Lifting the Curtain – Project Overview for Assessment Folder

Posted on February 20, 2015


This is the full text of my ‘Overview’ for Lifting the Curtain, which I plan to present in my Assessment Submission along with more detailed papers on the contextual framework and presentation strategy.



The idea for Lifting the Curtain grew out of my fascination with East London and how it has been shaped by its history. It has been a site of continuous change for centuries – change driven by industrial growth and decline, waves of immigration, wartime devastation, and more recently post-industrial redevelopment and gentrification. My interest in East London led me to Charles Booth’s 1889 socio-cultural survey, Life and Labour of the People. Booth’s view was that ‘East London lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures’. He believed that the mythology overwhelmed the reality. His mission was to lift the curtain and reveal the truth. Lifting the Curtain revisits Booth’s East London through a series of photographs of modern day places juxtaposed with texts extracted from his 1889 survey. The locations pictured are places Booth and his associates would have visited. The texts describe what they witnessed.

As a photographic work, Lifting the Curtain is multilayered. At its heart it is essentially documentary. The photographs record the urban landscape of East London as it is today but also evoke a sense of the past, revealing remnants of older phases of urban development mixed in with present day architecture, signage and  ‘street furniture’. It is also a conceptual work. By choosing locations visited by Charles Booth in late Victorian times and by juxtaposing texts relating to these locations drawn from Booth’s survey, I offer up a comparison of the past and present. My intention is to reveal the transient nature of the urban scene in East London, to engage the viewer/reader in imagining the past and considering a range of social issues – both past and present.

My decision to make the photographs at night and in the early morning is part of the conceptual framework. The absence of people and the dramatic lighting give the images the feel of an empty ‘theatrical stage’ onto which the viewer is invited to project the scenes witnessed by Booth. The deep shadows in the photographs give the work a psychological charge and serve as metaphors for the transience of life and people passed — an idea echoed in the quotation ‘Umbra Sumus’ (‘We are Shadows’) on a plaque above the entrance to the Brick Lane Mosque in Spitalfields.

Given the nature of the work it is perhaps not surprising that I have been influenced by a range of photographers/artists. Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site (Sternfeld, 2012) and David Gillanders’ uncivilised (Gillanders, 2008) were significant early influences. Each photographed sites where tragedies and violence had taken place. The photographs show little or no sign of the past event. Texts recounting what took place at each location are displayed alongside the photographs, which become sites for contemplation. I discovered Chloe Dewe Mathews Shot at Dawn (Mathews, 2014) somewhat later. Her work, which revisits the locations of executions of First World War deserters, is similar in character.

Simon Norfolk was a key influence aesthetically. In Burke and Norfolk many of the photographs were made in the early morning, giving them a blue tone (Norfolk, 2011). He has said that this was ‘an expression of disappointment’, that the situation in Afghanistan remains unresolved. Dewe Mathews also uses early morning light to evoke mood and to reinforce her underlying concept.

I also learned a great deal from studying the way in which Karen Knorr and Anna Fox work with image and text. Knorr’s Gentlemen (Knorr, 1981-83) and Fox’s My Mother’s Cupboards (Fox, 2000) are excellent examples of how interplay between image and text can be used to open up layers of meaning. Spatial organisation, sentence structure, choice of font size and so on, are all given careful consideration. 

The critical underpinning of Lifting the Curtain relies in particular on Roland Barthes’ ideas on photographic meaning as set out in Image Music Text (Barthes, 1977), and Umberto Eco’s concepts of openness in works of art from The Open Work (Eco, 1989). Eco’s view of Brecht’s Epic Theatre caught my attention. He sees the dramatist presenting ‘facts to be observed’, requiring the active participation of the audience to determine meaning. My strategy has been to direct the viewer/reader to consider certain social issues in both past and modern contexts, but not to tell him/her what conclusions to reach.

