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First Kiss 70

Beautifully intimate images from London's underground

An exclusive look at Bob Mazzer's incredible four-decade photo archive of life in the city's underbelly

Bob Mazzer has spent over 40 years commuting on the tube, armed with his trusty Leica M4, an eye for real life and a fascination with human behaviour. He's amassed thousands of photos from his years spent on London's underground service documenting the lives of others – transitory souls committed to camera that Mazzer never saw again.

While working as a projectionist in a porn cinema in central London during the 1980s, Mazzer began photographing on the tube during his daily commute and the photographic social history remained unseen and unexhibited for years. The results are extraordinary – an intimate insight into the lives of commuters and the sprawling tube network itself.

His book Underground is available for pre–order now, and we've been given access to exclusive, previously unseen images. We rang Bob this morning to ask him about his journey through London's underground maze of tunnels.

Dazed Digital: How did Underground start?

Bob Mazzer: Most of them were done over a period of twenty years. But there was a peak period of about a year or two, I suppose in the 80s when I shot an awful lot when I was traveling to work regularly in London, working at the cinema. I got into photography from the age of 13 – I was very young. In fact I was at school when my art master decided we needed a photographic darkroom, and built one, and we got a photographer in, Euan Duff, who was sort of reportage, street-type photography, and he inspired me by showing me a book about Irving Penn.

DD: When it began, were you aware that you were undertaking a project?

Bob Mazzer: No, no you know I really loved the Underground, I liked the atmosphere, I was intrigued by the mechanics, the facts of it. The idea that there was this huge warren of tunnels and tubes as big as the city. It was only a few hundred feet of earth and rubble that kept the two apart; as an engineering feat it always intrigued me. And the fact that it runs relatively smoothly, and millions of people use it without too many accidents. As a social phenomenon I thought it was intriguing because on a regular daily basis, thousands of people would cram themselves into tubes and behave really quite uninhibitedly in some ways. A lot of the pictures I took had a romantic bend to them. I loved to watch people who were getting jiggy with each other or snogging.

DD: So it was about watching people interact?

Bob Mazzer: I’m interested in human nature and behaviour, and that is part of what we are, that’s how we propagate the race. I always wondered what was the most extreme example of that that I might ever see on the tube. I loved that aspect of people behaving intimately in public. It amazes me that I was able to be there with a camera, and I’m often sure that people knew. Quite often I’m obviously being discreet about it but there were a number of occasions when I turned round to people and said, 'Do you mind if I take your picture? Beause you two look really fantastic together,' or, 'You look really happy' or “I like what you’re wearing.' Basically I’d compliment them.

DD: Were people ever bothered by you taking photos?

Bob Mazzer: On the whole, 99.9% of the time people responded to my unthreatening friendliness. I don’t look threatening. I don’t suppose I look like your average reporter with a camera. I was just some guy with a little black camera that was very unintrusive; I would be very friendly, and I like people so I liked the idea that the tube was kind of a big party.

DD: Have you noticed the tube change over time?

Bob Mazzer: When you look back at some of my pictures, some of the stations and platforms and tunnels and tubes, the corridors and linking tunnels between stations are incredibly grubby. But the people? I think there is a bit more caution now. I've been asked not to photograph a couple of times in the past year.

DD: What do you think you were looking for?

Bob Mazzer: In retrospect I think what always interested me were people that I could actually get involved with myself. So there’s quite a lot of buskers photographed because I love music. So there’s one picture that I’m working on at the moment: a couple of guys with electric guitars and amps and speakers slung round their backs, playing electric guitar on a platform with a guy joining in singing and I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be them. I suppose I wanted to be in the party, the young person’s party on the tube. And I also I did find that I was intrigued and very curious about the less fortunate people that I saw. I've got some pictures of beggars on the tube and completely wiped out drunk people sprawled all over the floor. There’s a shot of a little black kid in rags sleeping on the train. I was intrigued by that question of: 'Where do these people go when they’re not in public?' One of my favourite pictures is a guy dead to the world, sleeping on a bench with his missus looking at him in complete despair and at the same time looking pathetically proud – it's a weird, weird combination. you wouldn’t want to be either of them but she’s looking at this guy who’s fast asleep, probably drunk, full of concern and affection for him.

DD: When you look back over your photos, do you feel like you've told a story?

Bob Mazzer: It's dawning on me that no one else has got a record similar to the one that I have. The earliest thing that I found is dated 1971 and ever since then there’s been a gradual build-up of images, but no one else has a record of the London Underground over such a long period. There are people who’ve gone down there for a week or a day, and they’ve come away with what I see as fairly surface images but there’s nothing that covers the same ground as I have.

Bob Mazzer's exhibition Underground will open at Howard Griffin Gallery on June 12, 2014. Pre-order the book here, details of the exhibition to be found here.