This is the first major exhibition of Steve Hollingshead’s photographs since his London Wall projects in 2004 and 2006. In those exhibitions, and in his annual calendars, the emphasis is on Londoners at play – celebrating cultural or religious festivals, sporting events, or just having a good time. While the subject matter for the present exhibition still has a celebratory tone, it also includes some of his more abstract work (following a smaller 2009 exhibition Light and Shade).

Like the best of post-modern artists he has given himself a strict set of rules by which to make this selection. These rules seemed to emerge from the process of creating this massive exhibition:

“At the calendar launch event in 2013 I presented a slide show of a thousand pictures from my archive, most of which hadn’t been seen before. I then decided to do this as a wall of pictures like the London Wall project and call it ‘A Thousand Days in London’, then it became 1001, which had more of a ring to it.

I soon realised that a lot of the pictures that I had in the projections were of the same day, and since I had decided on it being 1001 days, that meant one picture for one day. That immediately wiped out a couple of hundred.

Then I decided the overall effect would look better if all the images were the same format, ie: square. This then knocked out another few hundred pictures that I had planned to use. Then, when I started to go back through them all again it became evident that some I’d selected wouldn’t work in that format because they were too complex, there was also the risk of repetition with events I’d been to on more than one occassion. So I went back through them all again. Finally we’re back to 1001 – all taken between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2014.

A number of these pictures aren’t going to be best picture from that day, or even my favourite of that event, but they are the best picture for that day for this presentation. That’s it really.”

As the name of his earlier website (www.takingthepics.com) suggests, Hollingshead goes about his work with a self-deprecating sense of humour. But beyond the humour there is a compassion and intelligence in every one of his images. He has given himself the cultural activities of London as is canvas, and his canvas is breathtakingly inclusive – from the Tamil community in Ealing’s Chariot Festival to the Church Service for Clowns in Dalston. Hollingshead is a walking encyclopaedia of how the different peoples of London celebrate moments in the year.

What characterises Hollingshead’s work? A glance around this exhibition provides one answer – he works in black and white. He compares himself to a blind football supporter who still goes to the matches ‘for the atmosphere, capturing the excitement’. ‘I’ll try to capture the energy and the atmosphere, and the drama which people who just look at colour pictures might not see.’ No surprise that his first book of photographs was simply called Event (2007). Here is his description of an event:

“There is a gathering of people to witness something, to experience something. There are people performing or there are people taking part in something and it’s an environment where it is all happening. And it’s on the way there and on the way back, after it’s finished and before it’s started. It’s the winding down.”

Look at the number of images where the excitement of taking part is revealed in the faces and bodies of the participants. Hollingshead is brilliant at catching people having fun – his photographs make you smile because he captures moments of spontaneous, unalloyed joy. He achieves this by choosing the position he takes within the event. At big celebrations like Chinese New Year he notices how many photographers aim to get the ‘perfect shot’ by standing in the way of the crowds who have gathered to enjoy the spectacle.

“That’s not what it’s all about. They might have got the money shot, and a perfect view of the procession, but I don’t really want those kind of pictures. I don’t feel good in getting those pictures. What do I get out of it? I have ruined somebody else’s view. There are plenty of other things going on… it’s a big event.”

Such photographers are ‘not very empathetic’, and it is precisely this empathy which allows Hollingshead to capture the atmosphere, the drama, the sense of the event.

But there is something else at work. The ‘money shot’ taken from the perfect angle is often quite predictable – a good piece of reportage, but banal. Hollingshead’s wit and humanity comes from seeing the bigger picture, realising that there ‘are plenty of other things going on’. So while most photographers are straining to get to the front, Hollinghead is off to the side exploring the human meaning of the event.

“You kind of train yourself to look laterally at things. You are always watching off to one side of what’s going on.”

Sometimes it is not easy to figure out what the people in the photographs are doing. That is half the fun of this exhibition – the images challenge you to figure out what might be happening.

This ‘lateral look’ takes us to another aspect of Hollingshead’s work – the more abstract compositions.

“You’re not looking at it as it is, you’re looking at it in terms of the light, and the shade and the shapes. You are always told not to shoot into the light, but a lot of the time I deliberately shoot into the light just to get a more dramatic light and shade feel. When you lose the colour element of a photograph it’s the other bits that then become more important – the drama, the emotion, the light and shade, and the texture.”

Once again, he is after ‘the other bits’, the less obvious, the less explored – the emotional subtext to the event, rather than the surface detail. How many images are shot against the light revealing long trailing shadows – be they figures captured against a window, the shadows of metal-framed chairs casting strange trailing shapes on the ground, or a bench transformed in evening sunshine. There are a series of images taken of people playing in fountains, the figures barely discernible against the light and water. For me, these are some of the most beautiful photographs in the show.

The images may all be black and white, but you are unlikely to see an exhibition which has quite so much variety. Variety in so many senses, of so many senses. Take means of transport – you can get across London on your horse, hobby horse, skate board, penny farthing, ancient tricycle, vintage car, or simply by foot as you walk, dance, sashay down the roads, wearing any number of outlandish costumes, masks, or totally naked (but only on the World Naked Bike Ride). On the river you can travel by coracle, by barge, skiff, or row boat. There is a variety of tones – ranging from funny, to weird, to heart-warming, to touching, to sad. And then there some images that resist our attempts to guess what is going on. For example, a line of youngish children armed with sticks are beating the pavement while in the background a policemen in a hi-vis jacket displays no interest whatsoever. Three years later we see them again, sticks in hand. Hollingshead doesn’t even help you with a title only the date it was taken. You have to make it up yourself (or wait for the blog post). After gazing at these images from some hours what I take away is a delight in all the different ways that human beings find to enjoy themselves.

Dick McCaw. London 2015-10-04