Best Photographic Books On London
There are now so many volumes of photographs of London it’s hard to know where to start. I tend to avoid books of the staple shots that crop up again and again, and go for something with more of an individual point of view. A number of picture libraries have released their photographs, and these make for good volumes. Nobody buys them for the text, which is just as well with ‘Retro London’ by Lucinda Gosling, a fascinating collection of pictures marred by banal writing that fails to address any of the questions thrown up by the photographs. Even the captions are dubious. Still, here you’ll find shots of buildings long since torn down (including the stunning Edgware Metropolitan Music Hall, ripped down to build a flyover) and plenty of nightclub flyers and posters. All of these shots come from that book.
One thing you notice in all these collections is just how unattractive ‘society London’ (ie the landowning class) were in photographs; endless arrangements of thyroidal, gawky, toothsome, inbred or just plain ugly revellers line up for the unflattering camera flash. Compare them to shots of laughing working class Londoners and children and you get quite a clear idea of who got the ability to behave naturally. Volumes of wartime photographs tend to be separated out into a separate sub-genre, and most of the general collections are divided into obvious sections like leisure, street life, sports, royal occasions and so on. For me, the ceremonial occasions are far less interesting than the street scenes taken without pomp or posing.
Some of the shots are clearly staged, and when we think about bad Photoshopping now, that has nothing on some of the handpainted nightmares that made it into newspapers of the times. If you’re more interested in London architecture, ‘One Thousand And One Buildings of London’ by Reynolds and Davis remains the book choice of London geeks. The monochrome photographs are taken front-on and come with captions that attractively make them look like cigarette cards, and the writing is informative and interesting.
Metzger’s’ ‘London In The Sixties’ and Slater’s ‘People In London focus on faces and fashions of the times rather than buildings, and both have shots I’ve never seen before. Once again I should recommend Taschen’s immense and exhaustive ‘London’ as the one indispensable volume (if you can lift it), and Phillip Davies’ superb ‘Panoramas of Lost London’ as an invaluable reference source especially for writers, or for anyone seeking to recapture the sense of the past.