Lifting the Curtain – re-examining the image/text concept

Posted on August 26, 2014


In her feedback on Assignment Three, my tutor Sharon gave me a number of very useful pointers for putting together the image/text pairings which I summarised in a previous post as follows:

  • Clarify exactly how I want the viewer/reader to engage with the work and how his or her participation is needed to complete it. It would be helpful here to deconstruct each of the image/text pairings to understand how the viewer is involved in creating meaning.
  • It would help greatly if there is some resonance between the text and image to provide a segue from one to the other. Too much of a disjuncture may block the viewer/reader’s path and cause him or her to give up.
  • If the text contains a narrative element, especially something which would help the viewer to visualise the scene, this would engage the viewer’s imagination and encourage them to project the historic scene into the modern one. The more specific the narrative the better. People can connect better with the specific and move on from that to consider the universal issues involved.

I have given this some considerable thought and this post sets out where I have reached with this by presenting an analysis of the latest version of the ‘Lifting the Curtain’ book. This version of the book includes some new image/text combinations which ‘work’ better than some of the original pairings I presented to Sharon. The book as presented in this post is not the final product but I believe I have moved my conceptual thinking forward with this presentation.

Viewer/reader participation to ‘complete the work’

The idea that a work of art, literature or music needs the participation of the viewer/listener/reader/performer to complete the work links to Umberto Eco’s idea of the Open Work. I have yet to post my thoughts on Eco’s ideas to the blog, but essentially it relates to creating a work which is not fully resolved and needs the active involvement of the viewer/listener /reader/performer to realise its final form and meaning.

Eco gives some illustrations of open works. In sculpture he mentions works which contain elements that move so that the shape changes (Calder’s mobile sculptures are a good example). In music he refers to Stockhausen’s ‘Klavierstuck XI’ in which the performer decides in what order to play the sections offered up by the composer, and in literature he discusses James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’  which operates through ambiguous language allowing different interpretation.

The following comment from Eco’s essay seems particularly relevant for my own work: “Nor should we imagine that the tendency towards openness operates only at the level of indefinite suggestion and stimulation of emotional response’. This prefaces his comments on Brecht’s Epic Theatre, which Eco sees as an Open Work. To quote Eco, Brecht’s plays ‘offer a series of facts to be observed’, but do not ‘devise solutions’. The solution is seen to come from the ‘collective enterprise of the audience’.

This is how I see the design of my work:

  1. Each text is a narrative or descriptive passage extracted from Charles Booth’s 1889 socio-cultural survey of East London. The texts set out Booth’s observations of life in late Victorian East London. The text is linked to the place depicted in the modern day urban landscape of the associated photograph. The viewer/reader is made aware of this connection through an artist statement.
  2. The texts were selected to present important issues concerning social conditions and relations of Booth’s day that are connected with the place shown in the modern day photograph, e.g. a text that illustrates the working practices at the docks in Booth’s day  is juxtaposed with a modern day image of the dock entrance. Issues considered include immigration, ghettoisation, working conditions, re-development, equality, class relations, cultural and leisure preferences and so on.
  3. Each photograph contains elements which resonate with the text. In some cases the text names the location of the historic scene and the photograph shows a present day view of the same street or district. In other cases, the text describes the nature of the location, e.g. the docks, a factory etc., and the photograph shows a present day image of such a place, e.g  a redeveloped dockside wharf, a former factory etc..
  4. Each text includes a key phrase (or phrases), a trigger(s), designed to stimulate the imagination of the viewer/reader and to encourage him/her to visualise the historic scene or narrative. (The quaint language used by Booth and his associates help with this).
  5. The juxtaposition of text and image invites the viewer/reader to project the historic text onto the photograph and visualise the scene or narrative as it might have been.The absence of people in the images and the dramatic lighting (created by shooting at night time or early morning) are designed to prompt this process of projection by offering up each photograph as an empty theatrical stage onto which the viewer/reader can place the actors in the imagined scene.
  6. The ‘presentness’ of the images will ultimately jolt the viewer/reader into considering the modern day scene and hopefully to compare this with the visualised historic scene. This should lead him/her and to consider what has changed, with respect to both the nature and use of the place depicted and the social issues presented. In effect the viewer/reader is invited to consider the significance of these changes and to reach their own conclusions.
  7. Having connected with the present day image, the viewer will derive other connotative meanings from the image/text pairing. These are unpredictable and will depend upon the background of the particular viewer.

