"Fashion Couple Shopping"
Every city has its visual cliches. The stereotypes, falsehoods and cheery slices of xenophobia sold to us on cheap postcards and in crap films that reduce the world's great cities to a handful of worn out cultural cues. If you've never been to Paris, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's all girls who look like Charlotte Gainsbourg skipping along the Seine in Breton tops, doling out filter-less cigs to homeless accordion players. When in actual fact, it's more like a bunch of exchange students laughing at dachshunds and dudes who are still bang into Justice plying rich schoolgirls with shit MDMA.
For New York, the cliches are motor-mouthed cabbies and kids fucking around with water hydrants. For Barcelona, it's psytrance beachbums and animal cruelty on La Rambla. Tokyo? Weird fish, games machines and businessmen throwing themselves in front of bullet trains.
But what about London? Pearly Kings and Queens? Pie and mash? Foxtons Minis tearing down Brixton High Street, on fire? Rita Ora?
So I decided to pull back for a moment, and consult Getty Images' wide range of London stock photos. What do they see when they look at the UK's capital?
"London City Hall"
The vast majority of the London stock photos on Getty are scenic wide shots of the city's skyline, usually taken at sunset and very rarely from anywhere east of Tower Bridge. Of course, this makes perfect sense. If you're a journalist writing something about London's chronic housing crisis, or a body in the Thames river, or Millwall's terrible run under Ian Holloway, you probably want to illustrate your copy with a picture of the Shard and a few anonymous riverside yuppie-farms when the sun's going down.
From the outset, it's clear that this is the London that Getty are most interested in selling to their customers, the London with all the big glass buildings and shimmering water, the one that girl from your school has as her Facebook cover photo, the one on the opening titles to The Apprentice. Not the one where there's three Paddy Powers on a single high street, or the one of food banks, pigeons cannibalizing fried chicken bones and crack squirrels.
But this one, the nice one by the river with the big buildings.
"Couple Having Coffee At Sidewalk Cafe"
The people in Getty's pictures are predominantly happy young heterosexual couples who drink coffee, take selfies, and love life and London. And that's fine. It's not like they're going to embark upon an investigative social project about co-dependent heroin addicts crying and vomiting in each other's arms, or abandoned widows lying catatonic in single bedrooms in Catford.
But clearly, if stock images in any way reflected reality, there would be only one explanation for the behavior of these people: that they are tourists, and not the kind likely to find themselves caught up in the processing department at Yarl's Wood any time soon. Also, if the people in stock photos were real, Time Out would be bigger than the Daily Mail.
"Exuberant Couple Riding a Double Decker Bus in London"
I don't know about you, but when I'm peering into the endless blackness of the Holloway Road, shivering as I try to figure out if that's actually a 271 on its way to me or another "out of service" ghost bus, I'm doing it because I just really love buses. In fact, whenever I'm going over Westminster Bridge on one, I'm so overwhelmed by the majesty of London's public transport system that I often like to make my way up to the top deck to re-enact the "King of the World" moment from Titanic with an espresso in my hand.
"Couple Riding Bicycles In Urban Park"
Much like drinking coffee outdoors, cycling is another thing that seems to have been sold to the rest of the world as a vital part of London culture. But while there are probably more bikes here than there are in say, Dubai, there was that time when six cyclists died on London's roads in 13 days, and then everyone blamed it on the Mayor.
"Smiling Woman Using Cell Phone On Bus"
That's not a modern London bus. It's not one of the new breed, with those split-screen CCTV monitors that make every journey seem like it's a Crimewatch appeal in waiting. Nah man, that's a Routemaster. It's a fucking Mary Poppins bus.
Secondly, what's she laughing at? A picture she's taken of the rain?
"Businessman Looking Out Conference Room Window"
In the rose-tinted world of stock image London, City boys are not pictured as the fleecing, super-coke bastards everyone else sees them as. In Getty's world they're dreamers, dreamers who peer out of their 80th floor windows in Canary Wharf at all the tiny ant people beneath them, and wish that they too could be one of the tiny ant people, like Ed Harris in The Truman Show or something.
"Young Woman Having Fun In A Photo Booth"
Young people are reduced to mannequins moving through a succession of strangely depressing "good times"—dancing on their own, nuzzling into their friend's laps, laughing on buses at the rain. They are guffawing, gurning dickheads, attractive but resolutely asexual replicants who behave as if they're drunk when there's no booze in site. This girl is on her own, conceivably sober, in a photo booth, pulling these abstract expressions of glee, and nobody thought it looked weird or unconvincing.
These young Londoners are boring narcissists who are still in awe of the concept of the photograph, nearly 200 years since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce showed the world his "View from the Window at Les Gras."
"Three Young Men Walk Along Train Station Platform"
And as for the city's young men, they're reduced to this: vain jerk-offs who dress like a racist Australian beach gang. They wear graphic print vests, they carry skateboards on trains, they drink Magners, listen to Bastille, and probably take MDMA once a year at some festival. Gone are the punks, the skins, the rude boys, the barrow boys, the duckers, and the divers of old. We're just left with these London Fields frisbee pricks, on their way home from some abstract conception of a "good time."
"Woman Crawling Across Table To Boyfriend"
I can only imagine the terrible articles this picture has accompanied in its short life. ES Magazine reports on "the 50 Shades Of Grey phenomenon," stories about how "London's women are learning to wear the trousers in the bedroom," something about some new sub-category of cougar or young professionals on Tinder. The absolute bottom end of urban lifestyle journalism.
What it has to do with London, I really have no idea.
But when you get to this picture, you begin to wonder if Getty's pictorial analysis of modern London is actually pretty bang on the money. You wonder if maybe, just maybe, Boris has won. And his dream of a London where floppy haired wankers in three-piece suits bomb through the city on rented bikes like capitalist horsemen of the apocalypse has in fact become the defining image of this great city.
Maybe that London spirit of old—the spirit of Michael Caine, "Mad" Frankie Frasier, Barbara Windsor ,and Crazy Titch—has finally been eroded to a distant cliche by Boris' new Londoners. The people who see the city as a kind of shit platform game where getting from one restaurant to another involves avoiding beggers. A platform game where a Boris bike is a power-up that allows you to plough through the streets and all their filth to get to the next 38th-floor pho joint.
Getty and the Boris administration cannot be in cahoots with their visions of London; there is no gentrification Illuminati stuff going on here. But the striking resemblance between the stock images and the ones that Boris’ people like to put out in their campaign material—not to mention the idea of London sold to us in Tory-backing newspapers—coalesce because in essence these are all people who don’t understand the city, even though someone made it their job to look in on it and try to sell it back to a worldwide audience.
The difference is that while these pictures are just a small and understandable part of what Getty do, it’s Boris who's actually turning London into a city of grinning couples, coffee shops and pricks on bikes.
The saddest thing here isn't Getty's vision of London; everyone knows stock images are dumb. It's that Getty's vision of London might just be right.
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