I’m delighted to be giving a talk at the opening of an exhibition of my work on the Indian Coffee Houses at Ropes&Twines in Liverpool on Thursday 2nd February, 7-10pm – organised by the wonderful 6x6Gallery.
This popped up on my #Facebook timeline during the summer –
Always nice to be reminded what people think of the #mentoring that I offer to photographers. stuartfreedman.com/photography-me
Recently, I was having some of my black and white archive scanned. A lot of this work had been rather rushed (by me and others) during the process that saw my old agency Network Photographers digitise as fast as we could. It’s clear that some really interesting images were missed but I suppose that was entirely inevitable. Anyway, looking through the work now, it allows one to examine past images in a new light and with fresh eyes. As I looked through the innumerable contact sheets, I saw that on each assignment there was always one or two of me usually taken in a hotel room mirror, just before I went out to work. I suppose that these were a kind of early ‘selfie’ but I realised that I’d been doing it ever since I photographed the Croatian conflict in the early 1990s. I’m not superstitious but on that trip, I stayed with a chap called Paul Jenks about who I’ve written about before here and here. I noticed that he’d often take an image of himself in a mirror – he called it the obituary picture – an image to be used in case anything unforeseen were to happen. Despite what did happen to Paul – or perhaps because of it – I adopted the habit and kept taking images of myself in hotel mirrors. At some point in the last several years, perhaps because I started to feel daft doing it and was simply deleting the images as soon as I got home to edit – or simply because I no longer recognised my ageing self – I stopped.
There is of course a great tradition of making images of oneself. Many have done so throughout Lockdown from sheer boredom I imagine but artists from Artemisia Gentileschi to Nancy Floyd (who photographed herself every day for forty years) belong to an honourable and significant tradition.
Looking through the black and white contacts made me realise that I had frozen myself in time in episodes that revolved not so much about significances in my own interiority, but in my brief appearances in other people’s countries and larger narratives. Certainly not in any pompous sense and certainly not quite Zelig-like, but worthy of further thought.
Here’s one from a grim Basra hotel in Iraq in 1999 (yes, I did used to wear one of those multi-pocket jackets) and one from a hotel in Zamalek in Cairo in 2013.
Similar (battered) cameras, less hair. Same odd life…
During Lockdown, like many people, I’ve spent some time looking over my archives. On my infrequent Instagram postings, I’ve decided to feature three images that were in the mix for my second book, The Palaces of Memory – Tales from the Indian Coffee House, but never made it. The editing process was very thorough and sometimes you have to let go of pictures that you like and think are strong but simply don’t fit a narrative. That was true of so many photographs that I made over the years on this project. Never so much as the image below however.
It was made in Shimla on a freezing cold, three-day trip staying in a miserable budget hotel, a twenty minute walk from town. The frame, shot on a really awful early digital Leica (an M9) seemed to encapsulate my feelings echoed in the face of the waiter on the first day. I didn’t like Shimla that much. I just saw a tatty old British capital playing on its dubious heritage, packed full of noisy tourists. But maybe that was just me on those days – the rest of Himachal Pradesh remains beautiful. The Coffee House was nice though. Welcoming and warm.
I remembered that I’d arrived in the evening after a long drive from Delhi with my long-time driver/fixer/partner-in-crime, the late and much missed, Armajeet Singh.
I wandered alone into the warm fug of the half-empty coffee house late at night. There were pictures to be had and now, years later, I remember the yellow light and the steam, but I hesitated and shot nothing preferring to just look. I had a coffee and left, angry at myself for not pushing harder. It was however, a cold calculation born of not wanting to make a mistake before I’d had chance to ask permission properly and work out the lay of the land. Of course, when I went back over the next couple of evenings, it was never the same.
It never is.
Perhaps that’s why the waiter’s face chimed with my mood when I made this picture the next morning. You always end up photographing yourself in one way or another. Photography’s funny like that. The frame often has you in it, even though you’re not…
It was certainly how I felt when I was just starting the project and was unsure where it would go or whether it would work.
I’ve always liked the image however.
When I was a boy, I used to walk the ‘Lane with my father on a Sunday. We’d sometimes see men selling the National Front’s rag on the corner of Bethnal Green Road beneath a tatty Union flag. This was the 1970s: a troubled time where the certainties of the post-war settlement were under threat. This was the time of Rock Against Racism and the murder of Blair Peach, where racism, nationalism and bigotry were presented in some quarters as appealing and even respectable. How times don’t change.