So it can be seen that I offer up the texts and the images as ‘facts to be observed’ (to quote Eco in respect of Brecht), which require the viewer/reader’s participation to create meaning. The social conditions/relations to be considered are directed by the subject matter of each image/text pairing. By juxtaposing historic texts with an images from today I represent East London as a place of change and invite comparison of the past with the present. I do not present ‘solutions’ by which I mean that I do not explain what has changed (or indeed remained the same) and what the implications flow from this. This is left to the viewer/reader to consider and to come to their own conclusions.

Image/Text Resonance and Engaging the viewer’s imagination

These factors work at the level of the individual pairings. To analyse this I have carried out a deconstruction (0f sorts) of each image/text pairings as they would be presented in a book.

At the front of the book I present two short texts to contextualise the work (in a gallery show text panels would be used to show the same information). These are as follows:



The images would then be presented in two page spreads with the text on the left hand page and the image on the right. For a gallery show the text would be shown underneath the image as part of an image/text panel (in this case sizing of the text, separation of the image and text, and text attribution are all factors which I need to analyse more carefully).

I have presented the image/text pairings below along with a brief explanation of the social issue under consideration (as set out in the text); how I hope to achieve the resonance between image and text; how I hope to engage the imagination of the viewer; and what other meanings might flow from bringing the issues raised into the present day.

St Katherine’s Wharf

St Katherine's Wharf

The text here refers to East European Jewish immigrants arriving in London via a steamer from Hamburg. The image is of the landing stage where many such boats would have arrived. The social issue is immigration. The connection between image and text is direct, with the river and the landing stage linking with the description of a steamer moving slowly down the Thames.The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘in their eyes an indescribable expression of hunted, suffering animals’. I would hope the viewer might visualise a group of immigrants sitting in a boat on the river with fearful, haunted faces. I like the idea that this representation contrasts sharply with the modern, stereotypical view of the immigrant grasping to seize hold of free social benefits. They were and are people taking a big step into the unknown, often fleeing terrible circumstances. The bright lights serve as a metaphor for the opportunity that the immigrants are seeking but they also draw the viewer back to the present. The illuminated Tower Bridge refers to the current use of the landing stage, which is largely tourism. The bright lights on the far bank show the present day usage of the riverside as a location for prestigious offices and housing. The place is no longer a point of entry for immigrants, rather a point of interest for tourists.

Hanbury Street 1

Hanbury 2

In this case the text refers to the displacement of the indigenous population of Spitalfields by immigrants (variously called ‘strangers’, ‘newcomers’, ‘aliens’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘assylum seekers’ in different eras) and the ghettoisation of immigrant groups . The image shows a street scene with old houses and a modern day facade of an estate agency. The social issue is housing/ghettoisation of immigrant groups. The connection between image and text is again direct, with the name of the street referred to in the text. The estate agency also indicates that the subject is housing.The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘they live and crowd together’ which conjurs up an image of the ghetto. The bright lights of the estate agency once again brings the viewer back to the present day and refers directly to the over-hyped state of the present day property market and the process of gentrification. The Land Rover car alludes to the nature of the current occupants of the properties, who are largely upper middle class. This place is no longer an impoverished ghetto occupied by immigrants. In the modern day context I am left thinking about  how the rampant house price inflation of inner London property and the effective creation of middle class ghettos in East London is changing the fundamental character of the area.

