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Street Level

Photograph
1961
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

Robert Brownjohn was born to British parents in 1925 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago and became the protégée of László Moholy-Nagy who recognised his outstanding talent for design. Brownjohn spent six years in Chicago teaching and working with Serge Chermayeff, (who succeeded Moholy-Nagy) before moving to New York in 1950. After several years as a freelance designer he established the design firm Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar Associates (BCG). The firm produced exciting design and advertising work, fusing theories of modernist design with the graphic language of the street and jazz culture.

Brownjohn moved to London in 1960 at a time when Britain was emerging from a period of post-war austerity and there were opportunities for talented designers. After a successful few years working in advertising, Brownjohn shifted into film-making, forming a new company in 1963. His outstanding title sequences for the Bond films From Russia with Love and Goldfinger became the signature pieces of his career. His work and was highly influential upon a younger generation of American and British designers. A continuing struggle with drug addiction led to Brownjohn’s early death from a heart-attack at the age of 44 in 1970. Brownjohn was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Design Museum in London (October 2005 – February 2006) and a monograph by E. King, Robert Brownjohn Sex and Typography (London, 2005). The archive of his typographic and design work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Street Level series represents both the vernacular and consciously designed typographic environment of London as it emerged from post-war austerity into the 1960s. Brownjohn took the photographs as a personal record, to use as source material and inspiration for his design process. He used them as a resource throughout his later career and they also formed the basis of his lectures and articles. The most expansive record of the project within his lifetime is the thirty-one page picture story ‘Street-Level’ published in the fourth issue of Herbert Spencer’s occasional magazine Typographica (1961), a copy of which is held in the National Art Library (NAL PP.44.L). Brownjohn’s short introduction offers an explanation of the relevance to graphic design: ‘The photographs on the following thirty-one pages 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 judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk’.

This group of photographs links to many key V&A collecting areas in photography, architecture, design typography, publishing and calligraphy. It is a methodical and coherent record of typography and its use within historical, architectural settings. The photographs relate to the V&A’s holdings of photographs by László Moholy-Nagy, Brownjohn’s earliest mentor, who also had a passion for the idea of ‘chance art’ as seen in these images. The group of photographs make interesting formal and conceptual connections with other serial or taxonomical photographic recording projects represented in the collection, such as the photographs by Sir Benjamin Stone, Eugene Atget or Bernd and Hilla Becher. Comparisons can also be made with Walker Evans photographs that include elements of vernacular street signage. The images also relate to the V&A’s holdings of photographs of London and to the graphic design archives.

Object details

Categories
Object type
TitleStreet Level (series title)
Materials and techniques
Gelatin silver print
Brief description
Photograph of London street sign
Physical description
Black and white photograph of a London street scene. Shop or cafe window with signs for coffee and sandwiches, also with 'snacks always ready' with the first letter of each word missing.
Dimensions
  • Height: 16.5cm
  • Width: 24.5cm
approx.
Gallery label
  • In the course of a single day Robert Brownjohn made 137 photographs of London street signs. Their vernacular urban typography inspired his own practice as a designer and filmmaker. The images were published in the magazine Typographica in 1961 as the picture story ‘Street-Level’. Brownjohn wrote: ‘They show what weather, wit, accident, lack of judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk.’(28-04-2015)
  • Brownjohn, an influential American designer, made this photograph as inspiration for his typography. When the series was published in the magazine Typographica , he wrote: ‘The photographs… were harvested on one trip around London. They show what weather, wit, accident, lack of judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk’. (21/11/2012)
  • Gallery 100, ‘History of photography’, 2012-2013, label texts : Robert Brownjohn (1925 – 70) ‘Street Level’ 1961 Brownjohn made these photographs as inspiration for his typography. When they were published in the magazine Typographica , he wrote: ‘The photographs… were harvested on one trip around London. They show what weather, wit, accident, lack of judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk’. Gelatin silver prints Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group Museum nos. E.608 to 625-2012 (11 03 2014)
  • Photo London: Beneath the Surface Somerset House May 20 - August 24, 2015 Robert Brownjohn (1925–70) From the series Street Level, 1961 In the course of a single day Robert Brownjohn made 137 photographs of London street signs. Their vernacular urban typography inspired his own practice as a designer and filmmaker. The images were published in the magazine Typographica in 1961 as the picture story ‘Street-Level’. Brownjohn wrote: ‘They show what weather, wit, accident, lack of judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk.’ Gelatin silver prints Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group V&A Museum nos. E.740, 739, 737, 729, 727, 661, 742, 744, 726–2012 E.741, 731, 725, 738, 736, 667, 743, 724, 703–2012(28-04-2015)
Credit line
Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group
Object history
Purchased from Eliza Brownjohn, daughter of the photographer, in 2012
Summary
Robert Brownjohn was born to British parents in 1925 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago and became the protégée of László Moholy-Nagy who recognised his outstanding talent for design. Brownjohn spent six years in Chicago teaching and working with Serge Chermayeff, (who succeeded Moholy-Nagy) before moving to New York in 1950. After several years as a freelance designer he established the design firm Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar Associates (BCG). The firm produced exciting design and advertising work, fusing theories of modernist design with the graphic language of the street and jazz culture.

Brownjohn moved to London in 1960 at a time when Britain was emerging from a period of post-war austerity and there were opportunities for talented designers. After a successful few years working in advertising, Brownjohn shifted into film-making, forming a new company in 1963. His outstanding title sequences for the Bond films From Russia with Love and Goldfinger became the signature pieces of his career. His work and was highly influential upon a younger generation of American and British designers. A continuing struggle with drug addiction led to Brownjohn’s early death from a heart-attack at the age of 44 in 1970. Brownjohn was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Design Museum in London (October 2005 – February 2006) and a monograph by E. King, Robert Brownjohn Sex and Typography (London, 2005). The archive of his typographic and design work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Street Level series represents both the vernacular and consciously designed typographic environment of London as it emerged from post-war austerity into the 1960s. Brownjohn took the photographs as a personal record, to use as source material and inspiration for his design process. He used them as a resource throughout his later career and they also formed the basis of his lectures and articles. The most expansive record of the project within his lifetime is the thirty-one page picture story ‘Street-Level’ published in the fourth issue of Herbert Spencer’s occasional magazine Typographica (1961), a copy of which is held in the National Art Library (NAL PP.44.L). Brownjohn’s short introduction offers an explanation of the relevance to graphic design: ‘The photographs on the following thirty-one pages 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 judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk’.

This group of photographs links to many key V&A collecting areas in photography, architecture, design typography, publishing and calligraphy. It is a methodical and coherent record of typography and its use within historical, architectural settings. The photographs relate to the V&A’s holdings of photographs by László Moholy-Nagy, Brownjohn’s earliest mentor, who also had a passion for the idea of ‘chance art’ as seen in these images. The group of photographs make interesting formal and conceptual connections with other serial or taxonomical photographic recording projects represented in the collection, such as the photographs by Sir Benjamin Stone, Eugene Atget or Bernd and Hilla Becher. Comparisons can also be made with Walker Evans photographs that include elements of vernacular street signage. The images also relate to the V&A’s holdings of photographs of London and to the graphic design archives.
Bibliographic reference
Susanna Brown, 'Object Lesson', in: V&A Magazine (summer 2013), p. 100 Emily King, Robert Brownjohn. Sex and Typography, Laurence King Publishing (London 2005) Photo London exhibition catalogue, published by teNeues (2015)
Collection
Accession number
E.640-2012

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Record createdJuly 30, 2012
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