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Vintage Portraits of London Street Markets

17-July-2012
17-July-2012 0:00
in Photography
by Peter Berthoud

In 1936 a Bauhaus master turned his attention to London Street Markets.

László Moholy-Nagy provided 64 superb images for Mary Benedetta's book "The Street Markets of London".

He photographed 17 different markets, from Covent Garden to Choumert Road and Brixton to Berwick Street. The Caledonian Market and Petticoat Lane are especially well covered.

The book features images from: Petticoat Lane, Farringdon Street, Berwick Street, Caledonian Market, Brixton, Choumert Road, North End Road, Covent Garden, Berwick Street, Kentish Town, Shepherd's Bush, Camden Town, North Road, Hilmerton Road, Commercial Road, Brick Lane and Billingsgate.

Very few of Moholy-Nagy's images from this series have ever been published on the net. Some of my favourite images from the gallery and the full text of Moholy-Nagy's foreword to the book follow. You can view the full set on my Facebook page. 

Covent Garden: Waiting for a bargain
Covent Garden: Waiting for a bargain

Brick Lane: Second-hand? No but they might be third-hand  North Road:
Brick Lane: Second-hand? No but they might be third-hand

North Road: “A nice, kind face”
North Road: "A nice, kind face"

Hilmerton Road: Cheap face towels
Hilmerton Road: Cheap face towels

Camden Town: Music on a home-made instrument
Camden Town: Music on a home-made instrument

Caledonian Market: The old farmer comes to town  Commercial Road: Stall for housewives Commercial Road: Stall for housewives
Caledonian Market: The old farmer comes to town

Commercial Road: Stall for housewives
Commercial Road: Stall for housewives

Petticoat Lane: The Glass Man’s burly auctioneer  Covent Garden: A rest from shelling peas Covent Garden: A rest from shelling peas
Petticoat Lane: The Glass Man's burly auctioneer

Covent Garden: A rest from shelling peas
Covent Garden: A rest from shelling peas

Brixton: Another sort of rabbit man
Brixton: Another sort of rabbit man

Shepherd's Bush: The Medicine Man
Shepherd's Bush: The Medicine Man

North End Road: A character study
North End Road: A character study
 
Choumert Road:
Choumert Road: "I only got one cat"

Farringdon Street:
Farringdon Street: "There is one tragic figure in the group"

Kentish Town:
Kentish Town: "We 'ave a salad barrel as well..."

Foreword to The Street Markets of London (1936)

THE Photographer can scarcely find a more fascinating task than that of providing a pictorial record of modern city life. London’s street markets present him with an opportunity of this kind. It is not, however, a task to which the purely aesthetic principle of pictorial composition - which many readers may expect in my work - can be applied, for from its very nature it requires the use of the pictorial sequence and thus of a more effective technique approximating to that of the film. I am convinced that the days of the merely “beautiful” photograph are numbered and that we shall be increasingly interested in providing a truthful record of objectively determined fact.

To many peoples’ minds the street market still suggests romantic notions of showmen, unorganised trade, bargains and the sale of stolen goods. The photographic report can either encourage or correct these ideas. I consider the latter to be the more important task, since in my opinion these markets are primarily to be regarded as a social necessity, the shopping-centres in fact, for a large part of the working-class.

The subject is a vast one, comprising problems of history, sociology, economics and town planning. It is approached in this book by means of literary and impressionistic photo-reportage. This method of studying a fragment of present-day reality from a social and economic point of view has a wide general appeal. The text provides considerable opportunities for this study and it was my aim to underline these opportunities through the pictorial record.

For those interested in the technical aspects of photography I should add that as a rule I prefer to work with a large camera in order to obtain the minutely graded black-white-grey photo-values of the contact print, impossible to achieve in enlargements. But unfortunately the large camera is much too clumsy for taking rapid shots without being observed. The whole street immediately crowds around the photographer, the natural life of the scene is paralysed and the characteristic features of the traders, their happy-go-lucky behaviour, their elementary actor’s skill, their impetuosity, are lost.

Thus after several attempts with a large camera I always returned to the Leica, with which one can work rapidly, unobserved and even in the London atmosphere, or in interiors - with a reliable degree of precision. I hope, therefore, that many a defect incompatible with the standard of photographic quality I have so often demanded in theory will be condoned by the reader, in view of the rapid and unprepared fixation of lively scenes that could never have been posed.

L. MOHOLY-NAGY.

All of the images come from The Street Markets of London by Mary Benedetta, Photography by L.Moholy-Nagy, Published by John Miles London, 1936. Copies are available from around £50 on Abe and Amazon.

See more images in this Facebook album
 

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