Photos by Chris Dorley-Brown
Dorley-Brown’s work has been exhibited internationally over the last 10 years. Using photography, film and sound he has studied a wide range of social and civic issues from portraiture to architecture. Much of this work has involved collaboration with other artists, writers and film-makers working in conjunction with public institutions & arts organisations.
I have been photographing the east end of London for nearly 30 years. I am interested in documenting the ever changing social landscape, this includes the housing, industrial buildings, roads and parks. Until now I have, for purely technical reasons , largely ommitted human presence from my photographs of the urban landscape, usually waiting for pedestrians to exit the frame before pressing the shutter. Trying to achieve a simpler graphic image was easier without the unpredictability of the movement of people who live, work and move through these spaces.
A few years ago, my brother Steve, (also a photographer and dedicated humanist) was looking at some of my prints and he said “there is nobody in your photographs”. This provocative observation has, it transpires, caused a subconscious reaction, which is only now revealing itself to me.
In 2009 I began shooting a series of pictures in the streets where both my maternal and paternal ancestors have lived over the last 200 years. The photos were originally intended to assist me in the process of “genealogical research”. Coming from Ireland, Suffolk and France, my family’s cultural and economic background has been partially revealed in the UK census documents recently published on the web. Suicidal dock labourers, Huegenot silk weavers, gentlemen of leisure, hard working widows and neglected sons have invaded my subconscious and helped to explain my DNA.
The census documents reveal how those immigrants gradually shifted location within the east end, as their prosperity increased or declined in response to the impact of economic and social developments. Standing on those same street corners 150 years later, my curiosity shifted from the building (sometimes still standing) to the people walking, cycling and driving past, nameless, anonymous figures, but continuing this endless choreography of social mobility. To me, the ghosts of London’s past began inhabiting living flesh and blood. Seeing familiar territory from this new perspective , has led, strangely, to a need to include people in my pictures.
Finding a way of documenting this recognition of urban evolution is the dilemma I am now tackling as a way of responding to Steve’s observation. Using composite techniques, each image takes many hours to shoot and even more to process, but the finished picture is deceptively simple, a snapshot on first seeing, but revealing complex layers of relationship between people and architecture. Combining the “decisive moment ” with the precision and accuracy of the architectural photograph. Each person is given space and time within the picture.
The series is now growing away from links with my ancestry and developing a life of it’s own. I now feel like a facilitator and caretaker of a body of work which knows it’s own destiny. One thing I know for sure though, if it is ever published, the dedication will be “for Steve”.