Stumbling into London’s Square Mile – the heart of the powerful financial district – you could lose your way within minutes. Public streets blur into private forecourts. Seductive passages become corporate cul-de-sacs of soaring glass, steel and stone. Much of the new City architecture has a preening bravado. These are offices built to look great in photographs. Each new London landmark is launched on a wave of computer generated anticipation, reducing the public city to publicity. But in the end a city is not its buildings, it is its people and there is something salutary in the way Londoners fail to live up, or down, to the cosmetic gloss of their surroundings. Whether or not we wish to, we just don’t mirror these facades.
To a newcomer the City looks impenetrable, like an oiled machine with a hidden logic. City folk might seem coolly efficient but it’s an illusion. Look again and many of them seem out of their element, as if caught between one air-conditioned sanctuary and the next. These are not employees ‘on message’. There is doubt and indecision in their gestures. Others are not dressed for the office at all but residents from the housing estates.
Something of the essence of the City is visible here: the telling gap between official power and the lived experience of flesh and blood. This is a modern England bathed in a light more typical of American street photography. There is no long lens involved. The City teems with people, but selecting just one can feel unbearably intimate. As a locus of power this place voyeur in us, and this is part of the appeal. To look, or more accurately to watch without being seen is a part of what defines metropolitan life. But these photographs are looking for some measure of humanity. To be a voyeur is not always anti-social. It can be very different from the cold gaze of the ubiquitous surveillance camera or the miscreant, more guardian angel than opportunist gazer. CCTV catches every second of every day in the high security Square Mile but it misses the things that really matter.
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