Monday, April 26, 2010

Photography and the Spirit of the City

Wandering around Central London, one often comes across a piece of unique architecture and might wonder as to when aand why it was built. Such buildings can be left stranded amongst new ones without any clue to their original identity.

An exhibition of photographs at the Royal Academy of Art are mostly from the late 19'th century, black and white prints, records of buildings that once stood but were later destroyed or of buildings that still stand albeit in different circumstances. These old originals are accompanied by lengthy captions written at the time by Alfred Marks, Honorary Secretary of the Royal Academy at the time, and give a historical background to the old buildings. Above them hang modern colour photographs by a Michael Doherty yet these are captionless and one does not know exactly when they were made; it is possible however, to see that these contemporary images relate to the black and whites below creating an interesting juxtaposition that spans over 100 years.

Of the two dozen black and white images in the exhibition, one of old houses in Holborn stands out because they do not look so old then as they do now! This is a result of restoration work carried out, particularly in 1937, when a tudorised oak frontage and lead windows were installed to give an "olde London" look. A similar development can be seen in  photographs of St. Bartholemew's Church where in about 1877, the likely year when most of these old photographs were made, the church had quite a basic front which was later given a much more ornate facade while the gravestones were cleared to make way for a green. Another photograph of the same church again shows more ornate window frames being added while surrounding buildings have been destroyed.

Some of the images are of buildings that no longer exist and hence are interesting and informative records. A photograph made in College Street appear to show a street that had been straightened yet in fact, the area was badly bombed during the Second World War and so the whole area has been rebuilt including the church that was modelled on the previous one, making these two images appear recognisably the same. Another example of the way the camera innocently records yet the mind of man distorts according to his preconceptions.

What if anything does this exhibition signify for the photographer of the present generation? Perhaps it is the reminder that photography does have a role to play, this old collection was made of buildings under threat, and with time passing, the images it conjures up can be of interest and value in understanding the ever-changing world in which we live as well as exuding the charm of the past.

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