Abbey Road's Photographic Echo

A live cam lets you watch tourists recreate the famous album cover—and it tells us something about images in the process.
Apple Records

A man in blue jeans just walked across Abbey Road. He moved slowly, knees high and steps exaggerated, so that his companion could take a photograph of him midstep. 

I know this because I saw it happen. I watched someone cross the street in London from 3,600 miles away. Yes, there's an Abbey Road livestream, a video camera trained on the crosswalk made famous by the 1969 Beatles album Abbey Road. And as far as livestreams go, this one instantly joins the ranks of other beloved feeds like Explorer's bear cam and Nautilus Live's shipwreck cam— but it offers something all its own.

The appeal of those other livestreams, in particular, is the rare access they provide. A close-up look at a brown bear swiping a slippery salmon makes you feel like you're in the freezing water with them. A diver's view of a shipwreck comes into eerie focus as she encounters it. 

But the Abbey Road Crossing Cam, run by the legendary recording studio nearby, is captivating in another way. It shows you something you've likely already seen many, many times—but rattles conventional framing. The livestream recontextualizes a geographic place that has been photographed from one vantage point over and over and over again, rarely considered from other angles.

Experience Abbey Road on Instagram or Flickr, for instance, and you'll find endless imitations of the famous album cover. People like to mimic the album cover, the same way they jump up and down like Rocky on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, or pose so that it looks like they're propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Abbey Road livestream reveals the sense of place behind the cliche. There are people lining up on either side of the street, waiting for a turn to cross. There are pedestrians who pause halfway for selfies, and foursomes who stop mid-stride. There's also a good deal of dashing out of the way—Abbey Road is busy with cars, vans, and double-decker buses just trying to get where they're going. With the volume up, you can hear the shushing of traffic and the occasional car horn.

There's also an element of people performing for the cam. For the 10 minutes or so that I watched, I saw several passersby smile up at the camera. One woman paused to hold up what looked like the flag of Argentina. 

Screenshot of Abbey Road Studios Crossing Cam

Another woman waved at the camera, smiled down at her phone and appeared to send some text messages before looking up and waving again.

Screenshot of Abbey Road Studios Crossing Cam

The people in the crosswalk, below, stopped traffic for a good 10 seconds to get their shot:

Screenshot of Abbey Road Studios Crossing Cam

It sort of defeats the purpose, though, to post stills. Really, it's the right nowness and the motion of the livestream that makes it so watchable. Seeing people move through space and time at Abbey Road brings into relief that it's a real place, and underscores how it's always changing. All of which is much more interesting than the album-cover-esque framing we already know. 

Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

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