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August 30, 2006

Photos of the aftermath of fires taken by the London Fire Brigade offer us a picture of what news photos may soon all be like, argues Christopher Peachment: The London Fire Brigade Archive at The Photographers' Gallery

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The London Fire Brigade Archive
The Photographers' Gallery
8 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7HY
21st July - 17th September 2006
Monday - Saturday 11am - 6pm (Thursdays until 8pm)
Sunday 12pm - 6pm

This is a small exhibition of photographs of the aftermath of fires taken by anonymous members of the London Fire Brigade. The photographs are designed to be used for training purposes. Here is a foreboding testament to loneliness, accident and criminality.

One photo sticks in the mind. It is marked with a standard description, common in style to all the pictures:

INCIDENT Lancaster Grove, Belsize, August 1949.

Backroom where xxx (57) had cuts to wrists. (Taken to hospital). Gas fire was turned on.

Nothing more than that is said, but the empty bedsit room with its huge dark wardrobe, lino and utility chair, reeks of despair. The fact that "suicide" is not mentioned on the caption is a reminder that in 1949 it was still a criminal offence, to which the authorities usually tried to turn a blind eye.

Elsewhere there are fascinating looks at the aftermath of fire. One grim picture from Lyndhurst Grove, SE15 suggests that piled up books can make a good fire-break. I remember a fire in a Norfolk library about fifteen years ago, which revealed that water sprinklers did more damage to books than fire, which only scorches the covers. So ditch your sprinklers at home and buy more books.

One picture from the blitz shows a hole in Oxford Street where John Lewis stood the previous day. Another from 1940 shows how a bomb could demolish one house in a terrace while leaving its neighbours intact. It looks like a gap in a row of teeth after a bad one has been pulled.

It is not all ash and destruction however. There are some charming, nave pictures of the firemen's social life. A young, newly-recruited wartime firewoman, in ankle length skirt, with gas mask and tin hat, looks happy and robust in the way that people of the war generation always seem to.

There is a photo of an amateur dramatic production of Dracula, complete with two dead bodies and a cardboard cut-out bat hanging in the window.

The Royal Academy in the 50s was host to a show of firemen's art. From what can be seen of the pictures through the crowd, firemen in those days had a considerable talent for painting. One can't help wonder whether the Academy would try it these days.

Some photos strike a surreal note. One fireman stands unconcernedly next to some roaring flames, demonstrating the usefulness of his new Noflam protection suit. The image might have come off a 60s rock album cover.

The charred shell of a TV set, in a tall wooden cabinet stands, in a garden in SW5, looking like a leftover from a Dr Who episode.

A huge chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, with at least 10 feet all around it, is caught in a "traffic jam" in Soho in the 50s, with the recommendation that parking be restricted to one side of the street only.

There aren't any boys with saucepans stuck on their heads, but there is one urchin being rescued from inside a conical milk churn. There is also evidence of a young arsonist at a Junior school in Leytonstone. A jemmied school store-room door and a discarded matchbox bear mute witnesses.

The pictures weren't taken by professional photographers, and are of no higher quality than the average holiday snap. Yet they are no better and no worse than any news photo you will find on the front page of a newspaper these days. They convey the information they are supposed to, and they all point the way forward to what news pictures will soon be like, in an age when everyone carries a camera.

Witness the couple of pictures in the foyer, taken by survivors during the recent London Tube bombings with their mobile phone cameras. There were no professional photographers to hand when the bombs went off, and none could get to the scene. Within the first 12 hours, the BBC was offered 1,000 amateur still images from mobile phones and 20 amateur videos of the event.

In their blurred and jagged confusion these pictures convey an immediacy no professional could ever achieve.

For those who have been on the receiving end of modern professional photographers, their possible demise will be hugely applauded. Ask any actor, or minor celebrity. Or read the details of how the paparazzi behaved after the death of Princess Diana. They are dogs but without the sense of loyalty.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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