people interact with it. The exhibition, like the catalogue (Sparham 2018) is organised in three sections, titled ‘London Illuminated’, ‘Dark Matters’ and ‘Switch On, Switch Off’.
In keeping with the night-time theme, the ambient lighting was turned down to a minimum, mainly relying on reflected light from the illumination of the exhibits.
‘London Illuminated’ is primarily a set of record images of buildings and scenes under artificial light, some floodlit and some with the buildings’ own window lights and advertising displays. Prints in this section date from some of the oldest experiments (Paul Martin’s London by Gaslight series, which won a RPS gold medal in 1896) to recent work (David George’s Hackney by Night series, 2015). With the exception of the most recent images, these are shot on monochrome film (presumably for technical reasons, allowing greater sensitivity without concern for colour shifts) and it is fascinating to see how similar they are in ‘look’. Of course, the subject matter changes with time but the character of the image is set by the illumination.
‘Dark Matters’ deals with darker material, both literally and metaphorically. According to the wall notes, night is ‘when the imagination comes out to play’. This section ranges from documentary to conceptual images, and is mainly presented as series rather than individual prints. The documentary material includes Bill Brandt’s pictures of the streets and shelters of London during the Blitz, Bert Hardy’s Life in the Elephant (Picture Post 1948) and Tom Hunter’s Living in Hell and Other Stories (2005). A more surreal take is Brain Griffin’s London at Night (1986), using long exposures, lens flare etc. to tell of a fictional nuclear attack. Alexis Hunter’s 1978 sequence Dialogue with the Rapist uses constructed images and layering to re-tell an autobiographical incident.
‘Switch On, Switch Off’ deals with the transition from the ‘normal’ working day to night-time (of, course the symbolic analogy only really works during the winter). It shows us commuters on their way home (including Nick Turpin’s beautiful Night Bus images) and office cleaners starting their night’s work. It also shows us the night-time economy of clubs and their denizens, prostitutes and vandals.
This was an exhibition that did what it said on the tin, and in a thought-provoking way.
Sparham, A. (2018) London Nights. London: Hoxton Mini Press.