Late on Sunday nights in winter, when most of us are tucked up in bed, Peter Kindersley is to be found prowling London’s back streets with his camera, looking for pictures to add to his series, “Details of London by Night”. He has been at it for four years. “I have a huge map of London on my wall,” he says. “I like to pick out an area I don’t know and drive around it to see what I can find to photograph. I’m looking for a side of London that we don’t normally see. Occasionally I catch sight of something, a view or just the atmosphere of a place, which communicates its loneliness or emptiness.”
His images show an eerily still, almost sculptural city, wrapped in mists and delicate light. Many have a faint tenderness hovering about the edges, a wistfullness beneath the surface which seems to comment on the human condition.
Kindersley, aged 31, is the grandson of the late letter-cutter David Kindersley, who designed the gates for the British Library. He has lived in London for 15 years, and spends his days on commercial and editorial work—he has done shoots ranging from the Army to Neal’s Yard Remedies, as well as portraits and reportage for a number of magazines. But his passion lies in these nocturnal hibernal excursions.
At night, when the light is at its most elastic and pliant, the urban world wears a veil, revealing unexpected outlines and perspectives. Kindersley is not the first to have discovered this. Brassai made a celebrated series of photographs of Paris by night, and Bill Brandt, whose work has been a great influence on Kindersley, published “London at Night” in 1936. But the trick still works. Kindersley’s lens transforms a familiar city into a phantom world with its own mysterious moods.
He is drawn to London’s history: he likes reading Pepys and is fascinated by Hogarth. “I’m always looking out for those run-down old buildings that could have featured in Hogarth’s paintings,” he says. “Modern skyscrapers tend to protrude out of those gritty old back streets in central London. The documenting of that has become an ongoing obsession. It’s a constant reminder of the evolution of the city.”
Tracing the breadth and depth of his chosen neighbourhoods, Kindersley’s unprejudiced eye fixes on angles and views that few of us notice amid the clutter of our daily lives. He gives value to the slightest things, so that a council-estate car park or an ivy-covered trellis becomes as deserving of respect as Tower 42 (the former NatWest tower) or the London Eye. His glimpses are both inviting and sinister.
“Night photographs can bring out things you can’t see with the naked eye,” he says. “London’s night skies in winter can be wonderful, full of light and contrast. These photographs need very long exposures and sometimes the traces of slow moving cloud can give them a strange surreal look.” He prefers not to include people in his photographs, but sometimes, after printing, he discovers somebody in a shot, like the solitary man doing the washing-up in an upstairs room of a house in Blackheath.
The oddities of night light produce an alluring patina of rich luminous browns and milky greys, washed with orange street light. “A place that is bulging and clamouring with people during the day, like Petticoat Lane Market, takes on a magical feeling when shot at night,” Kindersley says. “These are my intimate moments with the city. Each photograph is like a trace of a lost world. ~ JOANNA PITMAN