But each generation remembers its own battles. In the ‘90s I became a photographer, and, for a very short time, I started to make images of the ‘Lane and inevitably saw the same men selling the same newspapers under the same tatty flag.
In 1996 I made a set of portraits and interviews for the Independent on Sunday Magazine of the veterans of the International Brigades who had fought fascists in Spain some sixty years before. Many had to go and fight the same battles again across the world in 1939. A few talked about the resurgence of fascism after the war and how, when interned Blackshirts were released from prison they started to organise, prompting a far-right revival.
It was then I read Maurice Beckman’s book about the 43 Group – a historically significant but largely forgotten organisation of mostly (but not exclusively) Jewish ex-servicemen (and some extraordinarily brave women) who had returned from the horrors of war only to find fascism again on their own doorstep. I read how they resolved to fight back; to physically oppose the menace; to meet violence with violence to protect their communities. And how they had done so against the wishes of their elders and representatives.
My father lived in a poor, bomb-damaged street in Stoke Newington and, as a young man in 1947 had seen the savage violence of the long-forgotten battles of Dalston and Ridley Road. Battles unremembered but perhaps no less significant than Cable Street. I’d resolved to find those men that had stood up to a new generation of Mosley’s thugs and record them for posterity. But I never did; I spent the next two decades working and living across the world as a photo-reporter. I forgot.
Last year, I read Daniel Sonabend’s wonderful, forensic and compelling new history of the 43 Group, ‘We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain’ (Verso, 2019) and I knew that I needed to make these images to remember before it was too late.
By the turn of this year, there were only six of the original members left. I photographed them just before lockdown and, last weekend, the Observer Newspaper ran the pictures as a tribute to their courage.
Tragically, Maurice Podro passed away a week before the photographs were first published and so these images are shown in his memory.
We forget at our cost.
(This text appears on the Spitalfields Life blog.)
Here’s the tearsheet from the Observer piece that can be found here.
During this period of social isolation, frequently referred to in the contemporary (and telling) militaristic parlance as ‘lockdown’, I’ve been thinking much about outside space. Photographs from across the world show people gathering on balconies, separate but conversing, singing and playing music the way that they used to do in more normal times. This additional use of personal and public space brought me back to Delhi, the city with whom I’ve had a long and complicated relationship.
When I first started to work there in the mid-90s, which in the evolution of that city seems like a very long time ago, the majority of residential areas were restricted by urban planners to just two stories. Delhi was, for the most part, a low-rise city with a human scale. People in middle-class areas inevitably used their roof space to build a self-contained room where their domestic help would live. By the time I arrived, the ever-resourceful Delhi wallahs had decided that these quaint little structures known as barsati (from the Hindi word – barsaat – for rain) were quite chic and started to advertise them for rent as an evocative, cheap and central place for urbanites. Despite me looking at a couple (I think in Defence Colony…) I never did take the plunge, fearful as I was of being drowned in my bed during monsoon or being swept away in the loo (the dry, seasonal Delhi wind – not the temperamentally plumbed convenience connected to the erratic Delhi sewers). I remember them being terrifically popular with an arty crowd and I’d sometimes be invited to parties where foreign journalists would hold court in them, serving imported drinks on tiny tables – the decor all Diwali fairy-lights, damp-mottled walls and antique Bollywood film posters. Apparently MF Hussain (about whom I wrote about some years ago here) lived in one in Jangpura as did Arundhati Roy in Lajpat Nagar. Anita Desi features one in her short story The Rooftop Dwellers.
The transformation of Delhi from sleepy government city to a gaudy, monied and dangerous metropolis (see Rana Dasgupta’s Capital) meant that the barsati has pretty much had its day. The two-floor Delhi dwelling is long gone, replaced by a Neoliberal architecture of individualism and show: multi-storied and gated. The city, seemingly desperate to forget its past (contrasted with today’s Britain that still clings to it’s own re-invented one) is unrecognisable. It occurred to me however, just how much I’d stood on these rooftops over the years. From traditional musicians in Old Delhi to The Coffee House to a friend of a friend’s place overlooking Mehrauli forest, they always felt a way to rise above; to overlook – to observe – away from the frenetic noise and bustle.
As I look out on these uncertain, pandemic nights, coming to terms with what was and what yet might be in a very altered world, I think back years to the Delhi that I once knew – my Delhi – and wish I’d have rented that barsati after all.
Over the summer, I wrote on this blog about my series, the Heirs of the East London Group, the inheritors of the almost forgotten group of working-class, realist painters who had depicted life in a changing East End at the start of the twentieth century.
