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Photograph - Street Level
  • Street Level
    Brownjohn, Robert, born 1925 - died 1970
  • Enlarge image

Street Level

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    London

  • Date:

    1961

  • Artist/Maker:

    Brownjohn, Robert, born 1925 - died 1970

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Gelatin silver print

  • Credit Line:

    Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group

  • Museum number:

    E.704-2012

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 913, box K

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.

Physical description

Black and white photograph of a London street scene, depicting metal railings partially obscuring lettering for a restaurant's goods entrance.

Place of Origin

London

Date

1961

Artist/maker

Brownjohn, Robert, born 1925 - died 1970

Materials and Techniques

Gelatin silver print

Dimensions

Height: 16 cm, Width: 23.3 cm

Object history note

Purchased from Eliza Brownjohn, daughter of the photographer, in 2012

Descriptive line

Photograph of London street sign

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

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)

Labels and date

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]

Techniques

Photography

Categories

Advertising; Typography; Photographs

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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