At the northern end of London Road is the historical landmark St George’s Circus. At the southern end lies the famous Elephant & Castle roundabout, as well as the original entrance to the Underground Station which previously housed the head offices of the South London Press. ‘Portrait of a London Road: 1904, 1975, 2019’ is a new exhibition of photography documenting Elephant and Castle’s London Road at three points in its history – revealing not just a road but a community facing change.  

Presented by the UAL Photography and Archive Research Centre at London College of Communication, the exhibition centres on a remarkable set of recently-discovered archival photographs from 1975, taken from a project by former London College of Printing lecturer Bruce Rae and London College of Printing student Mick Hales. The works celebrate the ‘urge to document’ as well as the importance to re-evaluate documentation of an area and community that is constantly changing.

In 1975, Elephant and Castle’s London Road had a range of homes and independent businesses: pubs, book shops, a cash and carry, an ice cream parlour, cafes, ironmongers and newsagents. There were no chain stores that were becoming a fixture on the British high street at the time. Bruce Rae documented the people behind the businesses of London, photographing owners, workers and families outside their shop fronts – a series celebrating a community in situ on the verge of significant change.

Rae was a photography lecturer at London College of Communication (then called London College of Printing) in 1975, 13 years after the College had relocated to Elephant and Castle. His image series was produced over six weeks during a transitional phase for British photography and photographic education. Photography at the College was taught from the top of the Tower Block and undergoing a change from tutors from a largely commercial background to more documentary-based photographers. Rae’s series survives as one of the first in a long line of curious and challenging College-led documents of Elephant & Castle, including Paul Reas’ 2012 study ‘From a Distance’ and ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ (an annual project run between 2004-12 led by LCC’s MA Photojournalism and Documentary course).

‘Portrait of a London Road: 1904, 1975, 2019’ presents these images alongside a series of photos of London Road in 1904 – originally made as a record for surveyors building the Northern Line extension, and the inspiration for Rae’s project.

The 1904 series was made by Ernest Miller, one of several surveyors photographing the road following the opening of the Northern Line. But his survey images had the accidental effect of recording and documenting the businesses (and occasionally people) on the road of the time. In 1904 these included a coffee palace, newsagents, ironmongers, tea stores, furnishers, photography studios, a pub, a bakery, tailors, butchers, jewellers, watchmaker, cheesemonger, and a chemist.

The exhibition brings together these historic documentations of London Road with contemporary colour photographs of London Road today, taken by photographer, and curator of the London College of Communication History Project, Robin Christian.

London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle, SE1 6SB from November 4th – January 15th. Times: 11am – 4pm. Admission: Free. 

Free Curator Tours: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/portrait-of-a-london-road-1904-1975-2019-curator-tours-tickets-73929865217

Photos: Bruce Rae