This week, Amateur Photographer magazine published a piece written by me about the work and, I’m delighted that the publication has been dedicated to, as I hoped, the late Ronald Morgan who passed away some months ago and whose image dominates the feature.
I’ll publish some of the text of that interview here next week if anyone would like to read it and hasn’t, by then, had the chance to buy a copy of the magazine.
A couple of years ago, the Spitalfields Life blog published a rather lovely book called East End Vernacular. It featured the work of the almost forgotten East London Group – a collection of painters who showed together from 1928 to 1936 and who all portrayed everyday life in a changing East End. They were mostly working class, realist painters who drew and painted what they saw around them. The book struck a real chord with me. As I’ve written many times before, I grew up in the 1970s in a grim and gloomy Hackney; a much changed landscape from the gentrified hipster hangout of today. As soon as I could, I fled the tower blocks and the grainy streets and made a career photographing (and sometimes writing about) the places that I could only imagine as a child. I spent more than two decades working (and sometimes living) mostly in Indian and Africa – but pretty much anywhere across the world that wasn’t where I was from. So the book was like a window into the past for me – more because it featured what I might call the heirs of those original artists. People like Jock McFadyen, Anthony Eyton and Dan Jones (a reproduction of whose painting of Brick Lane in the 1970s we now have on our wall at home) who painted a more contemporary vision of my formative streets.
A year ago I decided to try and photograph them all at home, in the studio or making work on the streets in a way to reconnect with my own past. The photographs connect in some way with my last book, The Englishman and the Eel as a form of re-discovery and trying (at last) to come to terms with that. It’s been a long process: a quick look at the embarrassingly extensive archive of this blog shows that I was stumbling around trying to find an answer to that more than ten years ago. See here for more on that.
Anyway, I digress. With the help of the Gentle Author, I managed to make contact with them all and each was generous with their time and thoughts. My only regret is of course being too late to manage to photograph one of my heroes, Leon Kossoff who had been ill for some time and died recently. He had a studio off Dalston Lane in the early 1970s and I remember seeing some of his work of my local area as a teenager and thinking clearly how the world could be made to seem different.
Here are three images from the portrait set of twelve. You can see the rest of them on my site here. For those technically minded, I wanted a clean, simple look to them all and decided rather than to shoot them as reportage, I’d use one or two Elinchrom Ranger heads on each set-up trying (OK… sometimes three) to make them look not lit but as natural as possible.
Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the debates around heritage in England in the 1980s (and 1990s) between Patrick Wright and Raphael Samuel. I suppose thoughts about who controls the narratives of the past (and why…) are on my mind. With the long march of the austerity project – a class war by any other name – and the framing of the Brexit debates around ‘our’ glorious past… I found myself walking, on an unusually chilly night in Lisbon recently, past a particularly fine example of an Art Deco cinema. Drawn by the unmistakable beat of a Tango Milonga, and a terrible sense of journalistic entitlement, I did what any nosey person would do and walked in.
Lisboans seem particularly adept at taking pity on lost, (purposely) niave journalists, especially those who have a very limited repertoire of Portuguese words peppered with poor French and Spanish. Especially those that walk into dance classes uninvited and want nothing more than to drink a small beer looking out to the river through the original Portuguese versions of dirty Crittall windows. When the bar isn’t actually open.
The same Lisboans, happily practising their Ochos that have seen their city invaded, like much of Southern Europe by the ravages of post-industrial-decline-tourism. People like me that come to stare at memory traces for their own reasons.
This is no longer a cinema but the home of a theatre company re-purposing the architecture. Like much of central Lisbon, actual sites of memory seem to have been transformed into what Pierre Nora called lieux de memoire where memory crystallizes and secretes itself. Hordes of millennials prowl the city looking for exactly the same Hoxton-ised smashed advocado-on-toast joints that they could find in any Globalised metropolis. And then Instagram themselves outside to prove they’ve been there. Perhaps I just hadn’t noticed before. It’s not that I crave authenticity and worthy-ness from places I visit – I just like difference. Things that are discernibly of-that-place. Certain parts of Lisbon remind me of the re-created East End – a sanitised simulacra of now hollowed-out working class communities represented by authentic and artisanal. Jane Jacobs must be absolutely spinning in her grave…
The scuffs however; the small patches of delightful shabbiness in the city and the politeness and patience of the Lisboans in the face of the hordes-in-shorts – as well as the small beer – is wonderful.
The irony of this image, taken on an iPhone with a Polaroid filter is of course not lost on me…