Hanbury Street 2

Hanbury 1

This text comments on ‘Sweated Trades’ prevalent in East London in Victorian times. It does not refer to a particular industry but could equally have referred to a sweatshop in the tailoring or boot/shoe making trades. I have read a contemporary report of the dire state of tailoring workshop on Hanbury Street in Hansard, the medical journal.  The scene depicted is the rear of some old buildings with a lighted window high on the facade.  The social issue is about working conditions.  The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘living and working in one room’. The illuminated window is the key to the connection between image and text. My hope is that the viewer will look at the upper floor windows and imagine a living room/bedroom being used also as a workshop. The room full of workers with pallid faces and downtrodden expressions.  The glimpse of the high rise office (top left) and the curry house bottom left are modern day elements which draw the viewer back to the present day. The curry house reveals the present day nature of the area as a centre for asian restaurants. It also however raises questions in my mind about modern day working conditions. Is it the case that people running such establishments continue to ‘live and work in one room’, even today?

West India Docks

West India Docks

The text deals with the process of casual work which prevailed in the docks in Booth’s time and indeed for decades afterwards. Most workers in the docks were casual labourers and had to fight for a ‘ticket’ to work at the start of each day. The image is a photograph of the dock gates at the West India Dock today. As can be seen the dock warehouses (now the Museum of Docklands) and the dock gate posts remain but all else is devoted to leisure activities (ironically the only fight for a ticket these days will be at the cinema box office). The social issue is working conditions. The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘secured a ticket by savage fight’, conjuring up an image of a disorderly crowd fighting to reach the front of a queue. In fact the prospective workers used to race to a chain across the dock entrance climbing over one another to get a day’s work. The text has a moralistic ending with the successful docker giving up his ‘ticket’ to go off to drink and gamble. Is this a critique of the work ethic of the casual labourer or a condemnation of a system which crushes self esteem? For me when I take the issue into modern times I immediately recognise that the area is now a centre for the leisure industry. I start to think about modern day working practices in these industries such as the use of temporary employment and zero hours contracts. The dichotomy between its former use as the docks and its present day use as a leisure resource also points to the changing nature of our post-industrial economy. We no longer seem to produce things other than means of enjoying our leisure time. This makes me feel uncomfortable, but perhaps it shouldn’t?

Jerome Street

Jerome Street

This text is referring to the inequality of pay between men and women factory workers. The photograph show in the background the former factory of tobacco firm Godfrey Phillips and just round the corner on Commercial Street was where Zeegan Brothers Cigar Makers had their factory. The building pictured has the look of a factory although today it houses a Nando’s restaurant on the ground floor and has offices of clothing retailers such as All Saints Spitalfields on the upper floors. The social issue is clearly sexual discrimination. For me the ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘when very quick with their fingers’. I imagine a room full of men working steadily and women working at high speed in order  to make their £1 a week. The street markings and fancy lights in the ground floor area reveal the scene as modern. Whilst it has the shape of a factory it is altogether too clean and pretty to fulfil that purpose today. Once again I see the demise of an industrial economy in favour of a service economy – a service economy offering large numbers of low paid jobs that are largely taken up by women. Whilst most would agree that we have made much progress in achieving greater equality, is it truly the case that we have eliminated sexual discrimination in pay. I think not, personally.

Shadwell Basin

Shadwell Basin

Here the text talks about the essential role docks in the process of importing luxury goods. The image shows Shadwell Basin which is the only remaining part of the London Docks, which specialised in high-value luxury commodities such as ivory, spices, coffee, tea and cocoa as well as wine and wool, for which elegant warehouses and wine cellars were constructed. The link between the text and the photograph is straightforward. However, the docks have long since ceased operation and now act as a centre for leisure and as a picturesque outlook for high value apartments and houses all around. I see ‘all of the luxuries….pass….through the dock labourer’s hands’  and ‘The fine lady who sips her tea….is unaware’ as the trigger phrases. I visualise gangs of the great unwashed handling luxuries soon to be presented with great ostentation in the homes of the patronising wealthy. The social issue embodied in this text is one of class relations. The text speaks of the condescending attitudes of the wealthy, who ‘sip their tea’ and ‘talk of the masses’. Here again the the photograph demonstrates that the area has moved away from its industrial past. In this case it has become a desirable place to live. Are we still a class ridden society? I believe we are but perhaps not in the same way as in Booth’s Victorian times. These days I feel that the class divide is more about inequalities derived from top business people (and bankers) taking home huge pay packets whilst the ‘workers’ have been forced to take pay cuts in real terms. Only the bosses can afford to buy a property overlooking Shadwell Basin….the lodging houses of the dockers have long gone.

