Shafts of sunlight slant into a dark room, filled with men drinking glasses of beer.
It could be a characteristic British interior from any time over the past few centuries, yet one detail dates it: Some of the drinkers at the bar are sporting hats.
I’m describing “Gaston Berlemont’s Pub, the French House, Soho, London,” a picture taken by Willy Ronis in 1955. It’s one of the items in “Another London: International Photographers Capture London Life 1930-1980” at Tate Britain.
The show, a timely diversion for weary Olympics fans, is an intriguing series of attempts to record a city that is as elusive as it is familiar. The image of London in photography (and painting too) is less sharp than that of, say, Paris or New York, partly for a visual reason: the light.
For much of the period covered by this show London was frequently swathed in Victorian fog. It’s still often softly overcast.
Some of these photographers -- Laure Albin-Guillot in the 1930s, Robert Frank in 1951 -- are still recording the same mysteriously misty metropolis that Monet, Turner and Whistler had painted in the previous century. On the other hand, many of the images in the exhibition, for example Ronis’s atmospheric shot of Soho drinkers, could have been taken yesterday, except for a few details. But the details make all the difference.
Physically, at least, London hasn’t changed that much in half a century, hugely less than, say, Beijing. Many of the locations of these photographs -- such as the French pub, a favorite watering hole of Bohemian Londoners -- are still there. Those shifting details, though, make all the difference.
The title of Rene Groebli’s “Tram on Westminster Bridge” (1949) makes the point. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the bridge itself are much the same 63 years later, yet the tram -- and the near absence of traffic -- make it seem like a picture of a vanished world.
There were, of course, big alterations to the fabric of the city, particularly those caused by the bombing in World War II. There’s scarcely a building standing in the foreground of “View From St. Paul’s Cathedral, August 1942” by Wolfgang Suschitzky.
The really important transformations were probably the social ones. Bill Brandt, an Anglo-German photographer, said in 1948 that over only a decade and a half London had changed so much that his photographs of the 1930s now had “the period charm almost of another century.” Many of the Londoners in the earlier photographs on show could be Victorians.
Come to think of it, the eccentric elderly trio in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Coronation of George VI, 12th May 1937” must have spent half their lives in the reign of Queen Victoria.
There were big social changes in the half-century between 1930 and 1980. Brandt thought that the extreme divisions between rich and poor he caught in his work of the 1930s, such as “Housewife, Bethnal Green” (1937), were disappearing after World War II (though they may be returning, nowadays).
The photographs of the 1960s and 1970s by Ghanaian-born James Barnor capture an increasingly ethnically diverse population.
Maybe the biggest metamorphosis is one of mood. Mid-century London was a beautiful but melancholy place, grimy and battered. It was an ex-imperial capital in decline. In 21st-century London, despite the economic crisis and the riots, that doesn’t seem true anymore. Big Ben, St. Paul’s and the Thames still may look much the same, yet the feeling is dynamic, not elegiac.
“Another London: International Photographers Capture London Life 1930-1980” is at Tate Britain, London, through Sept. 16. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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