There is a certain kind of magic contained in the world’s subways and underground railways. From Tokyo to Paris to New York and London, photographers have been drawn to the snatched moments below the surface that hint at wider narratives: of love, despair, or just boredom.
Among the tribes of image-makers to take on this subject is Bob Mazzer, whose photos shot on the London tube in the 80s continue to fascinate. Mazzer’s London is grimy and grungy but full of energy – evocative of a time before Uber, when black cabs were unaffordable to most and the Underground offered swift and easy access to the vastness of the city, so long as you didn’t miss the last train home.
His work is humorous and spontaneous, with Mazzer having a sharp eye for capturing the moment. Clockwell, one of his most famous images, of a man adjusting an Underground clock, happened by chance. “This is the photo I’ve sold most prints of,” Mazzer says of the work. “I walked on to the platform and the guy was standing on the ladder, adjusting the clock. As I got nearer, and I was lining him up in the viewfinder, he put his arms down for a moment!”
Mazzer’s show at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery – which became his local gallery after he and his family moved from London to St Leonard’s over 30 years ago – links these early works to images taken more recently in the town.
While these contain a similar energy to the early works, they are more posed, featuring local characters as well as scenes from the recent lockdowns. These latter shots include one of a couple in a laundrette, who Mazzer worked with to get the shot he wanted.
“I caught a glimpse of this couple when I was driving past, and I wanted to go back and photograph them,” he says. “I went back into the launderette and explained that I wanted to photograph them as they had been a few minutes before and asked them to recreate that pose, and they were quite happy to oblige me.”
It is his shots of the 1980s that draw the eye most, however. This is in part down to the nostalgia their mood and texture prompts, and the reminders of a London before mobiles and impossible-to-afford house prices.
But their appeal is not all about reminiscing. It’s easy to see why ES magazine chose one of Mazzer’s images as the cover shot for the first issue bearing its recent redesign – for his images capture something of the essence of the city that endures across the decades. No matter how slick and shiny London may be these days, there will always be an ancient Soho pub with a nook or cranny to hide away in, and there will always be a queue to enter Oxford Circus tube at rush hour.
Bob Mazzer In Camera: A Retrospective is on show at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery until April 17; hmag.org.uk