Shooting Black and White Film at the London Barbican [Fomapan Action 400]

london barbican waterfall

Images shot on Fomapan Action 400 in the Rollei 35

Ooh, the London Barbican. Nobody’s ever shot some rolls of film around there, have they? Yes, I know. There’s nothing new under the sun, though. If I’m in San Francisco I’m not going to not take some photographs of that bridge they have there.

So when I found myself with a spare gloomy Sunday afternoon in London, I thought I’d scratch this particular itch.

A couple of hours spent shooting some Fomapan 400 in the little old Rollei 35 at the big old Brutalist Barbican, where I knew there’d be enough compositions to get through all 36+ shots, sounded more fun that day than aimlessly wandering the streets hoping to stumble across stuff too.

You can read on to see how they came out, how many were actually worth posting, and to find out all you need to know about this unashamedly clichéd yet inarguably photogenic place in the City of London.

What and where is the London Barbican?

In London. Thanks. Blog post over.

But seriously, the Barbican sits in the City of London, just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral. And that may be more central than some people realise it is. It was for me.

Designed by architects Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon, the 35-acre complex was first developed during the 1960s and 1970s – although not officially finished until the arts centre was completed in 1982 – as part of a broader project to rejuvenate an area devastated by World War II bombings.

The residential part of it, the Barbican Estate, includes around 2000 flats, maisonettes, and houses, which were originally meant for middle-class professionals. As you’d probably expect given its location, it’s still a pretty upmarket place to live to this day.

It’s not just a place where people live, though. You’ve also got the Barbican Centre, which is Europe’s largest centre for performing arts.

In there you’ll find the 1,943 capacity Barbican Hall, home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra no less, the 1,156 Barbican Theatre, designed by and for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a smaller 200-seat theatre, an art gallery, three cinema screens, a library, three restaurants, seven conference halls, and trade exhibition halls too.

The Barbican’s Brutalist architecture

The Barbican is indubitably one of London’s greatest symbols of Brutalist architecture. There are other fine examples of it too, like the National Theatre, the Alexandra Road Estate, and the Balfron and Trellick towers.

But in terms of scale, in terms of footprint, I’m not sure anything can top the place we’re talking about here.

Not that this is an architecture blog of course, but now seems a good time to explain a little of what Brutalism actually is. So let’s do that, and intersperse it with some of my photographs from that day at the Barbican:

Brutalist architecture is a style of architecture that emerged in the mid-20th century, characterized by its bold, stark, and often block-like structures. The term “Brutalism” comes from the French ‘béton brut’, which means ‘raw concrete’, a material widely used in this architectural style.

This concrete is often left unfinished-looking or roughly-textured, exposing the patterns left by wooden forms used in the casting process.

Brutalist buildings typically have a massive, monolithic appearance with a rigid geometric style, and usually have minimalistic, angular, and repetitive forms. The design tends to be functional and stripped of decorative elements.

Emerging in the post-World War II era, particularly in the 1950s to the mid-1970s, Brutalist architecture often reflected the ideologies of the time, focusing on social equality, communal living, and utilitarian efficiency. It also embraces a decidedly sombre, fortress-like aesthetic.

Brutalist architecture does of course divide opinion. Critics often describe it as cold, inhuman, and uninviting, while supporters appreciate its boldness, honesty in materials, and expressive nature.

The former group will perhaps have been happy to see certain Brutalist buildings being demolished due to their unpopularity and costly maintenance, while the latter will no doubt be glad to see the growing appreciation for this style in recent years, leading to efforts to preserve some of its iconic structures.

The Lakeside Terrace at the Barbican

I guess for a lot of people the centrepiece of the Barbican is going to be the Lakeside Terrace, as pictured above. For visitors, I mean. If you live there, your flat is probably going to be your centrepiece. But for many folk, it’ll be this decent-sized waterside spot in amongst all that concrete.

It genuinely is a serene spot in the middle of all the bustle and noise going on around it – be that in the buildings of the Barbican or further out into the city of London itself.

A good place for a sandwich and a coffee, no doubt. Or push the boat out and bring a book to read. Not a real boat. I didn’t see any of those on the lake. Just a figure of speech, isn’t it. Like, to go overboard. Wait, no, don’t do that either.

Anyway, here’s some more photographs. Mainly of… fountains. Spot the first-of-the-roll one.

For me on that day, the Lakeside Terrace was the centrepiece of this photography set too. I’ve got more images from this part of the Barbican than any single other one.

It was interesting walking around, looking at the architecture and geometry – not that I know much about either – and coming up with some compositions.

