Views from the top deck: A photography project conducted on London buses reveals a fresh side to city life
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Saturday 10 November 2012
Top Deck tells the story of life in a city over the course of two years, as seen entirely from inside east London's buses. A collaboration by the photographers Will Robson-Scott and James Pearson-Howes, it is a love-note to the capital, capturing the cultural variety and rugged beauty of the place in which they were both born and raised. Shooting from a bus, Robson-Scott explains, "you can show the diversity… a route like the 149 goes through the City that is full of bankers and hedgefund managers. Then, within half an hour, you're in Tottenham, known for its crime and social problems".
The project came about by chance. The photographers – both in their late twenties – had been friends for years and, after a few unsuccessful attempts at working together, were supposed to be doing a joint exhibition; but at the last minute the gallery they had lined up folded. Pearson-Howes had already started this project, taking bus-top snaps with a Contax G2 and 45mm lens. As the pair were suddenly in need of a new idea, they decided to join forces, sharing the camera.
"There was a lot of waiting and luck in this project," recalls Robson-Scott. Neither of them knew exactly what they had shot until they rounded up the rolls and got them developed. "You also didn't notice things until you got the images back, because you didn't have time to look properly." It was, he says, a case of see, snap, and then hope. It was this sense of uncertainty, the possibilities around every corner, that drove the process, Robson-Scott adds.
"The great thing about it was you could spend a day shooting, or just shoot while getting the bus to work." Because of the spontaneous nature of life in the city, choosing a particular route did not ensure a certain outcome. What you get in these pictures is the essence of a snapshot, an unconstructed moment. "They are glimpses," says Pearson-Howes, "because that is what you get on a bus. Since the bus is never stationary for long, you just get glimpses of everyday life."
The constraints of the project, they agree, also turned out to be the positives: "We didn't have the usual freedoms: with the trees blocking the view, the speed of the bus, the state of the windows… there were a lot of obstacles. You basically had to wait for something to happen on the street below and hope to be in a position to catch it," Robson-Scott explains. This project, which is currently being made into a book, is also a testimony to each of the bus routes featured: the same paths that people tread – or are driven across – everyday without ever giving it much thought.
From strangers subconsciously mimicking each other's postures at a bus stop to young protesters picketing the Square Mile, or a stranger's footprints in fresh snow, the photographs are a captivating reminder of a capital city. Did anyone ever spot the lens squinting through the windows? "No!" Pearson-Howes says. "That is the beauty of it, you are high on the top deck so you are invisible: no one ever looks up in London."
For more on the Top Deck project, visit jamespearsonhowes.com/top-deck
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