Lifting the Curtain is presented in the form of a hardback book and an exhibition, which is how Booth also published his work. Throughout his survey Booth used Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel as his headquarters. Its charitable work is still going strong today and its vision remains ‘To eradicate all forms of poverty’. My plan is to link the presentation of my work to a fundraising effort for Toynbee Hall,  raising money for them through sales of the book and exhibition prints. I believe that this approach will help me to promote my work, both to potential ‘customers’ who might buy my book and to gallery owners who might agree to host my exhibition. At the same time it would enable me to give back something to East London, in the spirit of Charles Booth. Toynbee Hall has agreed to work with me and has written a foreword for my book. 

The book is 8×10 inches with a cloth hard back and dust cover. The images and texts are placed on opposing pages with the text on the right hand page and the image on the left. My intention is that the text be read first — eyes of the Western viewer will naturally fall first on the right hand page. The text is centre-justified and broken up/arranged so as to differentiate it from a caption and to place emphasis on key words at the end of lines. I use an old font style similar  to that used in Booth’s book. The narrative is a series of episodes starting with a point of arrival – a landing stage on the Thames where many of East London’s immigrants would have disembarked in Booth’s day. Subsequent image/text pairings are sequenced according to the social issues to which they relate – working conditions, race relations and so on. I return to the river for the final image/text which comments on Docklands re-development, past and present. The book was launched as a limited ‘signed’ first edition of 40 numbered copies in April 2015. It is priced at £25, with the aim of raising £1000 for Toynbee Hall. By the end of April [x] copies had been sold.

The exhibition will take the form of a series of image/text diptychs, each comprising of 80×60 cm photograph and a 10×8 inch text panel. Both will be mounted in black frames and placed side by side on the wall. The framing of the text is intended to emphasise that it is not just a simple caption and the relatively large-scale photographs  allow viewers to immerse themselves in the scenes depicted. I would hope to stage the exhibition at a venue close to Toynbee Hall, as part of the East London International Photography Festival, PhotoMonth in the autumn of 2015, enabling me to benefit from the publicity for the festival. 

Promotion of both the book and the exhibition  has/will be by direct email to personal contacts, through social media, and via press releases and a poster campaign.  I have also sought to raise the profile of Lifting the Curtain by showing some of the work at open and group exhibitions. To date work from Lifting the Curtain has been published in the September 2014 edition of on-line magazine #Photography and exhibited at the East London International Photography Festival Open in November 2014 and [Memories] exhibition in Oxford in May 2015.

Looking back on the development of Lifting the Curtain, what stands out is how the nature of the work evolved over time. From the outset my intention has been to explore East London’s links with its past by creating an open dialogue between present day photographs and historic texts. This proved much harder than I had imagined. My starting point was to use East London’s connection with immigration as the catalyst for the work. Part way through I decided to abandon this approach. It had become a polemic on racial violence presenting the ideas of others, not my own.

I moved on and began to consider linking my photographs to a single text. East London has a rich literary  history. I looked at many possibilities but the option, which stood out for me, was Charles Booth’s 1889 socio-cultural survey. In amongst the dry statistical data, there were snippets that brought Victorian East London to life. It covered the gamut of social issues and Booth’s structured approach appealed to my own way of working. I felt that I could mirror his methodology in photographic form. I was rewarded as unforeseen linkages between past and present opened up. Whilst it is certainly the case that I have been influenced by other artist/photographers, I believe that I have created something new and different. Lifting the Curtain sets out a dialogue between two voices, Booth’s and my own — his representing the past and mine the present. I have achieved my aims for the project but not as I had first imagined. I got there as Booth did by being systematic, but also through a willingness to experiment.


Sternfeld J. (2012) On This Site Gottingen: Steidl

Gillanders D. (2008) uncivilised Available from:  [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

Dewe Mathews C. (2014) Shot at Dawn Madrid: Ivorypress

Knorr K. (1981-83) Gentlemen Available from:  [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

Fox A. (2000) My Mother’s Cupboards Anna Fox Website Available from:  [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

Norfolk S. (2011) Burke +Norfolk Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Barthes R. (1977) Image Music Text London: Fontana Press

Eco U. (1989) The Open Work Cambridge: Harvard University Press