City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Close to the Madding Crowd

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A few months back, out on a Saturday afternoon, I noticed a large crowd gather around the pedestrian-resistant base of Centre Point, the skyscraper at the end of Oxford Street which separates Bloomsbury from St. Giles.

Turns out, from overheard conversations amongst the crowd, that a stuntman was going to jump off the top on to a smallish pile of landing mats. I couldn’t really see to the top of the tower, though every now and then some figures appeared to look down. It soon became clear that nothing was happening any time soon, but what became interesting was the crowd itself, looking up

The crowd was a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a sense. The more people gathered and looked upwards, the more that people gathered and looked upwards. The lack of information about the event barely mattered; indeed, the mystery may have added to the latent drama in the occasion. At first glance, could we be sure it wasn’t a suicide? Yes, having seen the landing mats. But then what was it?

It was late summer, late afternoon, and the low sun reflected off the glass of the surrounding buildings, a blue-yellow tint offered by the skyscraper itself. This lent the light a vaguely cinematic quality. An odd light can create an odd mood.

Lots of people were taking photos on their cameraphones and digital cameras, craning necks to see the action. There wasn’t any, and another overheard rumour was that it wasn’t going to happen for hours. But still people looked up, and still, more people gathered to look up. The desire to record the moment seemed overwhelming, cameras everywhere, even given the lack of action.

The perennial residents of the Centre Point subway – homeless people and a drunken overspill from nearby St. Giles, inexorably lured by centuries-old psychogeography – didn’t seem too perturbed by the sudden inhabitation of their space. It meant there was a crowd to work, if nothing else.

The area itself generally lends an air of drama to any proceedings, poised as it is atop layers of particularly vivid history. Peter Ackroyd, in his London: The Biography [Amazon UK|US], describes St. Giles as “the crossroads between time and eternity”. It’s been a place for crowds to gather to view individual folly for centuries – this had been a key part of the route of condemned prisoners from the City to the Tyburn public hangings, from 1196 to 1783. Offenders would be led in an open cart from Newgate prison, through Holborn and up to exactly this part of central London, before moving on to their journey’s end at Tyburn, thought to be roughly Connaught Square. From Ackroyd:

“‘Execution Day’ was Monday. Those about to be hanged were taken in an open cart from Newgate, generally attended by a huge and enthusiastic crowd … Ferdinand de Saussure, in A Foreign View of England, noted some eighteenth century criminals ‘going to their death perfectly unconcerned, others so impenitent that they fill themselves full of liquor and mock at those who are repentant’. At the church of St. Giles-in-the-Field the malefactors were ritually handed jugs of ale. After the prisoners had quenched their thirst, the procession moved forward down Broad St. Giles, into Oxford Street, and on to Tyburn itself.” [London: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd, p.193, Amazon UK|US]

I can hardly claim that this crowd watching this relatively harmless spectacle directly relates to earlier London crowds gathering in exactly the same spot for a rather more grotesque spectacle, but was it just an entirely coincidental resonance? A crowd gathering to watch an individual’s fall? Perhaps the particular character of the infamous London crowd – the ‘mobocracy’ – was visible here?

Ackroyd suggests that the crowd is the “actual condition of London itself”, sudden flares whose oxygen is whispered news, rumour and speculation, the more scandalous and salacious the better. This crowd gathered to see a fall, and not necessarily a successful one. Previous versions of the crowd would have been rowdier but the images of events would’ve been as transient as the crowd itself, now conjured only in the mind via the accounts collated by Ackroyd and others. This latest crowd was generally good-natured in character, despite its charged air of expectation, but possessed an astonishing capability for capturing, processing and disseminating images itself. Spectacle captured and distributed. Perhaps we can still learn a lot about London from observing the characteristics of its crowds.

Below, a selection of thumbnails – click for more. Here’s the full set of photos I took:

Two girls looking up, dark foreground, architecture and Mercury backdrop Two looking up from traffic island, crowd backdrop Two lads looking up, baseball caps, t-shirts Man looking up, friend not Two kids looking up, father's arm Two girls looking up, shading eyes Girl looking up, girl looking at crowd, from bus, blurred Boy looking at photographer Boy looking up with baseball cap and tracksuit top with Max Mara backdrop Bloke yawning, some looking up Man looking up preparing cameraphone shot Man looking up, concerned, Media Air backdrop Man looking up against 'Buses on diversion' sign Girl looking up with blue t-shirt Two looking up, girl craning neck Man looking up with drooping cigarette in front of G.A.Y Woman left holding the baby Two looking up, heads cropped Rayban cameraman looking up Man looking up from security of traffic island with 'Office' shop in background Tatooed man on bike looking at crowd Man looking up through rolled-up paper telescope Three looking up wearing mirrored shades Bus conductor and passenger looking up, in different directions

Quick note on the photos themselves …
As soon as I got a digital camera, years ago, it changed the way I took photos. The portability enabled a real freedom of movement (cf. Dogme’s adoption of DV camera enabling unprecedented mobility) and the LCD screen enabled a quick editing process directly after capture, enabling an immediate disposability of unwanted images. Combined with the lack of processing costs, this encouraged a scattershot approach to photography.

I can walk through crowds literally shooting from the hip, generally surreptitiously and therefore not looking through the viewfinder at the point of capture. Then a quick glance at the screen will indicate whether it’s worth keeping or whether to try again. You can get right in amongst the crowd in this way: taking a bath of multitude, as Baudelaire might’ve said if he was wandering around Centre Point with a Digital Ixus too. I enjoy this accidental framing technique, building a fair bit of chance into the process. The angles are often interesting too, the intimacy requiring a sharp trajectory, distorting the subject against a backdrop of architecture meeting sky. OK, it’s hardly John Cage in terms of progressing aleatoric compositional techniques – again, I’m ‘editing’ very quickly after the capture. But ‘good photos’, whatever that means, seem to mean even more through this process. There’s some kinda magic about grabbing this, or this, or this, or this when it’s accidental – it’s not me, it’s the camera.

(Oh, related: I found this nice Timo Arnall montage of Centre Point while Googling around. And this account of Centre Point’s development indicates drama in even the building’s history. Personally, I think it’s a fine looking building, but even the value of the architecture is contested.)

Centre Point photo album: Photos of a London crowd gathering


6 responses to “Close to the Madding Crowd”

  1. K. Avatar

    I’ve always wondered about taking pictures of other people in public. So you didn’t ask for permission to photograph any of those people?


  2. Dan Avatar

    No I didn’t ask … Almost certainly not 100% ethical (though there is a long tradition of street photography in cities where the subject wouldn’t ever be asked) but I’ve always thought that I’d remove any pictures if asked, no problem. Be interested to see what people think about this …


  3. K. Avatar

    there is a long tradition of street photography in cities where the subject wouldn’t ever be asked
    Right, so I can feel less guilty about snapping impromptu shots of people. I’m just always a little afraid they’ll notice and march over to beat me up.


  4. Dan Avatar

    Well, I feel a bit guilty still! I’m not exactly Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand … and I’m sure that there are huge ethical debates within professional photography about this.
    I’m more worried about that than getting beaten up – the nice thing about digital cameras is that you can be so discreet and unobtrusive, as I mentioned earlier. It hasn’t happened yet, anyway 😉
    But I also feel slightly more comfortable taking pictures of a crowd in the middle of a major city centre – something about being on display and public when you’re in the city.


  5. K. Avatar

    Well, Tottenham Court Road is my territory too, so if you keep this up I might just see my own face here. If I see someone being furtive with a digital camera in a crowd, I’ll wave. 🙂


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