On his first day in London in 1961, BJ caught a taxi and spent the whole day being driven around the city taking pictures of it’s signs, shop fronts and other outcrops of street graphics with his 1957 Pentax camera. The photographs provide an extraordinary record of the typographic environment of London as it rested on the cusp between the dreary 1950’s and the swinging 1960’s.
BJ said about the images and their relevance to graphic design:
‘The photographs were harvested on one trip around London. The things they show have very little to do with Design, apart from achieving its object. They show what weather, wit, accident, lack of judgement, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk’.
BJ made good use of these photographs in the early years of the decade. They became the basis for articles and lectures and also inspired much of his design work.
He showed these images in a lecture that was billed as a ‘collection of 2,000 slides of unused ideas’. The designer Brian Tattersfield recalls seeing one of these presentations at the Graphic Workshop, a forum set up by Bob Gill in the basement o an agency in Conduit Street. ‘Needless to say we were all absolutely staggered by it – so much so that one friend was moved to tears knowing he would never be able to equal it. That’s how involved we were in those days.’
The most expansive record of the project is the thirty one page picture article ‘Street Level’, published in Herbert Spencer’s Typographica. In the feature BJ showed his pictures of street graphics alongside examples of work by his American designer colleagues with which they seemed to have something in common. The immediate emphasis of the article is on practical application, although BJ’s engagement with the images was more abstract and aesthetically driven.
BJ’s photos were processed by Robert Horner of Palace Gate, London’s foremost photographic printer, whose other clients included Helmut Newton and the V&A Museum.
The original 137 photographs are now in the V&A Collection and have been exhibited in different shows.
Street Level by Robert Brownjohn – Photographs taken in London 1961
Photographs at Street Level by Rick Poynor – Design Observer