East London Images without Texts

Posted on July 31, 2014


First it is important to say that I remain committed to working with image and text for my East End work. And that as my source of text I am keen to retain the link with Charles Booth’s work. This commitment is based on my wish to pursue a more innovative form for the work and to explore the concepts embodied in Barthes idea of text as ‘relay’ and Eco’s ‘Open Work’. This approach is not without risk as getting the texts ‘right’ has proved very problematic and frustrating.

In my previous post here, I expressed the view that presenting the images without text is one option for me to consider going forward. My rationale for why this might work that:  ‘I somehow feel that this will allow me to pursue a more personal and original response to the place and my subject of transience. It will allow the images to speak for themselves.’

Sharon whilst not proposing that this was the way I should move forward, did feel that it might be worth considering this option in more detail. She suggested that I might explore ‘What are the images doing themselves?  Put them up together on a wall or on a large table and read them and write up your findings’.  This I have now done and in this post I have presented the images (that I have made so far) which I would include in such an approach and my thoughts on what they are telling me.

These are the images:

First thing I would say is that aesthetically the images have a consistency. They are all relatively low key and subdued with significant areas of shadow. If I were to adopt this approach it is most likely that I would link the title in some way to the quotation ‘We are Shadows’ returning to the idea I considered earlier. This refers to the Horace quotation ‘Umbra Sumus’ or ‘We Are Shadows’ on the former Huguenot Church in Brick Lane Spitalfields. The quote is about the transience of life and transience is a theme which I believe pervades the urban landscape of East London.

When I look at the photographs I see a series of juxtapositions of old and new:

  • The Old Quayside, now empty foregrounds the new office development in Canary Wharf
  • The vacant docks at Shadwell surrounded by luxury apartments
  • Old transportation infrastructure, the Regent’s Canal and the Limehouse Causeway railway bridge, leading to modern development – blocks of apartments and the DLR
  • The former West India Dock entrance now the route into an entertainments centre, with cinema, museum and restaurant
  • Bow Church transformed into a bright modern DLR station – the text suggests this to me
  • The grand old building of the People’s Palace pushed aside by a major road
  • The derelict old facade of the London Hospital, fronted by a row of brand new Boris bikes
  • The warehouses on Narrow Street set in opposition to the cycle superhighway and modern apartments
  • Grand old houses in Pitfield Street and Wentworth street, now the location for convenience stores and cheap cafes’
  • Former factory buildings in Sclater Street now a playground for street artists
  • Tower Hamlets Mission under redevelopment
  • Estate agencies emerging from Spitalfields weaver’s houses
  • Boat trips from the old steamer landing stage at St Katherine’s Wharf
  • The Stranger’s Mission alongside Machine Mart supermarket on the Highway
  • The bright curry houses around Hanbury street, backgrounded by the dark ‘Munsteresque’ buildings further down the street
  • Art posters and graffiti punctuating the facade of the weaver’s houses on Fournier Street
  • High rise buildings and a Bengali monument rising from the former graveyard of St Mary’s Church, now Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel

All of this strongly suggests

  • a move away from the industrial past of East London, based on the docks, shipbuilding, sweated trades and manufacture to East London as an elegant place to live, a destination for entertainment,tourism and the arts and a site for the new post-industrial economy
  • significant redevelopment with road widening, the DLR, Boris bikes, new housing and offices
  • increasing levels of mobility as evidenced by the investment in transport infrastructure
  • changing fortunes from one area to the next with former elegance interspersed with the garish popular culture
  • The opening up of new opportunities for East London

In other words for me the images signal significant change or transience….which would be my theme. For me the photograph of Bow Church DLR station is an iconic image which summarises much of what I feel about East London today. For many being born within the sound of Bow Bells is synonymous with being a Cockney East Londoner. The temple like design and the naming of the station as Bow Church seems to signal a change to a new East London, a newer, fresher, 21st century place of light, modernity and mobility.