I liked how the circles of the Lakeside Terrace contrasted with all the straight lines of the Barbican buildings, and I liked how there were plenty of leading lines and symmetry to play with too.

So that’s more what I focussed on, rather than going around sticking my camera in too many people’s faces.

Notes on the Rollei 35 and Fomapan 400 used here

When I went to the Barbican to have a look around and shoot these photographs, the Rollei 35 was still pretty new to me. I hadn’t really put many rolls through it at all.

The AgfaPhoto APX 400 from this post here was shot with this camera, but not much else springs to mind.

This was also my first roll of Fomapan Action 400, although I had read up on it and knew a little bit of what to expect.

A place like the Barbican, where you have all the time in the world to concentrate and compose your shots, is a good training ground for getting used to a new camera. Especially one like the Rollei 35, which can be a little fiddly.

Its zone focus system might need some practice to get good with also, so not having to keep altering this for moving subjects was nice too.

Early impressions of the Rollei 35 are that I really like it, and the same is true of the Fomapan Action 400 too.

That film has some characteristics that some people might not like, but that I thought made it a good choice for shooting Brutalist architecture on a drab and gloomy Sunday afternoon.

You won’t get the sharpness or cleanliness of an Ilford Delta 400, for example, but I like that here. I like the grain and the texture. I like the high contrast even in a kind of flat light.

I also like – and this is completely irrelevant to the results – the idea of shooting a Brutalist location on Eastern European-made film. Foma being from the Czech Republic, if you didn’t know.

That just felt fitting. Don’t shout at me. Thanks.

Regardless, here’s some more shots from that day, featuring all that lovely aforementioned grain, texture and contrast.

This little set features the Frobisher Crescent – one of the Barbican’s most iconic buildings – and some benches. And another fountain. Because why not.

Some failed film photos from the Barbican

I’ve shown you a lot of photographs of the Barbican on this blog post. In amongst any semi-decent ones we’ve also had a first-of-the-roll shot, we’ve just had a window reflection selfie, and we’ve had lots of fountains too.

So I think at this point we may as well just post everything I got from this roll of Fomapan 400. Even the ones that didn’t work out technically.

Because we never really get 36+ keepers from a roll, do we? And it’s good to share that with the world, to keep people’s expectations at a realistic level.

First up is one where I didn’t quite get that zone focus on the Rollei 35 right. I was just a little too ambitious in trying to get all that lettering sharp with a shallow depth of field.

The rest were where I was again too ambitious but this time with trying to shoot indoors. There simply wasn’t enough light for what I was trying to achieve, and I didn’t have enough shutter speed either.

The only one that really worked here was the face of the Barbican Muse. It’s still dark, but I quite like that one.

Wrapping up from the London Barbican

That’s it. That’s my blog post from the London Barbican. A whole roll’s worth of photographs and a fair amount of words to go with them too.

To wrap up, I’ll say the following:

The Barbican is a much-photographed location, but I can see why. It’s a cool place to spend a few hours shooting, and I think the architecture makes it easy to get some half-decent results too. The people who built it already did half your job for you in that regard.

A couple of hours of photography was all I had time for but I’m sure you could spend a whole day there if you wanted.

Visit the art gallery and library, get some lunch or a drink in one of the cafes or bars, see a show in one of the theatres.

There’s even the Conservatory which I haven’t mentioned because I didn’t go in there. I was too busy making photographs and silly little videos like this one. Please excuse the gloves.

Overall, yes. The Barbican. Go there if you have chance. Take your camera. Stay longer and do more than I did. You’ll have a good time. Thanks again. 🙂

If you liked that walk around the Barbican with the Rollei 35 and want more essays illustrated with film photography, why not have a look at some of these:

And if you think others will find this post worth a read, help them find it by giving it a share 😀

written by
LEE WEBB
Hi, I'm Lee - creator of My Favourite Lens and the one whose work you're seeing whenever you read a post on here.
I shoot as much film as I can in as many different cameras as I can, and I enjoy playing with vintage lenses on digital cameras also.

Everything I do and what I learn along the way gets shared on here, to inform and inspire you to get out and shoot as much - and as well - as you can too.

2 thoughts on “Shooting Black and White Film at the London Barbican [Fomapan Action 400]”

  1. Lee,

    I was in London for about 3 months in 2022 and the Barbican was a regular photo destination for me.

    I really enjoyed your post and images, but only 36 exposures? You didn’t start long enough! 😁

    Reply
    • Cheers Nick 🙂 Yeah, only had a spare few hours whilst in London for something else so just one roll it was. If I go back I’ll shoot colour next time, give me a different challenge and the shots a different mood.

      Reply

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