London Street Photography Part 1 by Karen Brammer
London is the capital of England and the United Kingdom and it is considered one of the largest and most important cities in the world.
It saw evidence of early settlers as far back as 6,000 BC and these would have been early hunter gatherers.
London was established very early as a port and trading settlement by the Romans and was known as Londinium and this is how it grew to be one of the largest and important cities in the world.
I have worked in and visited London so many times and have found some amazing places during my times spent there in the big city. Some of the more deserted back streets away from the main drag reveal some amazing places and subjects to photograph.
London for me and I know many others is an amazing city, it’s history, people, the vibrancy and variety, or even when the City is very quiet.
I enjoy the documentary style and candid nature of Street photography, it’s often an unobtrusive look into other people’s worlds as they go about their daily business. I love the unstaged informality of capturing people, architecture, artwork, trees, objects, lifestyles, light, colours, everyday objects that often we pass by and I like to capture them in a slightly different way and concept, which almost I feel repurposes them.
I have been running regular photo walks for a while, there is an irony to that of course when I say photo walk, I mean roll for me as I am a wheelchair user.
Being a wheelchair user and visiting big cities like London, can be very daunting and intimidating as people don’t see you. Their focus is at the height of the person or people walking around them, and often people are glued to their phones or are just oblivious that you are there. I often had people stumble, clatter and knock into me, with a variety of different reactions from embarrassment, concern to anger and blame for me getting in their way.
I feel though, being a wheelchair user has often worked to my advantage as I often have to look at things in a street setting very differently to other people. I have to look out for street furniture, unusual cambers, where dropped kerbs are, vehicles parking on pavements or across dropped kerbs and various other obstacles that most people don’t have to consider.
It does allow me however to notice things at a low level or pavement level, such as quirky drain covers, different types of lights, street art, different textured surfaces, leaves and reflections.
How to get the best out of your Street Photography:
Research the history of the areas that you take photos in. By implementing this type of planning beforehand I believe it allows you to really absorb an area and take in various details and points of interest. By having an understanding of the history of the area, I believe you are then more inclined to see things that will give a narrative to the photos that you take and will engage your audience in a more immersive fashion.
I have tried very hard with my street photography to develop my own unique style. I shoot with a range of Canon cameras, a full frame DSLR, 5D Mark III, cropped sensor Canon 7D and a Mirrorless Canon M3 camera and of course I like many others have resorted to even using the camera on my iPhone.
I tend to use a 50mm or 40mm lens on the DSLR or a wide angle lens such as the 16-35mm or a range of different Lensbaby lenses. Lensbaby.com check on this link to find out a bit more about these amazing lenses.
On the Mirrorless Camera I tend to stick with the kit lens Canon EF-M 18-55mm, which gives you an ideal range for street photography.
I also shoot using film cameras. This means that you are limited with the number of images that you can take, you don’t have the benefit of seeing your images on an LCD screen and I really think it can aid composition and storytelling. I feel you take more time to consider your composition and narrative because you don’t have the immediate feedback or opportunity to check your shot as you would if you were using a Digital camera or your phone camera.
Places to photograph in London:
For Street Photography, London has so much going for it from its stunning architecture, beautiful open spaces and an abundance of people. Okay, before Covid of course when restrictions weren’t in place. I have been fortunate to spend time in London, very early before sunrise when the rest of the City has been asleep, to being there at its absolute peak with people working, shopping and enjoying the public spaces.
One of the reasons I like to take photos away from the main well known areas of London, is simply because I know they exist and because it’s less busy and I feel that I am developing my own style and getting photos that aren’t all mainstream and I’m really showing the diversity that Street Photography has in London.
One of my favourite areas to take photos is Cavendish Square. I used to work in Central London in Cavendish Square which is a busy area surrounded by many different buildings and businesses. I was fortunate enough to work for the Royal College of Nursing, I started off in the main headquarters of the Royal College at No 20 before our London Region office was moved across the square to where the Convent was previously before being converted to offices and the rear of it being used by the Kings Fund Charity.
In the photo above, I can show you the location of my old workplace. Looking from Cavendish Square, my office window was the first window on the second floor on the right hand side nearest the archway/bridge which has the Virgin and Child sculpture. This is known as Deans Mews having previously been a Convent. These buildings incorporate No 11, 12 and 13 Cavendish Square with an interconnecting tunnel, under Dean’s Mews. After damage of the London Blitz the Nuns commissioned an Architect called Louis Osman to restore the building and create a bridge between the two buildings.
Louis Osman, asked for a commission from Jacob Epstein for a Virgin and Child that would “levitate” above the arch and specified that it should be cast in lead which was plentiful at that time from the bombed roofs after the London Blitz of WW2. Epstein’s work was unveiled in 1953. This work is Grade II* listed.
I took the two photos above at different times of the year and with different cameras. The black and white photo was taken during the height of summer, as you can see from the full leaf of the trees and the clothes that the people in the photo are wearing. I used a Canon 5D Mark III Full frame DSLR with a 16-35mm lens for that photo. This gave me a wonderful wide angle shot allowing me to capture more area in that image.
