"Street photography has become so accessible and popular over the last few years" explains Mike Seaborne, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London, 'if people are interested in it now, then they would be interested in the history, as it essentially hasn't changed - it is still that element of chance, surprise and the unknown; the photographers are not in a studio, so they can't control what is going on.'
London Street Photography at the Museum of London (until 4 September 2011) details five periods of London's history in photographs: The Origins of Street Photography 1860-1889, Metropolis in Motion 1890-1929, Observing the Street 1930-1945, Capturing the Street 1946-1979 and Reclaiming the Street 1980-2010.
'Photographers cannot help but be influenced by their surroundings and tell the story of their time' says Seaborne. At the turn of the nineteenth century, as camera speeds and size changed, so did the subject matter; images became more spontaneous and people were caught off guard, unlike images taken with longer exposures and the large format cameras used by photographers previously. With the launch of magazines such as Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post in the 1930's, London street photography gained purpose and throughout the war documented people going about their daily lives, feeding the pigeons or grocery shopping. Also documenting the darker side of life throughout the Blitz and the struggles of London's people, it attempted to hold a critical mirror up to British society.
In the Post-war period it became clear that there was a sense of urgency to capture the disappearing London - as traditional ways of life were changed forever by reconstruction of bombed-out working class areas and American cultural influences, landscapes and aspirations took hold. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s wider social and cultural struggles were exposed and community projects were set up to make photography accessible to the working classes, including projects by photographers Henry Grant (1907-2004) and Paul Trevor (b.1947), and documented the structured shifts taking place in society.
The final section, Reclaiming the Street, brings the exhibition up to date and shows the shift towards a more conceptual look towards street photography as the art world has been embraced. The public has a heightened visual awareness with more images being captured than ever before, as photography is democratised further with the widespread use of camera-phones.
Sally Ashley-Cound is a photographer and the author of visual arts blog LookSeeNow.