London lives

Max Hamilton, Laka Enke Bayr, Mongolia, 2010

Londoners come from anywhere and everywhere. Once you move here, you become a Londoner whether you came here from Surrey or Sudan. With the world coming to London for the Olympic games, The Photographers’ Gallery decided to commission a series of portraits of Londoners for a public art exhibition called The World in London. The aim was to find and photograph a Londoner from each of the 204 countries sending a team to the Olympics. They almost managed it; there are two or three places from which no Londoners have yet been found: American Samoa is one, Nauru another (there may be more that I’ve forgotten about), but the exhibition lives up to its title.

Mary McCartney, Lord Paul Swaraj, India, 2009

With each portrait made by a different photographer/artist each of whom was given free rein to make the picture as they choose, this is a diverse body of work. The sitters come not just from (almost) all the countries in the world but from all walks of life too and the result is a fascinating portrait of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. There is that inevitable people-watching fascination in browsing the pictures and seeing people in their homes, work places or elsewhere in London and the project website allows us to satisfy some of our curiosity about the people with audio and video interviews as well as statements from the photographers about the process of making the images.

Veronique Rolland-Snezana, Lukka-Biesek, Russia, 2011

Though the subjects of the images are all Londoners, some of those who made the pictures are not – though many, possibly most, are – which is perhaps appropriate given that the Olypmics are in part about the world paying us a visit. This is a project that’s very clearly driven by a simple but powerful idea and in a way that could easily overshadow the images, but the pictures are fascinating not just in terms of their subject matter and it’s an exhibition that can easily stand a couple of viewings (indeed, it’s on display in two locations with rather different approaches taken to showing the work but that’s for another post maybe).

Andres Serrano, Alexander McQueen, 2009

Though many of the subjects are very ordinary people, there are exceptions with perhaps the most striking being the picture of a Londoner born in Britain, and not just in Britain but in London. The picture is made by the American artist Andres Serrano, probably the most famous of the photographers involved with the project, and is of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen. There’s a low key, contemplative quality to this picture that it’s easy to read far too much into given McQueen’s subsequent suicide. Ultimately though this is a picture that represents London well: McQueen was a life-long Londoner and someone who, from a very ordinary background, took advantage of the opportunities afforded by art and design education in this city, made the most of his own talent and became one of the world’s best known fashion designers.

Dennis Morris, Judith Craig Morency-Nalus Afrykah-Amaya Morency-Nalus, Haiti, 2011

In the aftermath of the bombings that immediately followed the announcement that London had won the Olympics in 2005, a poster campaign was produced by the office of the Mayor of London, then Ken Livingston, bearing the slogan ‘Seven million Londoners, one London’. In a very different way, this body of work expresses a similar sentiment.

The World in London was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery and can be seen at  Victoria Park, London E3 until 12 August 2012 and in the windows of Park House, 453-497 Oxford Street, W1C until 30 August 2012

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