Monday, 9 July 2012

David Bailey's East End (Compressor House, East London)

Yesterday we took a long trip down the DLR to have a look at David Bailey's East End, an exhibition that opened last week at Compressor House, opposite Royal Albert station.

The 70+ photos displayed range between the early 1960s and the past few years, and fall into what Bailey describes in his notes as three “bursts of photographic energy”.

The first grouping covers the 60s, from grainy black-and-white street photography at the start of the decade to larger evocative colour shots of the working-class social scene towards the end of the decade.

The grainy, richly textured shots taken around Shoreditch and Whitechapel were the most astonishing, reminiscent of reportage from a war zone.

They reminded me of Robert Krasker's Oscar-winning photography of Vienna in The Third Man, showing the ragged survivors of a city shattered by a devastating war as recent to them as the mid-90s were to us.

One shot in particular threw up an amazing contrast, looking down the now-vibrant Brushfield Street towards Hawksmoor's imposing Christ Church at Spitalfields. While it's now hipster heaven, 50 years ago it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic disaster film.

The next section focused on Docklands in the 1980s, in the hiatus between the closure of the docks and the frenzied redevelopment anticipated by The Long Good Friday.

As attractive as these photos are, their sharpness and artful composition, often including fashion models, lack a bit of the documentary edge and dramatic urgency of the earlier work.

However, with their recurring motifs of redundant cranes and barriers (barbed wire, chainlink, corrugated iron walls, bricked-up doorways), they're still evocative of the time I moved from Lancashire to East London (1986) – a time when it seemed that the best use for a lot of the area was for Stanley Kubrick to dress it up as Vietnam and blow lumps out of it.

Bailey moves the story into the 21st century with a batch of colour street photography taken digitally between 2005 and 2010.

These lack the historical interest of the earlier shots, but mix the expected (colourful sarees contrasted with drab surroundings) with more sharply observed moments, like a child's horse-drawn funeral in the snow or a kid posing with a toy gun and a dead pigeon.

It might be a bit remote if you're not already in East London, but the Compressor House is a nice space, and the exhibition's well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in the changing face of London. It runs until 5th August.

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