Mayhew had already spent time in Paris, and his work characterises the emerging world of the metropolis, fuelled by the industrial revolution and industrial exploitation and fed by the movement of people from countryside to town, from the Old World to the New. This was fertile ground for the artists and illustrators of the day; and as the new century loomed there were photographers waiting in the wings who shared many of the pre-occupations of the fin de siècle cultural environment. Photographers followed in the footsteps of the light-obsessed Impressionists and, as side effect, freed the avant-garde from the straightjacket of the figurative.
Photography first approached the urban environment with specific points of focus. Cities were generators of nostalgia, as well-loved street patterns and streetscapes were sacrificed to modernity. Cities were magnets for close observers of the human condition, where disparate groups and classes were brought into uncomfortable proximity. And cities offered an unequalled range of subjects to curious journalists, sociologists and photographers, not least in Mayhew’s ecosphere of characters and crooks; and not least as the streets were surrendered to the denizens of the night.
By 1878 electric street lighting was appearing in Paris and London and by the turn of the century was widespread in the developed world. Increased luminance coupled with technical improvements brought photographic imagery of beauty, mood and mystery: wet streets, reflected light and ominous shadows. Drama was implicit in pictorial narratives as photographers explored the nocturnal world: back alleys, cafes, music halls, the breath of subversion, the hint of the illicit, the whiff of simmering sexuality. Nothing drew the voyeuristic middle classes like the fringes of the night. Nothing appealed more to the salacious consumer than the demimonde. And nothing appealed more to the adrenaline-seeking urbanista than the mean and dangerous streets.
Even the architecturally-inclined Eugene Atget was tempted by Paris at night. He was followed by a whole interwar generation, when Paris was a multicultural hub of artistic innovation. Where Man Ray led and Bill Brandt followed. Where Brassai immortalised Montparnasse and the Left Bank. And from where the fascination for metropolitan grit spread to the streets of London, New York and Chicago and to the prophets and the celebrants of urban decay - fitting succesors to Henry Mayhew.
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