Wentworth Street

Wentworth Street

Here the text talks of the Petticoat Lane market. Wentworth Street was and still is part of this historic market. In Booth’s time the area was the centre of the Jewish East End. The link between the image and text is straightforward with the photographs showing the empty market stalls in the early morning. The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘streets so crowded as to be thoroughfares no longer’, which creates a picture of a crowded market. But perhaps the key expression here is ‘ Petticoat Lane is exchange of the Jew, but the lounge of the Christian’. This speaks to the issue of race relations and the English fascination with the colonial ‘other’. Repeated use of the word ‘strange’, which can be taken to mean ‘foreign’, ‘other’, ‘different’ is also significant. The photograph emphasises that the area remains a market, but today there are no signs of its Jewish heritage. Today the signs on the shops reveal it to be largely Asian and as such the place retains its ‘strangeness’. One wonders if fascination with the exotic still plays a part in its success.

Leman Street

Leman Street

This text speaks of housing conditions and overcrowding. The photograph pictures new development of high rise housing in the area that Booth describes as ‘In the Inner Ring’. The link between the text and the image is straightforward especially as the text also refers to the problems of crowding in large blocks. The ‘trigger’ expression is ‘every house is filled up with families’ which paints a picture of overcrowding and multiple occupancy. The volume of new development echoes the issue of overcrowding. However, these modern day blocks have an altogether more opulent appearance and the signage show them to be expensive apartment complexes. No longer is the accommodation in this area social housing such as the model blocks build by the Peabody Trust and others. Today it provides weekday pied-a-terre’s for City types who travel back to the country for the weekends. One wonders, however, about the wisdom of this type of high rise development. For now these apartment blocks will be filled with upwardly mobile, wealthy types. In the long run, however, can quality of life be maintained in developments such as these and will demand for such properties be sustained?  In the past there have been some spectacular failures with this type of construction used for social housing but perhaps in an increasingly prosperous and gentrified East London the future for these blocks is much more optimistic.

Andrews Road

Andrews Street

The text refers to the issue of youth crime and sentencing of offenders. It specifically refers gang crime ‘in the neighbourhood of the Gas Works’. This provides a segue to the photograph which shows a street (in the area that the text refers to) with a gas holder looming in the background. The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘pistol gangs of boys aged 14-17’. It is easy to imagine this street being the stalking ground for such gangs. The presence of the cars and the warm lighting in the windows of the former warehouses to the right indicate that the nature of this place is changing. The gasometer seems an anachronism. That said the issues of youth crime and how young offenders are sentenced is very alive today. One could imagine even today gangs of youths with knives on this street.

Cremer Street

Cremer Street

The text refers to the practice of bribery of the police by publicans (and other traders) which was very prevalent in Booth’s time. The photograph shows a former pub in Hackney. In the Booth notebook from which this text was extracted there is also a cutting from a newspaper which refers to a scandal of this nature which took place in a Hackney pub. The link between the image and text is straightforward, although as the pub is now disused the viewer might need to look carefully at the peeling notice boards to see the names of beers which were on sale here. The ‘trigger’ expression is ‘pressure put upon the police….not to give up a lucrative source of revenue’. This conjures up a picture of a barman sliding cash under the counter into the palms of a policeman – numerous images from movies of protection money being handed over to hoodlums come to mind. Back to the present, the closure of the pub is a sign of the times. Cheap supermarket alcohol and smoking bans have caused a major change to the fortunes of the public house. Is police corruption still an issue today? One would hope not but the recent scandals involving policemen taking money from journalists to pass on stories perhaps show that these issues remain. Could the decaying pub be taken as a metaphor for the closure of the News of the World?

