On and off, for over thirty years, Andy Hall has aimed his camera at The City of London
My adult life began at the end of the 70’s, more or less in line with the beginning of Neo-liberalism, which over the last 40 years has come to dominate, with such an uncompromising grip, the way our countries – and our lives – are run. Global Financial centres, such as Wall Street, and the City of London’s historic financial district, known as the Square Mile, were at the very heart of these world-wide changes; where the rules were ripped up and drawn again to favour the free marketeers. When I first went to live on my own, I studied at the City of London Polytechnic, positioned on the very edge of the City of London, in Aldgate. I got to know the City and it’s environs well – the edges of it, neglected, much of it, decrepit and dirty.
Similarily, my life as a professional photographer began very soon after Thatcher’s de-regulation of the City, known as the Big Bang in 1986, which heralded the ever-crazier boom-and-bust cycles that have been happening there ever since.
… my life as a professional photographer began very soon after Thatcher’s deregulation of the City, known as the Big Bang in 1986
My father was a journalist, and I wanted to follow his footsteps into the world of newspapers and magazines, but as a photojournalist I got my break in 1987 when I had the opportunity to work on a regular basis for the Financial Trade Magazines based in the City, such as the Financial Advisor and the Investors Chronicle. Their test for me before I could get onto their books was to produce a set of photos depicting daily life in the City’s Square Mile area.
I quickly became fascinated with the Square Mile after walking the streets of an area where so much was changing; where I could get photos of city gents still in top hats while I walked around the neo-classical facades of the Bank of England and wandered the nooks and crannies of Gresham street, Leadenhall Market and the Guildhall; at the same time trying to capture the energy of the “new” money barrow boys in and around the trading floors of the exchanges and brand new developments like the NatWest Tower, the Lloyds building and Broadgate.
The 1980’s, with it’s monetary policies, were a volatile time in the City, where the financial dealings came back to slap the city-boys in the face. The stock market crash of October 1987 took everyone by surprise and I found myself commissioned to take pictures on Black Monday of shocked-looking brokers and traders on the floor of the Stock Exchange, surrounded by discarded paper slips.
There were rich pickings for me in my early days as a photographer as I followed one shyster fraudster after another; in and out of office entrances and inevitably to the Old-Bailey and other crown courts. Scandals such as Barlow-Clowes, Polly Peck and Barings played themselves out on the streets of the City as the less scrupulous followed the less regulated.
Whilst Black Monday and the banking crisis of the late 1980’s gave way to Black Wednesday and the (ERM) currency crisis that hit the City in the early 1990’s, I was now working for national and international publications like the Observer and travelling a lot and, apart from covering the odd IRA bomb going off, I spent less and less time in the City of London.
Coming back as a street photographer
I started going back to the City of London after 2008, aiming my camera at the fall-out issues following the biggest financial crash of the post-war era. But while all of us out in the real economy suffered, the actual financial centre itself underwent a huge construction boom, and as with so many other economic crisis, this latest bust never hit share prices. Instead, money kept on pouring into big developments all over the Square Mile, and with the politicians from all sides in favour of ever – bigger skyscrapers, new glass palaces to corporate capitalism have been springing up all over the city in the last 10-15 years – with names like the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheese-Grater.
When I started going back to the area on a regular basis – this time as a street photographer rather than a photojournalist – I would sometimes get lost, unable to recognise the landmarks I became familiar with back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Nowadays, I love nothing more than hitting the streets with my one, small camera body and lens, pitting my wits against the human activity around me. I try at the same time to look towards graphic, strongly-lit scenes – pockets of light, and light reflections from windows hitting walls and pavements below, as figures, shadows and silhouettes mingle with each other in the streets.
There’s another thing that has changed in the Square Mile – The erosion of public space. Public spaces have been bought up by companies that own the new developments that have sprung up. It’s every street photographer’s hazard as he/she has to stand there explaining themselves, itching to get away for fear of missing some serendipitous scene playing itself out somewhere nearby. Being told you aren’t allowed to take pictures in a privately owned area is frustrating when you see city workers and tourists waving their phones about and capturing themselves and everything around them without any fuss.
They say nothing stands still in the City – this most dynamic of places. But although the financial centre has largely danced to its own tune, despite everything that has been happening in the real world as a result of the City’s own boom and bust ways, things are now happening to the City of London that it cannot control. It survived the Banking crisis of 2008 and maybe Brexit won’t hit as hard, but the Covid crisis and lockdown has accelerated trends that have been unfolding for some time.
Nowadays I love nothing more than hitting the streets with my one small camera body and lens, pitting my wits against the human activity around me.
The swanky bars and restaurants that were once banking halls and trading floors, and the luxury apartments built alongside the glass skyscrapers (making the city look more like downtown Houston) during the construction boom of the 2000’s, might soon be mostly empty as supply still exceeds demand. Increasing use of digital technology means there is a long-term reduction in people going to work, with the devastating effect that has on the service sector that relies on all those city workers. This potential unravelling of urban life, means that the glass palaces of corporate capitalism are hollowing out. They are becoming white elephants.
As I walk around this summer, the Square Mile increasingly feels to me like it’s in a coma caused by Covid. And with people still staying away, working from home, will it ever wake up? No doubt the City will re-invent itself somehow, but while I don’t miss its dysfunctional behaviour, I do miss its busy streets.