Under London — Photos of London Underground in the 1980's

Some snapshots from another time and place… or maybe a love letter to The Tube. When I lived in London back in the mid-late 1980’s I haunted the Tube (London Underground) with my first camera, taking photos of the surreal combination of industrial-grade decrepitude, early Twentieth-Century mechanical and electrical engineering, and Dickensian characters. These are some of the images I took back then that I’ve recently (re)scanned. They’re mostly black and white, and they’re all pretty poor technically (I had a lot to learn, and taking photos in the Underground wasn’t exactly easy given the terrible light and the laws); editing has been kept to a minimum.

Two places stand out all these decades later: Angel (Islington) station and Camden Town station. Camden because as a Northern Line commuter I spent countless hours on the platforms there waiting for a High Barnet or Mill Hill East train to Highgate (I lived in Muswell Hill) having just switched from an Edgware train, and because Camden at ground level was one of the centres of my non-work life back then (the markets! Dingwalls! Camden chippie! Chalk Farm Road! Etc.…). So I had a lot of time to contemplate the weird colors and the cabling and the grime, etc., as I stood there waiting for yet another delayed High Barnet train.

And getting from ground level to the platforms at Camden — or vice versa — back then when London Underground’s escalators were so often broken or under maintenance (and always overcrowded) could be problematic, and I (along with hundreds of other people) used to often take the old clanking metal spiral staircase down. Hence the grainy pix here, trying not very successfully to capture the experience with a hand-held SLR and high speed film. I had some weird and troubling encounters on these stairs over the years…

And Angel Underground… my fave Underground haunt, with especially friendly rats and staff (the latter really indulged me — thanks guys from thirty-five years later!). Angel’s odd geometry fascinated me — the weird shape or sizes of the openings at each end of the very narrow platform, for example, spoke to some ad hoc engineering here and there and some interesting track and platform realignments over the decades — and the combination of shiny brass fixtures and solid signs and bannisters cheek by jowl with extensive mould and crumbling tunnel interiors really did it for me. Angel was deep underground, and you had to take lifts (elevators) rather than escalators to get to and from the platforms; this was done through a warren of weirdly-angled and signed pedestrian tunnels and flights of stairs and openings that I never quite captured on film either.

One time I brought my small tripod into the Underground, one weekday evening, and just shot away, trying hard to ignore the (not very many) people around me and successfully fighting my terrible self-consciousness. It worked; all the sharpest Angel photos in the gallery are from that evening. That’s also the evening, I think, when a youngish train guard looked at me taking a photo as he was standing there at his door, and said with a mock offended tone “you can’t do that! It’s not allowed to take photos on the Underground!” He looked friendly, so just as he’s closing the doors I turned and pointed my camera at him and tried to take a photo. He grinned and posed like a model, pouting away at me. But I realised as I tried to take the photo that it’s the end of the roll — there’s no more film. I miss one of the photos of a lifetime as the train disappears off down the platform, the guard waving ironically….

But it wasn’t just Angel and Camden — the entire system was overcrowded, outdated, and semi-permanently broken, infested with rats, bad behaviour, etc., with people putting up with it with British understatement and forbearance. I couldn’t begin to capture all that with my little camera, but I did try, every now and then…

Just one mostly Northern Line person’s view of a long-gone workaday time and place… I probably have a lot more, but this’ll do.

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