Limehouse Causeway

Limehouse Causeway

Here the text refers to drugs – specifically opium dens, which were common in Booth’s time. Chinatown on Limehouse Causeway is referred to by Booth as the most likely place to find such establishments. The image shows a dark shadowy view under a bridge at the Eastern end of Limehouse Causeway. The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘into the maze of streets and waterside nooks, we may find entrance into an opium den’. The image shows a street with lots of ‘nooks’ amongst the shadows. The name of the DLR station ‘Westferry’ reiterates the waterside link also. One could imagine that in one of these corners there is a door leading to an opium den and inside are the ‘Celestials…dreaming over their pipes’. The bright lights of the DLR station bring the viewer back to the present and the altogether brighter prospects for East London, as a place to visit rather than as a place to avoid. Nevertheless, one is still left wondering whether this might be a place used by modern day drug dealers plying their trade.

Punderson’s Gardens


In this case the text emphatically and repeatedly refers to the problems of drink in Victorian times. This was a particular problem with the English population. The image (which is a photograph taken during prospecting) shows a street scene in Bethnal Green with  a pub and gambling emporium. The ‘trigger’ phrases are ‘….who drink’ and ‘none spend it well’. The opportunities to drink and gamble away money are obvious in the photograph establishing a link. It is easy to imaging the scenes of drunkenness and dissolute behaviour. Taking the scene forward to today, we see the importance of the leisure industry rather than costers, furniture makers and so on.  Opportunities for improvidence surround us everywhere. As a society we still struggle with problems of drink and improvidence.

Whitechapel High Street

Whitechapel High Street

The text refers to the way people are displaced by re-development and that often the housing needs of those being displaced are not met by the new, more expensive  properties. They are in effect moved on. The image shows an old building on Whitechapel High Street surrounded by development activity. The ‘trigger’ expressions ‘rebuildings cause….disturbance’ and ‘provide for….a different class’. The image shows a marked dichotomy between the old building at the centre and the sparkling new developments. I find myself visualising a group of people in the old building holding out against the ruthless developers – an image which is often depicted in popular media. In present day terms the image serves to show the process of gentrification taking place in East London today. Economically this appears as a good thing. But this is taking place at the cost of losing the historic character and culture of the place.

Regent’s Canal

Regent's Canal

The text speaks of poverty, which was at the centre of Booth’s enquiry. It refers to the banks of the Regent’s Canal as a particular locus of poverty. The image links directly to the text, showing a modern day image of the Regent’s Canal in Limehouse. The ‘trigger’ expression is ‘girdle of poverty’. This prompts a vision of the place teeming with displaced people –  images of colonies of homeless people in cardboard, makeshift shelters one sees in the movies. The absence of poverty in the modern day photograph causes one to question whether poverty has been eradicated, or whether it is now simply hidden? The view along the canal leads to some high rise, expensive looking apartment blocks, which once again refers to the displacement with the indigenous population through the process of redevelopment and gentrification.

Tower Hamlets Mission

Tower Hamlets Mission

The text refers to the work of the former Assembly Hall Mission, as a centre for philanthropy and as a place of religious worship. The image shows a present day image of the mission (now called Tower Hamlets Mission). The huge Assembly Hall has long gone. The link between the two rests on the signage out front of the place. The social issues the text raises are about charity and religion. The key expression for me is ‘….thousands of people to its religious services’. One is left in amazement at the idea of thousands of people queueing on this pavement to take part in a religious service. The bright lights of the nightclub in the background offer up a more likely modern day location for crowds to form. In the modern day context one is left wondering about what we are missing in our increasingly secular society. The reference to ‘an extensive work’, which in Booth’s context means philanthropic work, is readily misread in the modern context as ‘extensive redevelopment work’ which is suggested by the full skip in the foreground.