The second photo was taken using a Canon EOS M3 Mirrorless camera with a Canon EF-M 18-55mm lens. The camera is small in size and weight compared to the DSLR range by Canon. I used the Canon EVF-DC1 Electronic Viewfinder as I prefer to look through the viewfinder compared to looking at a screen. The camera works well at low lights and was ideal for Street Photography.
Cavendish Square as I have briefly talked about, is a public garden square in Marylebone in the West End of London. Its northern road forms ends of four streets: Wigmore Street that runs to Portman Square in the much larger Portman Estate to the west, Harley Street, Chandos Street which runs for one block and then Cavendish Place which runs the same. The south side itself is modern, with a rear façade and access to the flagship department store John Lewis and an office block.
The nearest tube stations to Cavendish Square are Oxford Circus, Bond Street and Goodge Street.
Oxford Circus is found 150 metres south east and is where two main shopping streets meet. Only the south is broken by a full-width street, Holles Street which also runs one block only.
Cavendish Square was first developed in 1717 by Edward Lord Harley, Earl of Oxford for his wife Henrietta Cavendish-Holles. It was the first square to be built on the Marleybone Estate north of Oxford Street. Cavendish Square established the pattern of the surrounding streets and their monuments, and a planned relationship with Hanover Square, which is located on the other side of Oxford Street. This is the original plan for the area shown above.
The grandiose facades of some of the houses on the north side of the Square are remnants of a mansion begun in 1720 for the Duke of Chandos. Past residents of the square include Nelson who lived there in 1787. Other people to note are Jane Austen, Sir Jonathan Hutchinson and Herbert Henry Asquith. You can see their blue plaques dotted around the different buildings around the square.
The are a few notable people that are part of the history of Cavendish Square and you will find various blue plaques on buildings around the Square. Photos are courtesy of Google.
The garden was originally a simple circle of grass with sheep grazing upon it. This was then developed into a designed garden by the English garden designer Charles Bridgeman.
Many of the mature trees in the middle of the square were uprooted in the 1960’s to make way for a double-helix underground commercial car park which was built in 1971.
An incredible fact that was always exciting to see was that Cavendish Square was allocated as a place for the Emergency Air Ambulance Helicopter to land. It was always amazing to see the skill and expertise of the helicopter pilots who used to land their Air Ambulances in the square whenever there was a medical incident or accident that required this type of assistance. The precision with which they used to land their helicopters inch perfect was very impressive to see from your office window.
The photos I have included in this gallery were taken just before and after Sunset. These were taken before Covid, and were taken in early Winter, so the days were shorter and these were taken about 4pm in the afternoon. Please click on the images to see a bigger image.
Photo A: is a sight I see very often, someone walking towards me, head down, staring at their phone screen, oblivious to all things going around them and certainly won’t see me in my low level sitting position in my wheelchair.
Photo B: I took this shot from the under the bridge of the old Convent in Deans Mews in the north side of the Square looking south towards Oxford Street. You will notice the more modern buildings in the rear of the photo.
Photo C: is taken on the North side of Cavendish Square on Wigmore Street, not far from the junction of Harley Street. It was taken just as the sun had set and I love the atmosphere created in the low light, and the reflections of the light of street lamps and vehicles on the buildings and railings.
Photo D: is taken on the north side of the square but heading towards where it meets with Regents Street. I love again the lighting and the atmospheric feel this photo has and you can just about spot a Red Routemaster Double Decker Bus in the traffic.
Away from the main shopping areas, there are little alleyways that house some really fabulous places.
I worked in Central London just behind Oxford Street there in Cavendish Square and as much as I loved the busy street, I often sought refuge in the different alleyways and places off the main street which were amazing finds and great for street photography.
Jason Court, off Wigmore Street, London:
This little gem of a restaurant can be found down one of the many small streets off the main roads, this is Jason Court off Wigmore Street.
One of my favourite places is St Christopher’s Place:
St Christopher’s Place is the perfect place to meet up with friends for a drink, something to eat, or a browse around some of the amazing little boutique shops and art galleries.
Lots of the buildings are from the Victorian period including the public conveniences or loos. Like most of the Victorian Conveniences, these are located below street level usually with a decorative railings and a flight of stairs down to them. There is an example of this 2nd and 4th photo below and you will see there is a canopy with St Christopher’s Place written on it.
St Christopher’s Place is an exceptional area, with quiet pedestrianised streets, amazing restaurants, eclectic boutiques encapsulated amongst the strong Victorian influence.
I have included more images in the gallery below to show you the variety and vibrancy of the area.
People watching, themselves, real sign of the times. St Christophers Place:
However, it wasn’t always such a vibrant, desirable area was originally known as Barrett’s Court named after the owner John Barrett. In the 18th Century and early 19th Century the area became a slum, situated off Tyburn Street, now Oxford Street, which lead directly to the Tyburn Gallows at Marble Arch.
West End and Oxford Street:
Oxford Street is infamous throughout the world for being everyone’s High Street for shopping. It consists of over 300 different shops, with some of the biggest flagship stores being located there.
