Before The Olympic Veneer, Photos Of The Real London

A new exhibit of London street photography documents 200 years in the ancient metropolis. New York tags along.

This week, millions of eyes are trained on London as it hosts the 2012 Olympics. But the London we’ll see on television–and in a few lucky cases, in person–will be a carefully edited version of the real metropolis, populated by brand-new buildings and staged photo ops. Oh, and a staged fight between Mary Poppins and Lord Voldemort. You know, just typical London stuff.


For a more candid look at the 2,000-year-old metropolis, New Yorkers can head to the Museum of the City of New York, where a new exhibition of street photography shows London in all its gritty glory. London Street Photography collects the work of fifty photographers, who lived and worked between 1860 and 2010. The show is on loan from the Museum of London, where it was the most popular temporary exhibit in the museum’s history. “What better time then for New Yorkers to be able to glimpse into the everyday lives of Londoners from 1860 to the present day?” asks London Museum director David Spence.

The London depicted in the exhibition is vibrant and fractious, populated by Victorian-era riffraff and striving capitalists alike. John Thomson, the Scotsman who pioneered photojournalism in the late 19th century, captures a city torn between booming industry and crushing poverty. More contemporary images depict a metropolis more akin to the London of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition–a futuristic capital of street fashion and art, vibrant with immigrant culture.

Not to be outdone by our older colonial ancestors, the Museum’s curators have staged a companion show, City Scenes: Highlights of New York Street Photography, to run alongside the London exhibit. “By presenting images from New York’s streets alongside street photography from its English sister city, we’re giving visitors a unique opportunity to compare the ways in which both great cities have evolved since the 19th century,” explains City Museum director Susan Henshaw Jones. There are old standards here (Paul Strand’s Wall Street, 1915), as well as recent classics from Peter Hujar and Joel Meyerowitz, who documented a pre-Giuliani Manhattan vastly different from the city we know today.

New York and London, seen through this lens, look like scrappy brothers, striving for survival. It’s a different angle from the pristine Anglophilic vision Olympic organizers might hope for, but it’s got a lot more soul.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.