Tuesday, January 4, 2011

After a Portrait off the Lines of Desire, Regent Street in the Sales by the London Archaeologist

It had seemed simple. Go to Regent Street, set up a tripod down one side street after another, photographing the thick paste of pedestrians smudging across the field of vision at its end, occasionally pick out a fleeting face, perhaps with the help of flash.

These plans rarely come off.

I’d long meant to work the street into a post, as a famous first in town planning, beautiful, successful, frightening. Part of the beauty lay in the elegant ensemble linking the new Regent’s Park to the North down to St James’s in the South, with two cleverly handled corners, a kink and the famous curve making picturesque sense of obstructions on the way.

More significant, perhaps, was its other success, the street intended to separate the grime, crime and grind of Soho from the developing Mayfair, forming a barrier to movement, a firewall which, by discouraging the hoi polloi, has managed to this day to see to it that the newer area to the West would remain the most exclusive in London, pompously impressive and, however busy, always dogged by funereal pall.

Soon copied on an enormous scale in the Paris of Haussmann, this first step in a rationalised town planning process has now become only one weapon in a panoply, going under one of the science’s most evocative terms – because what I’d hoped to photograph at work was the phenomenon of the original planned-in ‘line of desire’. A phenomenon originating from informally formed paths across, for instance, grass, and perhaps extending to the internet, to routes between sites, a quick search revealing the term to have generated much traffic of its own, a site dedicated to their sightings perhaps a-plot, with the increasing planning demands of the growing metropoles, someone at some point had to learn to harness its forces for control, and that man was Nash.

If the city’s security forces can use this, clocking citizens as suspect for the simple fact of their having strayed from the more frequented thoroughfare, so surely could the blogger seeking to get a handle on the other forces at work in the city. Through this contrast in these shots, I’d be able to capture in the empty spaces some of what it is that eludes us, bringing us a step further, surely, to pinning down the subject of this blog.

But of course, arriving on site, almost nowhere could such a clear demarcation be found, and when it did seem to show itself, it lacked the expected significance. Clearly activity was much more dense on Regent than the surrounding streets, but the line was blurred, the differences indistinct and, unpredictable, not terribly telling, people forever wandering off down side streets, individually for a rest or to make a call or in couples or groups, to gather thoughts, cuddle, take stock, look at maps, even frequently in vast numbers, endless flows spilling off from the major lines into further others.

At some point, though, as I moved among these formless flows, nevertheless trying to make some sort of sense of it, it occurred to me that there might perhaps be another sort of contrast than that with the quiet side street. A sort of island in the constant movement would frequently occur, and this almost exclusively on the side streets, in the form of smokers, alone, grouped, standing, leaning against a wall, sitting on a step, squatting. Little friendships build up this way, one can see, among people who might usually find no bond between them other than these moments of chilly respite from the hectic activity of the offices or shops indoors, or the rush of pedestrians out-. This evocative sight, unintended consequence of the new smoking laws, was perhaps what would after all furnish something of the contrast I’d set out for, not in any way absolute, but, relative and vague, all the stronger for its instability.

Of course this sort of thinking’s photographic, and would come to nothing without shots. Such shots being almost of necessity portraits, I would have, of course, to approach, and, in the few minutes it would take their pretext to expire, elicit their complicity.

Talking to these people I experienced some of the rare moments when I regret having given up myself, all those years ago. Indeed, I was told by one that he had himself earlier given up, but the Regent Street job had got the better of this, these snatched opportunities too valuable now to forego.

I suspect that the profundity of the pleasure might be related, too, to my own failure to persuade more than a couple to agree to a shot. It’s not that anyone said as much, and the reasons given – because, without wanting to push, I would at least come away with a reason – were surprising for their variety. Some suggested they didn’t want their boss to chance on a posted shot of them, others that they kept their habit secret from absolutely everyone that knew, or felt they knew them. Certainly, when it comes to the big retailers, it proved a general rule that an employee will avoid recourse to a passage next to their own store, but always prefer one up, one down, or across.

Some held that they had something against photographs in general, others only those of themselves. One reason I appreciated, particularly, for its interest, was that she’d in fact given up, really, and a portrait would give her smoking the stamp, the appearance of a reality she’d rather avoid. There were those who were shy or anxious with strangers, and others who clearly didn’t want their colleagues there with them to see them taken for a ride, giving something, be it a mere image of one’s appearance, away to a stranger with nothing in return something of a mug’s game.

But mostly, though no one said it, or even seemed particularly to respond when I offered it as a reason, I suspect that, if the purpose of the moment was withdrawal, release from the hectic transactions of the busiest time of the year on one of the city’s most crowded streets, even in its very midst, to have the lens come rooting around in there on its own agenda would be desecration.

And so the substance of this post is given over to those who, on Regent Street, or mostly off, if only for a moment, cease to engage. The absence of almost all of these is a measure, of their success, certainly, but also perhaps of the blog, at least to have sought, approached what, if unrecordable, may well turn out to have been at the heart of the events considered a city.


  1. i hope that 2011 = lot of posts by the archeologist and the consultant ! and by the way more pubsigns would be welcome !

  2. Thanks! We'll try to keep busy (some posts already in the pipeline), and persuade the Landless Landlord certainly into action, too.