The photos in the gallery below were taken on Oxford Street and in store in Selfridges. The selection of images that I have chosen, I feel represent quite a few familiar scenes that are iconic or specific to London itself.
There are a lot of characters in London and nothing seems really to appear out of the ordinary. I saw this man riding his tricycle complete with panniers through a very busy section of Oxford Street. What struck me was the very direct and intense look he gave me. Making eye contact in the way drew me to take his photo and connect with him. I like the jaunty angle of his old fashioned bike helmet, and the panniers on the front of the tricycle.
The second image is off course of the infamous Red London Routemaster Bus, again I took this as the bus driver had made eye contact with me. I felt I didn’t need to photograph the whole of the bus, just the main cab and the driver was enough.
I love some of the boardings and the artwork that often cover them be that intentional such as the two in the photos below or whether it’s a well known street artist like Banksy or Kai or even just an unknown graffiti artist. In the two photos I have taken I have tried to make it look like the passersbys were actually part of the artwork on the boardings.
Shop windows are really something to view in Oxford Street as there are so many flagship stores for so many large companies. I particularly was drawn to the Selfridge Window and it really appealed, the colours, lighting, and the food displayed. I also like the reflections on the glass of the window as well.
The last photo in the gallery was taken in Selfridges itself at one of the many bars and eateries found in there. I love the low light and simplicity of this photo.
History of Oxford Street:
As I have already mentioned, Oxford Street was previously known as Tyburn Road and this had a very dark history compared with today’s fashionable, vibrant shopping destination.
The road name Tyburn Road no longer exists in London, but previously there had a been a village near the current location of Marble Arch, called Tyburn. It is believed to have taken its name from part of the Thames, a tributary. The Doomsday book does have Tyburn recorded in it. The roads leading to the village were known as Tyburn Road and Tyburn Lane, today they are known as Oxford Street and Park Lane respectively.
The significance of the village of Tyburn was evident up until 1783. It served as London’s primary place of Execution. As part of the criminal justice system, public displays of execution were normal and designed as a way of creating fear of retribution.
On the day of execution, those condemned to be executed were brought to Tyburn from Newgate Prison. As part of the public display, they had to endure a 2 mile procession, they went through London itself, via Holburn, St Giles and then to Tyburn Road to what was known as the Tyburn Tree, this was actually set of Gallows, in a triangular design purpose built to conduct multiple executions.
Marble Arch is a Monument found in the North East corner of Hyde Park where it meets Oxford Street. It was designed by John Nash and is located near Speakers Corner in Hyde Park where it converges with Oxford Street. As I have mentioned this part of the area previously was the site for public executions and all that remains of that darker side of history is the plaque you see above stating where the site of the Tyburn Tree was which wasn’t a tree but a set of triangular Gallows.
The photos above show the elegance and stunning architectural design of Marble Arch, it is a popular place for people to came and socialise and has it’s own little square with access to Hyde Park and Oxford Street and Park Lane.
Marble Arch wasn’t always in its current location, in fact it used to be in front of Buckingham Palace.
There have been additions made to the Arch and these were the Central Gates that were added whilst it was still in position as the Gateway to Buckingham Palace. The Arch itself was completed in 1833 and the Central Gates were added in 1837, just in time for Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne.
It provided a formal gateway to Buckingham Palace for seventeen years.
In 1850 the decision was taken to move the Arch to its current location of Cumberland Gate where it would form a grand entrance to Hyde Park in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Incredibly the Arch was moved stone by stone and rebuilding of the Arch was overseen by architect Thomas Cubitt who completed the process in just three months.
it also changed the name of the area from Tyburn to Marble Arch.
Marble Arch as its name kind of suggests is made of marble, known as Carrara Marble.
Marble Arch is a great place to meet up with friends with lots of seating areas and cafes and restaurants nearby too if you want to grab a snack or coffee and eat al fresco in a lovely location. It has its own Tube Station as well.
I hope that I have been able to provide you with a interesting insight into Street Photography. As I have mentioned, knowing the areas, the history, points of interest, will all add narratives to your photos. try and create your own style whether that’s by using a particular lens, a particular angle or getting off the beaten track and finding some of those less well known areas.
Practically be prepared to ensure you have warm clothing, spare batteries or a portable battery charger for your phone, spare card. Remember on cold days your batteries will work harder and so you may end up running out of battery sooner.
Enjoy what you are doing, people watch, look for the small details, the unusual, vibrant patterns or colours, reflections. Make eye contact with people but don’t hold a stare for too long, just enough to engage them.
Look at what’s in the background of your photo. If you want to tell a story about a city such as London, then you can also include things that people immediately identify as being a typical london things, such as a Black Cab, a Boris Bike, Red Double Decker, an Underground sign.
Just enjoy getting to know the area you are in, take time to watch people, what’s happening around you, try taking photos at different times of the day, or when there are public events taking place.
I will be posting up more blogs about some of the other areas in London I have taken photographs of, but for now if you have enjoyed this or would like to know anymore, leave a comment below.