London: Portrait of a City
Samuel Johnson famously said “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Equally as renowned for its stellar contemporary art scene as its museums bursting with Old Master treasures, storied nightlife, exciting culinary scene and architectural landmarks, London has long been one of our favourite cities and we could not be more excited to visit in a few weeks. In anticipation, a great friend sent us a copy of Reuel Golden’s London: Portrait of a City, which beautifully captures the history, people and zeitgeist of this inimitable place through photographs while also offering a captivating illustrated history of many of the defining moments of the 20th century.
Portrait of a City includes an encyclopedic and fascinating range of imagery embracing historical documentation, photojournalism, fashion photography, portraits, architectural studies and contemporary art; each picture seems to have been chosen for its descriptive power and its ability to reveal something of the history and story of this vibrant place and its people. The feel of London as a glamorous, fast-paced world capital is perfectly captured by fashion photographer Norman Parkinson’s image of a model by a street light that forms the book’s cover – the blur of red, yellow and white forming an abstract band of colour behind her is instantly recognizable as the double-decker bus that trolls the city. The “stiff upper lip” for which the British are so renowned is portrayed in Bill Brandt’s image of Londoners sleeping in the Elephant & Castle tube station during the war in 1942, as well a picture of the kitchen staff of the Grosvenor Hotel in Park Lane stoically preparing dinner wearing gas masks during an air raid in 1940, by an anonymous photographer.
Events that drew the world together are poignantly represented in a photograph of innumerable people swarming Trafalgar square on Victory Day, May 8, 1945 and also in Peter Turnley’s aerial shot of the incredible outpouring of grief upon the death of Princess Diana outside Kensington Palace with a literal flood of flowers. The people of London certainly add to its mystique, and portraits of recognizable cultural figures synonymous with the city add to its aura of edge – Mick Jagger with his defiant gaze and signature pouty lips, the Beatles with their mop top haircuts, through to designer Alexander McQueen, artist Tracey Emin, model Kate Moss, and songstress Amy Winehouse all grace these pages. But what’s most remarkable is the unchanging nature of the city itself, the recognizable architecture and monuments that have survived two wars unchanged and have seen horse drawn carriages replaced by cars.
Covering more than 175 dizzying years in images, Portrait of a City is usefully divided into chapters with introductory essays translated in English, French and German that offer a worthwhile overview of the major developments of the era: The Monster City (1837-1901) describes the city’s expansive growth; Modern Times (1902 – 1938) tells the story of the continued modernization of the capital and its increasing liberation from Victorian constraints as well as political upheaval; The Consequences of War (1939-1959) offers incredible photographs of survival in a city besieged by war; The Party and the Morning After (1960-1981) captures the singular cultural moment of Swinging London, marrying cutting-edge music, fashion, art, drugs and social liberation, as well as the rise of the Labour Party; and New Perspectives looks at the years from 1982 through to the 2012 Olympics.
The captions that accompany the imagery situate you in the city and offer historical context – for example, a black and white shot of men tearing down a fence by the side of the street turns out not to be an act of vandalism but men ripping down fencing to be repurposed for ammunition. Although there are some truly remarkable photographs by unnamed artists in this book, not surprisingly many great photographers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have used London as both subject and setting including Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Norman Parkinson, Irving Penn, William Henry Fox Talbot, Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans, all of whom are represented. Portrait of a City is as much a history of London as of the changing nature of photography in general.
London: Portrait of a City is an epic photographic tribute to the unique character of this capital and is literally a treasure trove of imagery that will be fascinating for historians and sociologists, pop culture buffs and photography fans alike. Taschen has delivered similar treatments to Los Angeles, New York and Paris – a great way to delve deeply into any of these meccas for both natives and the uninitiated.