Giacomo’s London

Readers who have kept wide-awake though my many posts cannot have failed to register a certain coolness towards the London Photographers’ Gallery, though this hasn’t prevented me from being a member since almost its earliest days (though I think my membership has lapsed a couple of times over the years thanks to their administrative incompetence.) The gallery may not be much, but it is more or less all we have, and I live in hope, though not much, that one day it will start caring about photography rather than seeing its role to try to ingratiate itself to an art establishment that really doesn’t want to know.

But that isn’t really what I sat down to write about today. You can read my other posts, for example and to get some idea of my thinking about the Photographers’ Gallery.

Often on my visits to the gallery, the most interesting work is to be found in the bookshop and the print room, and rather than pay your £4 to confirm your feeling that their might be a very good reason why William Burroughs’ photographic work is so little known, that David Lynch is a considerably better “film director, television director, visual artist, musician and occasional actor” (thanks to Google) than a photographer, and that Andy Warhol was better at almost everything else than taking photographs, I’d suggest you go downstairs to the book shop and print room. Because there you will find some interesting photography, Giacomo Brunelli’s Eternal London, a show which continues until 27 April 2014.

Giacomo Brunelli (left) at the book launch

There are around 30 pictures from the series on Brunelli’s web site, along with his other series, The Animals and Animals II, and Self Portraits.  I wrote about his ‘Animals‘ in 2007, and mentioned them again enthusiastically when they were on show at Photofusion in 2011. I still find them exciting. Self Portraits is a series prompted by Lee Friedlander’s famed 1966 image of the photographer’s shadow on the back of a person on a New York street (you can see more of Friedlanders work on ASX here) but Brunelli works through a whole series of changes, some quite amazing in their effect.

Eternal London certainly has its moments, and comes from two years of early morning walks around central London with the old Miranda camera given him by his father with its 50 mm lens, on a commission from the Photographers Gallery. Perhaps there were just a few I felt were too mannered, but overall I think it’s a fine set of work. My favourite image is a woman walking in the rain holding up her umbrella as she approaches Lambeth bridge. As the gallery text says, the mood is very ‘noir’, stills from some mysterious film of suspense.

I was reminded of possibly Bill Brandt’s most curious picture story, ‘The Day That Never Broke‘ published by Picture Post in 1947, (also called ‘The Man Who Found Himself Alone in London’) (1947), a surrealist fable in which a 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 an end it all.  (Incidentally while looking for a link to this image I found a pirated copy on the web of most of my 1999 essay on Brandt in which I mentioned this story.)

Hats are important in Eternal London – in half a dozen of the 31 images

That I also thought of Robert Frank’s pictures from London in 1952-3 has more to do with hats than anything else. By the time I first saw those images around 20 years later thanks to Creative Camera, the hat had largely disappeared from the streets of London. The presence of them in a large proportion of Brunelli’s images is part of what gives his images a period feel, harking back to the black and white films of a previous era.

Frank of course found fog as well, that kind of London peculiar that could be cut with a knife, or rather as the term pea-souper implied, scooped up with a spoon. The near-sihouetted man in a bowler with his umbrella and newspaper behind his back (the third image down on Chasing Light) and shining black shoes seen in rear-view on a mildy foggy street with a Routemaster in the distance is perhaps an archetype of Brunelli’s Eternal London. Though perhaps hard to imagine how the photographer managed to track down so many in streets where the only headgear on normal view apart from policemen’s helmets (perhaps strangely absent) are close-fitting woolly hats.

The book Eternal London, Giacomo Brunelli, published by Dewi Lewis to accompany the show (ISBN 978-1-907893-52-0) is a fine volume, and I think the printing suits the images even better than the handprinted silver gelatin prints available in the Print Room. The images on show (and for sale) are editioned in two sizes, 9.5×12″ and 20×24″ and I think work better on the smaller size. Though around half of the images in the book are printed with a plain verso and would be eminently suitable for framing!

The title ‘Eternal London‘ comes from the Irish poet, author, singer, songwriter, and entertainer Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) who wrote among many other works the words for the Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose of Summer, The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls, Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms, The Meeting of the Waters and many more. Byron on his deathbed made him his literary executor, trusting him with his memoirs – which he burnt at Byron’s family’s pleading. He published a ridiculous number of works, and though born in Ireland and writing and performing many Irish songs spent much of his life in London where he had come to study law at the age of 20.

This is a small extract from his ‘Rhymes on the Road‘ published in a book dedicated to Byron in 1823, and written after Moore had had to leave England and travel on the continent to get away from the country until he could pay back a debt of £6000 following the loss of a court case (the money had been embezzled by one of his servants.)  It’s not as often seems to be assumed a statement of some nostalgic longing to be back there, but actually a curse, a complaint about how, wherever you went to get away from it, even climbing up mountains in foreign lands, you heard people talking about what was happening in the City!

Fancying we leave this world behind,
Such pleasant sounds salute one’s ear
As — ” Baddish news from ‘Change, my dear — ”
The Funds — (phew, curse this ugly hill) — ”
Are lowering fast — (what, higher still ?) — ”
And — (zooks, we ‘re mounting up to heaven !) — ”
Will soon be down to sixty-seven.”

Go where we may — rest where we will,
Eternal London haunts us still.
The trash of Almack’s or Fleet Ditch —
And scarce a pin’s head difference which —
Mixes, though ev’n to Greece we run,
With every rill from Helicon !

Even before everyone was connected to the Internet and carrying a smartphone you couldn’t get away from it!

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