Crawling my way through the thicket of chuntering HGVs and humming black-cabs, my attempts to traverse central London by bus this muggy Thursday morning were futile. With Trafalgar Square yet to be reassembled after recent protests I felt it only appropriate to brave the weather and plod along to The Photographers’ Gallery on foot. Taking on such treaturious tasks as skipping murky puddles and dodging the spray of the very bus I had just disembarked meant I was to be late to my destination. Though I would not fret, for my diversion would see me skirting the very neighbourhood to which this exhibition is dedicated.
In all of its history, Soho has stood firmly distinct from its neighbours oh-so bogged down by gentrification and an institutionalised view of ‘the Other’ more compatible with commercialisation on an industrial scale. Remaining synonymous with acceptance and hosting a healthy mix of migrant communities, Soho is what Milton Keynes could never force through committee – it is multicultural Britain concentrate; a bastion for the unpredictable and the disobedient that managed to keep its operatic motif. Although infamously seedy gentlemen’s clubs may have long departed in favour of family-focused restaurants and tourists’ night-tours, Soho’s position as the heart of unbridled creativity remains. However, to think of Soho as unwavering or eternal is to neglect the issues that make Shot in Soho such a timely exhibition. Namely, the development of Crossrail 2 at Tottenham Court Road and the skepticism that surrounds its possible effects on an area historically ignored by non-locals.
Shot in Soho leads the viewer by the hand through what could be described as a Soho ‘greatest hits’. Curators Julian Rodriguez and Karen McQuaid present a comprehensive chronology of the last fifty years through extensive study of commissioned reportage like Kelvin Brodie’s Soho Observed for The Times and Anders Petersen’s revisited Soho. These glossy monochrome collections are objective snapshots of real Soho lives but they can find it difficult to distinguish between the photographers’ presumptions and the actual lived experience of those photographed. Brodie pokes his lens into the private sphere of a police bus to peer at a distressed woman physically restrained – his body of work valuable in its own right for embracing the perspective of authoritative observer. Petersen made his way back to Soho in 2011 to produce a body of work cut from the same cloth. The historical weight of ‘golden-age’ style photojournalism precedes the content of the work itself and exemplifies the problematic nature of the camera’s gaze.
Much the same but from a different approach is French-American William Klein’s candid colour view of eighties Soho for the Sunday Times. Klein forgets any sense of self-importance when he takes to the streets and in doing so finds humour in the everyday. Klein’s work reads like the Martin Parr of the inner-city.
I’m thankful for Rodriguez and McQuaid’s inclusion of the intimately autobiographical Corinne Day with a collection of her works shot in her Brewer Street home/studio. Day’s visual rebuke of contemporary editorial fashion photography led her to create some of the most emotionally provocative imagery of this collection and shows an individual response to Soho as a space for creatives. Alongside Clancy Gebler Davies’ The Colony Room Club these photographs provide the intimate familiarity and emotional trust needed to round off Shot in Soho.
Soho’s historical and cultural depth is immeasurable and celebrating this unique pocket of society at a time of such uncertainty is exactly why spaces like The Photographers’ Gallery impart so much value. You can be critical of the historical implications of privileged gaze and try to relive the fleeting joy captured in much of Day’s portraits, but you should also take the time to sit and appreciate that whatever your idea of Soho is there will be something there to surprise you.
Shot in Soho is open from 18 October 2019 to 9 February 2020 at The Photographers’ Gallery.
Joe Burrows studies Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at LCC and is an editor of London Photography Diary. While primarily identifying as a documentary photographer, he has begun producing written content for London Photography Diary and other online and print publications. He is currently developing a long term photographic project exploring the social impacts of the UK energy transition.