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Electric Avenue: a special photo essay curated by the NS

Tate Britain has collated pictures of London by foreign photographers from 1930 to 1980. Our photography editor Rebecca McClelland asked a new generation of artists to reinterpret the images and capture the city today. With an introduction by Sukhdev Sand

Click to see the photo essay fullscreen. Vintage photographs from Tate’s “Another London”. Contemporary images by Daido Moriyama, Alex Webb, Aaron Schuman, Jan Stradtmann, Noemie Goudal, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Mishka Henner and Richard Mosse.

Introduction: Electric avenues by Sukhdev Sandhu

When it comes to looking at London all photographers are – or should aspire to be – foreigners. Long-term inhabitants tend to be cursed with hereditary vision: thinking they belong to the city, knowing how they fit into it, presuming they can walk through the streets of their parish blindfolded (chuggers, muggers and Olympics camera crews notwithstanding), they become wedded to their own pantheons of signs and wonders. Often they are more dedicated to bemoaning the fading away (or violent erasure) of the metropolis in which they grew up than being alert to new emergences and insurgencies.

Foreigners have their own blinkers. Maybe schoolteachers presented them with crusty old syllabi peddling ye-olde-Londons. Perhaps all they’re after is jubilee, tea at Claridge’s, a glimpse of royalty. And demotic London also has its canon. With pop culture’s metabolism speeding up all the time, new arrivals are likely to have been lured not just by magazine images and film stills of Carnaby Street in 1966, but of King’s Road in 1976 or Hoxton Square in 1996. It is common to find Brazilian backpackers schlepping through Shoreditch with copies of Banksy Locations and Tours in hand. Fantasy creates its own lenses. It wields a galvanic power.

Yet foreigners tend to exhaust the limits of their preconceived Londons soon enough. The vast corpus of writing about the city is full of sad-eyed stories whose narrators recount how they were stared at, gulled, chased down side streets, told in no uncertain terms they didn’t belong. The nature of their gaze shifts: where once they saw the city as a series of vistas, panoramas and tableaux, now the act of looking becomes more about survival: they scan faces for signs of hostility, try to make sense of road signs and bus routes, wonder if that strange person glancing at them is from Immigration. The gap between the city they expected to find and the one they encounter creates a new space marked by suspicion and edgy hermeneutics.

Foreigners need not hail from abroad. They may just as easily be refugees from the suburbs, the exurbs, the provinces. A National Express coach ticket can be a passport to a new life. But all outsiders know they can’t take anything for granted. They tilt, track, zoom in on micro-particulars and nano-epiphenomena: they want to fit in, divine the codes granting access to the club. The fragmentation they experience – Tube stops that refuse to align with postcodes, the nebulous correlation between clothing and social class, the opacity of accents – instils in them frustration and a resolution: keep looking, keep learning.

All of the photographers featured in Tate Britain’s “Another London” show were, at one time or another, foreigners. Eve Arnold, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, George Rodger: these are some of the best-known names of the last century. For some, the capital was a gig, just another commission before they moved on to Paris, Cairo, Peking, New York. This mobility and flexibility suggests that photographers, like contemporary sportsmen or finance executives, are global citizens.

Certainly, the likes of Emil Otto Hoppé, an Edwardian-era near-aristocrat who worked for Deutsche Bank upon moving to London in 1902, represents the kind of foreigner of whom politicians and business leaders approve today. Yet would those fleeing dictatorship or persecution – such as Konigsberg-born Dorothy Bohm (born 1924), who went on to co-found the Photographers’ Gallery – be guaranteed entry? What of James Barnor (born 1929), who started out in Accra, in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), as a photojournalist for the South African magazine Drumbefore moving to the UK to work at a colour processing plant: would that job be seen as prestigious enough to get him a visa?

London offered them a limitless palette: shadows, fog, street markets teeming with chancers straight out of Bartholomew Fair, glamour and grot, cobbled streets and sylvan heaths and ancient waterways. It was a theatre whose inhabitants they saw as Beckettian outcasts, selffashioning exotica and eccentrics. They noticed things the locals didn’t: the angle at which they wore the hats on their heads, their gaits, the almost biblical quality of light piercing through the grimy windows of a Soho boozer.

“Another London” showcases not just vivid, resonant work, but the role of urban photographers in rendering the quotidian strange and making the apparently banal come alive. Mar - kéta Luskacová’s transformation of Bethnal Green into a Slavic shtetl, Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon’s vision of young punks as street kabuki performers, Lutz Dille’s uncanny ability to capture the fag-break informality of the city – these acts of looking and framing are gifts to London that reconfigure, if only for an instant, their viewers’ sense of place and metropolitan identity. These image-makers boost its visual economy as surely as other foreigners have sustained other parts of its economy.

Spanning half a century between 1930 and 1980, the photographs were taken during what, by today’s standards, was an era of visual austerity. In 21st-century London, even before the Olympics turned it into a siege compound, cameras are everywhere – buses, airports, internet cafés, aerial drones – scrutinising, monitoring, thermal-imaging. If it’s not the British version of homeland security on the lookout for infidels and terrorists, then it’s the data hounds at Google, local authorities trying to lure the middle classes into rough-and-tumble neighbourhoods by installing CCTV, a stream of graphicdesign and street-fashion bloggers.

Almost everyone with a mobile phone now has the means to take pictures. Londoners, long accustomed to being photographed without their permission, can not only reverse-gaze, not only capture moments and realities that may otherwise elude professional snappers, but – and this is unprecedented – circulate and develop audiences for those images. Is this satiety damaging London?

The photographers the New Statesman has commissioned don’t seem to think so. They move through its housing estates, puddled backstreets and togged-up Olympic torch parades in search of seductive geometries, resistance through new rituals, strange brio, brittle poetry. This search for London’s mysteries and its otherness will – and must –never die.

Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of “Night Haunts: a Journey Through the London Night” (Verso, £7.99). “Another London” is at Tate Britain until 16 September

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue