New exhibition features street photographer Bob Mazzer and the punks, hobos, suits and squares he captured on London's storied tube system since the '70s.

New exhibition at Howard-Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch features street photographer Bob Mazzer and the punks, hobos, suits and squares he captured on London's storied tube system since the '70s.

A man on a ladder with a clock for a face. A skunk-eyed punk girl with a devilock hairdo. A couple kissing through a closing door. A young busker straddling a busy escalator. These are just some of the iconic images shot by mysterious street photographer Bob Mazzer on the London Underground over the last forty-odd years.

Mazzer originally started shooting photos on the Underground on his commute to work as a projectionist at a porn cinema in Kings Cross in the ’70s. Since then he’s amassed a striking body of work that is a unique document of a place and people shifting through different eras. Mazzer is naturally drawn to surreal compositions – subculture kids, down ‘n’ outs and wild women float through his photographs like bright jellyfish in a sea of city grey.

Now, for the first time ever, Mazzer is exhibiting some of his work at the Howard-Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, June 12 – July 13. We caught up with him to find out more.

When did you first start shooting photos?
I got my first camera when I was thirteen years old and as I loved architecture I went straight down to the London Hilton Hotel that had just been built and took a picture – I still have that picture. It all got very serious for me in 1969 when I went to the USA. This was my first trip abroad and I was twenty-one. The experience to be in a completely different country with a camera freed me up. Everything was new to me and I came back with an armful of pictures. I took pictures of New Jersey where I was visiting my family, of New York where I was visiting friends. And I also went to Pittsburg and Michigan (to meet a girl that I met in London in Euston Station). I took a lot of pictures of people, my friends and family, but also beautiful American cars, American kids and swimming pools. I even took a picture in the New York subway of an American guy falling asleep on a Chinese man’s shoulder.

What drew you to the Underground as a subject?
I was always fascinated by the London Underground. I always found it really interesting and cosy down there. You can be with a hundred people kind of anonymously and you can photograph all of them. At the time this was a cool thing to do. I was also really interested in the sociological phenomena of it all. Two strangers sitting closely next to each other for half an hour. And if you think about it, all the big cities in the world have this other city under the ground, this very complicated and fascinating engineering. But mainly my subject was what happened to people down there more than the Underground itself.

What characters interested you?
Normal people behaving as if they were at home, but in public. In those days there was no surveillance, bombs, no paranoia about photographing children etc. I had a little un-intrusive black camera, which allowed me to take as many pictures I liked, of whom and of what I liked. I shot a lot of couples, I like romance. In the first pictures, as a twenty-year-old young man I took photos of strange looking girls. It was also the days of [the cult photographer film] Blowup and it was very cool to be a photographer. There were thousands of photographers in the streets but no one on the Underground and moreover, I did it for forty years.

How did people react to the camera?
At first I started to take pictures with distance from people. I didn’t know how close I could get to them. But then, with experience and my Leica camera, which was less intrusive, I got closer to my subjects. On the whole people reacted very positively. Even people who might be seen as touchy and aggressive such as the rockers, ended up being really friendly. Now people see you first as a threat while it should be a friendly exchange.

Were you aware of Bruce Davidson’s Subway work? Was that an inspiration?
I am aware of the work but I was doing this for years before he did. When I saw his work for the first time, I thought, “Lucky man!” Because he was well established as a photographer.

Have you continued to shoot the Underground since this body of work?
Yes I have. Why not? Every time I go on the tube I take a picture. The subjects remain the same. I take a lot a secret pictures of people too, in order to capture a special moment. I not only photograph the tube but many parts of London, the urban realm and to a certain extent landscapes. Anything unusual that would catch my attention.

There’s been a lot of controversy recently about people shooting pictures on the Underground. Do you think the internet generation has become more self-conscious/difficult to document?
I don’t think they have been. I think it’s even easier now. Everyone can photograph everyone else with an iPhone. Although at the same time there’s this sort of paranoia going on at the moment, where people are not used to being photographed by strangers.

Why do you think now is the perfect time to share the work?
The time has come and that was largely to do with the internet.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Yes, but I am afraid that I do not want to reveal anything for the moment. Watch this space.

You can find out more about the exhibition and get the original catalogue at the Howard-Griffin gallery.