Umbra Sumus – reflections on work to date

Posted on April 6, 2014


It’s time to take stock of how my concept for my East End London (Umbra Sumus) is working in practice.

The conceptual basis for the work is intended to operate as follows:

  • The subject is the transient nature of immigration in London’s East End. This is to be represented through a series of photographs of urban landscapes with associated texts.
  • The photographs are modern day images of places where something happened in the past that was of significance to the history of immigration in the area. The photograph will however show no obvious sign of the past event.
  • Each text contextualises the associated image by explaining the nature of what happened there.
  • The disjuncture between the textual reference to what occurred at the location and the absence of traces of its occurrence in the photograph points to transient nature of immigration in the East End.
  • Each image/text panel will be titled with the Street address of the location and the date when the modern day photograph was made.
  • The title of the series Umbra Sumus is a quotation from Horace that is inscribed on a sundial on the Brick Lane mosque (originally a Huguenot church). It means we are shadows and refers to the fleeting mature of life (or in my case the transient nature of immigration in the East End).
  • The chiaroscuro aesthetic alludes to the ‘Umbra Sumus’ title and encourages interpretation of the images based on the metaphor of shadows representing the past.

This conceptual structure has a number of specific implications for the photographs and texts if it is to be applied consistently:

  • Something of significance to the history of immigration must have happened at the location depicted.
  • The pictured scene should contain no obvious traces of this past event (this implies that the locations should not be tourist landmarks and so on).
  • The text should the nature of the event that took place there.

I’ve looked again at the 12 image/text combinations I submitted to Sharon and assessed them against this clarification of the concept. The news is both good and bad.

The good news is that all of  the photographs except for two are of places where ‘something of significance happened’ and show ‘no obvious traces of this past event’. The photographs through the window of the Huguenot house contains both the historical interior of the house itself and the portico of  Christ’s Church Spitalfields (Arguably, for this image/text combination the event in question was the ‘Fifty New Churches act of 1711’ that lead the the building of the church. On this basis it might be acceptable). The shot of the curry houses on Brick Lane is not linked to a specific historical event. I may need to abandon these two images.

The bad news is that most of the texts do not effectively point to what happened at the location. The danger of this is that the viewer will ‘just not get it’. Take for example the image text below.

©Keith Greenough 2013

©Keith Greenough 2013

My sense is that  viewers will really struggle to understand how this photograph of a modern day office block links to a comment about people falling prey to crimps and sharks. A small amendment to the text resolves this without, I hope, the text becoming too prescriptive and anchoring meaning.

©Keith Greenough 2013

©Keith Greenough 2013

The viewer can now imply that there used to be an shelter here (the title of the image/text ‘Leman Street, Whitechapel November 2013’ will indicate where the place is). The disjuncture between the modern day image and the historic text is still there (there is no  Shelter to be seen). But the link between present and past is now clarified and the transient nature of immigration in the East End’s is implied. Similar small changes to most of the other image text pairings will be needed.

Here are two new image text pairings that have been constructed using the same principles (note I have yet to formally incorporate the text and photograph onto a single panel).

On 15th October 1888 the East London Observer reported that following the murder of Annie Chapman on Hanbury Street threatening crowds had assembled. It was repeatedly asserted that no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime, and that it must have been done by a Jew! ©Keith Greenough 2014

The East London Observer reported that threatening crowds had assembled in the streets. It was repeatedly asserted that no Englishman could have perpetrated such a crime as that of Hanbury Street, and that it must have been done by a Jew!                 ©Keith Greenough 2014


The British merchant navy took on around 10,000 lascars in 1850. In that same year it was reported that 40 ‘sons of India’ were found dead of cold and hunger in London alone. The 'Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders' opened in Limehouse in 1857.  ©Keith Greenough

Strange, indeed, in the midst of so many merchant princes made rich with Indian gold, that the stranger who brought us the precious things should die uncared for on our London streets. These destitute strangers are now to have a Home.  ©Keith Greenough 2014

I would be interested in feedback on this clarification of my approach.

Another issue which has been taxing me is how to link the image and text. In the work presented to date I have presented the text and image as a single panel. This is a deliberate statement that the text is part of the artwork. Wherever the photograph goes the text goes with it. The alternative would be use the text as a caption for the image – this is the more  traditional photographic route. I need to give this more consideration and will post my thoughts to this blog at a later stage.