When looking at the individual photographs other meanings emerge for me which broaden my interest in them. For example the image of the London Hospital the run- down old building for me appears as a metaphor for the state of the National Health service. In the Pitfield Street image I see the juxtaposition of the old theatre facade with the convenience convenience store implying a dumbing down of society’s cultural interests, from the theatre to shopping. Of course other people will put their own meanings to the images but I feel that the overall theme of transience does come through.

The areas of darkness which seem to surround the ‘past’ elements of the images (the perimeter of the docks, under the bridges, buildings in shadow, the quayside) also for me seem to accentuate the sense that these features are from a former time. Conversely the ‘present’ elements are brighter (offices at Canary Wharf, the apartments at Shadwell Basin, Narrow Street and along the Regent’s Canal, the cinema restaurant at West India Docks, the DLR stations on Bow Road and Limehouse Causeway and so on). This in a way suggests a movement from dark into light or the opening of new opportunity for East London. On this basis perhaps a title of ‘Out of the Shadows” might be more appropriate and the theme repositioned slightly to be about ‘a new East London emerging from its past’.

When looking at these images I am also conscious that they were developed with other project aims in mind. In the first instance the history of immigration in the area and secondly with reference to Charles Booth’s survey. That said these reference points have served me well as a means of interrogating East London history. If I look at the project from the perspective of ‘Out of the Shadows’ I am already aware of many further opportunities for photographs juxtaposing the past with the present. Examples are:

  • The area around where Commercial Street meets Whitechapel High Street, where modern office blocks and apartments collide with old architecture
  • The former factory buildings around the Godfrey Phillips building on Commercial street which have now become offices with bright modern restaurants and shops on the ground floor
  • Riverside properties further towards the Isle of Dogs, new houses emerging from old father Thames
  • Modern apartment blocks on one side of Whiston Street in Haggerston with the wall of the old Haggerston Gas Works on the other side of the road
  • A new wine bar on the Hackney Road constructed in the building of a former pub – The British Lion
  • A view under the railway bridge on Kingsland Road with Flowers Gallery and Printspace Lab in shiny redeveloped buildings just beyond
  • Massive road redevelopment around Canary Wharf with the wall of the old docks to one side
  • Crossrail developments in Canning Town and many other locations around East London
  • Tourist attractions in and around the Royal Victoria Dock
  • East London University alongside the Albert Dock
  • Silvertown with the old Tate and Lyle factory and new development including the City Airport
  • Developments along the Lea Valley
  • The Olympic Park

There is clearly huge potential. This of course is the antithesis of the image/text approach based on Booth’s work where finding suitable texts for which interesting photographs can be made has been highly problematic.

When considering influences for this work. Certainly the idea of a photograph as a chronotope is relevant (This term implies a capacity to show both place and time in a single image). This term was first coined by Mikhail Bakhtin in a literary context. Simon Norfolk refers to this in his discussion of his work in Afghanistan as a place ‘that displays a layeredness of time’ see here. Another photographer who has worked extensively with urban landscapes is John Davies. In his artist’s statement Davies states: ‘ I show urban development through a multi-layered perspective that captures moments in the stories of a continually changing and expanding urban structure’ see here. This is a very succinct statement of my own goals were I to go down this path. Thomas Struth‘s ‘Unconscious Places’ will also be of interest. He describes the way he approaches these Cityscapes as follows ‘I take in the undertones of the surroundings, not necessarily around the famous buildings – it can be anywhere.’ This is the path I wish to follow – to document the place but not to cliche locations per se. In his cityscapes there is an absence of people, which I believe gives his photographs their power. He is in effect documenting the places which are around us but because of our familiarity with them we are not conscious of them….they are pushed into the background. Again this is what I want for my work – to document the places and to bring them to the foreground without the distraction of human presence. My previous post on Struth’s London Exhibition is relevant here. Another photographer whose work I would study is John Riddy. His studies of cities, again devoid of people, are formally very ordered and precise and for me evoke a sense of both time and place.

My overall feeling is that this approach could work and possibly work well. But as I said at the outset I feel it is much less interesting critically than the image/text option….as such it is a safe but perhaps more mundane approach. I have yet to find a way to make the image/text approach work to my satisfaction so I may yet revert to this option.