It’s hard to think of a city without people. In 1947, Picture
Post published one of its most unusual features, ‘The Day
that Never Broke’ with text and captions by Bill Brandt.
In this surrealist fablea man wakes up to find himself totally alone in
a London enmeshed in fog; he gets on his bicycle and cycles to the river
to throw himself in and end it all.
We can feel there are too many people to treat as people. Alienation
is one aspect of the city, but so too are the communal activities that
keep life running. Here, they are explicit in the images of street markets,
and the games that people play together, whether engaged in a picnic in
the park, a ritualistic clash between police and demonstrators, or an
Peter Marshall writes that it is hard to think of a city without people, which it certainly is. But is it as hard to make a picture of a city without people? For many artists over the centuries, the answer is yes: a picture of a city means a picture of crowds, human interaction, voices, meetings, hustle and bustle. Yet some of the most arresting depictions of London are those where the human presence is invisible: the empty street; the derelict factory: the night-time city occupied only by ghosts and shadows. Some artists might decide that people are in fact an optional extra in the task of depicting a city. The essential element, from this point of view, is the urban landscape: the buildings, streets, squares and colour of the buses. It is these that convey a sense of place, and without them the people have no meaning as city-dwellers. A picture of a group of people doesn’t become a picture of Paris until the artist places the Eiffel Tower in the background. Substitute the London Eye and it becomes a picture of London.
The notion that people are optional is reinforced by the fact that
people are becoming less place-specific than they used to be.
Globalisation is smoothing over former differences in dress and
ethnicity, at least in the developed world. Every Western city has
an ethnically mixed population who all look and dress, more or
less alike. In the 18th century French and Spanish visitors to
Nevertheless, for most artists, cities and people go together naturally as the yin and yang of urban living. And the theme of ‘City People’ has proved a stimulating one for the London Arts Café artists who offer a wide spectrum of works in response. Dorian Aroyo and Chris Francis give us portraits, where the individual looms large. Aroyo’s John Waters becomes a theatrical mask, filling the frame and deflecting attention away from any (perhaps more boring) background – a familiar coping-strategy for city-life, perhaps. Francis’s sitter is more keen to open up his interior to the viewer’s gaze. We are invited to look into his bathroom cabinet and inspect his medecines – another familiar coping-strategy for urban stresses and strains.
By contrast, several of the works here place individuals wholly within their city – surroundings, sometimes to such a degree that subject and background merge. Martin Fiddler’s Market Traders have been absorbed into their busy world. So too have Panama Campbell’s dancers, albeit more lyrically. In Mary King’s view of the New Dehli station crowd, the vibrantly dressed people make up the whole of the city, creating a swirling, sensory world. By contrast, people have been so completely overwhelmed by their surroundings in Camilla Newbegin’s claustrophobic metropolis, as to be completely invisible.
Perhaps inevitably, many of the London people seen here are in transit, moving through the landscape with various degrees of ease or angst. Imogen Perkin’s tube passengers seem to be sitting calmly and serenely. Or are they? In Jiro Osuga’s Running after a Bus tension is explicit. This captures such a familiar London moment: a small story of rise and fall, hope and disappointment, effort and non-result as the red bus draws away into the distance. This small work also could be said to contain the paradox of the individual’s relationship with the city. Machines and systems are supposed make the city run smoothly and serve human happiness: yet they so often seem to have a malevolent life of their own.
Paradoxes of a more place-specific kind are nicely observed in the photographs of Paul Baldesare and Peter Marshall. Marshall’s image of a cricket match played on St Stephen‘s Green, is rich in puzzles. Cricket is the national game, and the Palace of Westminster is a national icon, yet what exactly is happening here? Here the people add a very large element of surreal subversiveness, which is so typical of London. The city’s surreal edge and rampant individualism is also caught in Paul Baldesare’s photograph of Borough Market, where the figures manage to be both part of a London crowd, yet living in separate worlds.
Sophie Levi’s Picnic on Primrose Hill
is at first sight more
As Celina Fox points out in the introduction to her 1987 book Londoners, artists who depict city people seldom set out ‘simply to mirror society’. Even those more concerned with documentary reportage, express in their work their own personal visions and desires. In the end the works in this exhibition say as much about the people who produced them as the citizens they show. But in a world where all of us are to some degree urbanites, whether we like it or not, the theme of ‘city people’ applies as much to the artists exhibiting here as well as their work. This, then, is an exhibition about city people by city people.
1 Oct - 26 Oct 2007 more