Ralf Obergfell - Last Stop
I was thirteen years old when I first noticed these iconic red London buses. One day they just appeared on TV at my parents’ house in Germany.
I loved the bright striking red, the powerful design elements, its friendly-looking curves, the open platform with the chrome pole, and the fact that the bus was still conductor-operated.
The Routemaster conveyed a sense of original London street furniture, a classic piece of art and technology, loved and valued by Londoners and visitors alike. It presented a sense of communal spirit that just made it fun to ride on.
Some of us Black Forest teenage kids would get excited by the sexy shenanigans we’d get ourselves into. But London would get us quite hot, too. We grew up listening to early ’80s English bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Duran Duran. The punk, gothic and new romantic fashion sense that went with their music seemed outrageous, dark and fun.
After years of fantasising about moving to London, I finally moved to the Big Smoke when I was twenty. The moment I arrived I was hooked on its crazy creative buzz.
My interest in photography was driven by childhood fantasies about friends. Photography was a constant in our family, Dad photographed a lot. Eventually I would start taking my first pictures of friends at school.
In 2001, I was introduced to Photodebut, an East London art collective that promoted and connected emerging photographers.
I submitted a small body of work and became a founding member. At Photodebut we would critically engage with our works, share ideas, create shows, organise educational talks and eventually publish a book, which closed the Photodebut chapter after seven great years of ups and downs.
At the collective I became friends with Maxine Beuret and Jet. Maxine expressed an interest in working on a collaborative project and mentioned that the Routemasters were to be withdrawn from commercial operation. We soon realised that the three of us shared a deep-rooted passion for the Routemaster and decided to create a visual record of its last 18 months of service.
We began shooting in May 2004, both together and individually. Over time we would produce a substantial body of work that documented interior and exterior design elements, passengers and conductors, the garages and operations.
Unfortunately Maxine was forced to end her involvement at the end of 2004 to devote her efforts to another transport-related project: the decommissioning of slam-door trains on the rail network.
Jet and I continued, with Jet focusing on drivers and conductors with their vehicles at the depots, while my focus was on the buses’ design elements and the unexpected moments that arose during their working days out on the streets of London.
Shooting predominantly took place on the Arriva 19 and 38 ‘brother and sister’ routes, running between Hackney in the north-east, Victoria in central London and Battersea in the south-west.
En route, I became friends with conductors Kathy and Phil. Kathy worked on the 19, Phil on the 38. Some days I’d stay with them from one end of the route to the other and back again. On other days I’d go jumping on and off, getting onto any Routemaster that was coming from either direction. The desire to go out there and hunt for those unexpected moments was great fun.
Once we had a comprehensive body of work in place, Emotional Designers created Routemasters.co.uk for us. The site was originally launched in May 2005, and in April 2006 became permanently archived by the British Library in the name of national heritage.
I was disappointed to learn that Jet didn't wish to pursue the idea of a book. With her blessing, I decided to go on alone and fulfil a dream of what would become my first photography book, which also features some of Jet’s amazing photographs.
Last Stop: a labour of love and homage to London.