AS I’ve learned from years of Anglophilia, Brits really like titles that start with ‘This Is’ in them. ‘This is Whitechapel’, on display now at, where else, the Whitechapel Gallery, is the latest of them. A few oversized moustaches and unfortunate haircuts aside, the exhibit, originally from 1972, could easily be today’s Whitechapel, with all of its diversity and, regrettably, its poverty. The exhibit consists mostly of Ian Berry photographs, commissioned by the Gallery in the early 1970s to capture the transition of populations at the time: from large Jewish communities moving out and a large South Asian community moving in, one which remains the predominant population in the area today.
As the area braces for more change in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, whose benefits and consequences have yet to be seen, it is only fitting that the past should be called up and reflected upon.
Known as a street photographer, Berry captures everyday scenes of Whitechapel life. The background scenery is often most telling of the rapidly changing environment in which these people lived. A man at an old-fashioned street market stands seemingly unaware of a high-rise construction popping up behind him. A group of small children looking solemnly through a glass window offer a microcosm of the changing faces of the area. The simply named ‘Man with his daughter and kitten in London’s East End’ offers a bit of comic relief, as the man casually strolls down the street with said kitten splayed across his chest, his toddler daughter adorned smartly in a fur coat and hat, the only one looking directly at the camera. Another photograph, this one of a young boy in a dapper suit, foregrounds a dubious conversation between a man and a woman in a doorway, a glimpse of life that entices the viewer to think up a backstory.
Supplementing over 30 photographs, is a collection of documents and writings representing both the original commission for the photographs, as well as the works of local creative groups like The Basement Writers. For viewers with a little more time, the books of poetry and prose are available to sit down and read in the adjoining library. Accompanying all of this is ‘Tunde’s Film’, made at the same time as the photographs were taken – a cinéma vérité-style depiction of the rough life of an East London youth, complete with police brutality and racism meant to highlight the point of view of so-called delinquents of the time.
As the area braces for more change in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, whose benefits and consequences have yet to be seen, it is only fitting that the past should be called up and reflected upon. The poignancy of these faces going about their daily lives, unconscious of the historical crossroads at which they’re being photographed, is what makes Berry’s images so appealing and so relevant. This was Whitechapel in 1972, and as the placard on the self-explanatory photograph ‘Drunks lie asleep in the long grass of a park near to a tomb’ directs us to look out the window to the very park pictured, it is evident that the Whitechapel of 2011 is not so different.
The exhibition will run at The Whitechapel Gallery until 4 Septmeber.
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