The People’s Palace

People's Palace

The text here is about the educational role that philanthropic organisations fulfilled in East London. In this case the organisation is the People’s Palace on the Mile End Road. The idea for the original People’s Palace which was opened in 1887 came from Walter Besant’s “All Sorts and Conditions of Men”. In this novel he put forward the idea of  ‘a Palace of Delight where the inhabitants of the East End could be provided with culture and education’. Funding to build the place came from a legacy left  by J T Barber Beaumont in 1841 for the ‘intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement for people living in the East End’ and from the Drapers Company who provided the land for the development. The building shown in the image is the current People’s Palace Hall which was built in 1937 (the original was burned down). The People’s Palace retains its link with education and is now part of Queen Mary College. The ‘trigger’ phrase is ‘delighted she was to find….books you can read on a weekday’ – an image of a young girl in awe of the library at the Palace comes to mind. In the modern context the text makes me think about the role that a library has today in the minds of most young people – has it been replaced completely by ‘Googling’? The wide road in front of the present day building could be interpreted as a symbol that these days the Palace (and by inference learning in libraries) is being passed by.

Pitfield Street

Pitfield Street

Here the text refers to the cultural life of East London and diverse interests of the people living there. The subject is the theatre and specifically a conversation taking place in the ‘little house’ theatre in Pitfield Street. The image pictured is of Pitfield Street today. It shows in the shadows to the right a crumbling facade of the building which might have been a theatre (in fact it is a former cinema). The link between text and image is thus direct as both refer to the same place. The ‘trigger’ expression for me is ‘in the sixpenny seats of the little house’. I visualise conversations on the pros and cons of the performances of the theatre’s leading actors taking place in a modest, local theatre. The area around Shoreditch where this photograph was made  was much associated with the theatre. Indeed,’The Curtain Theatre’, an Elizabethan playhouse opened close by in 1577. The glaring facade of the ‘7-eleven’ store soon brings the viewer back to the present and the more mundane. Does the prominence of a shop suggest that our leisure interests have moved on? Is 24 hour shopping the predominant culture interest of modern society?

Bow Road

Bow Road

This text is about the leisure interests of working class young women, who took great pleasure in walking along the Bow Road on their day off. The modern day landscape shows the Bow Road as it is today. Bow Road remains but it is not now a place where one is likely to go for a Sunday. It’s wide and looks like it carries a lot of traffic. Its not an inviting prospect. The key phrase is ‘walking arm in arm’. I visualise a group of girls walking along having fun and enjoying one another’s company. The viewer will I hope imagine the scene as it might have been and then reflect (with remorse perhaps) how busy roads have taken over urban areas. The Bow Church DLR station speaks to the redevelopment of East London which is both a positive thing economically and perhaps a bad thing as the areas cultural heritage has been lost (this is the same for many cities and towns). The  station also speaks to a cultural shift to modes of transport other than walking and perhaps a move of factory girls’ entertainment towards West End clubs or Westfield Shopping Centre. Factory girls probably still walk arm in arm today, but not along the Bow Road. The image was taken close to the old Bryant and May Match Factory where the factory girls went on strike in 1888 and won better terms of employment. This was one of the first examples of collective industrial action by women workers in the UK. Those aware of this may interpret ‘arm in arm’ as industrial solidarity.

A full pdf of the book is available by clicking the image below:

Lifting the Curtain Book Version Seven Cover

Next Steps

The above analysis lays out my current thinking on the workings of the image/text combinations. My next step will be a further discussion with my tutor to talk through how best to take my work forward. The two options are to continue with ‘Lifting the Curtain’ as set out above or to revert to using images alone addressing the theme of redevelopment in East London under the title ‘Out of the Shadows’ (see my previous post here).

I am away for the next month which will give me time to reflect. Whichever of the two options I take I still have much work to do. I need to complete the photography (and revisit some of the images), complete my research into critical and photographic influences (and document this), think through how to present the images and text in combined gallery panels (fonts, sizing, spacing and so on), plan how I would present the work (including book, gallery and online formats), complete the book, print and poster production and hopefully if all goes well to stage an exhibition (although this may be a bridge too far within the timeframe I have for completing this course).