Life in Spitalfields, over a hundred years ago is brought into sharp focus by photographer C. A. Matthew. His images offer a unique journey into a past that seems within reach and almost present. For the 21st century viewer, strangeness and familiarity are blended in images that offer rich rewards for the curious gaze.
We asked contemporary photographer Phil Maxwell to comment on his favourite C. A. Mathew image as well as one of his own East End Images:
C. A. Mathew was a brilliant street photographer who took a series of photographs around Spitalfields in 1912. He probably never regarded himself as a street photographer as he worked mainly from his studio in Brightlingsea in Essex.
Image: Looking down Sandys Row from Artillery Lane – observe the horse and cart approaching in the distance.
I love the photograph above as quite a crowd has gathered to see the photographer who would have taken a few minutes to set up his camera and tripod. The inquisitive crowd of children and a few adults eventually lead the eye into the surrounding streets and the approaching horse and cart in the distance; the photographer gives us a great ‘slice of life’ with his audience as willing participants in the event.
The photograph I took of children in Brick Lane c.1987 (above) has a similar vibe to Mathew’s image. The subjects are also inquisitive and welcoming to the camera. There is a relaxed formality about the shot with the children positioning themselves around the milk crate and creating a delightful pose. The image is more fluid and spontaneous thanks to the use of a SLR camera free of a tripod. Mathew was a great pioneer of street photography unfolding the secrets of East End streets at the beginning of the last century.
Both of these photographs provide a commentary on culture and life for future generations to enjoy. Photography can provide a taste of a period in a way that transcends other art forms. At its best street photography reveals and celebrates the lives of ordinary people.
You can hear Phil talking about photographing the East End as part of our Modern Magic Lantern Shows in our East End in Focus series.
Find out more about Phil Maxwell's street photography at philmaxwell.org
where you can find thousands of images taken over the past 30 years.
The incredible images C. A. Mathew took are part of our Archive Collections. Bishopsgate Institute is currently digitising Phil Maxwell's entire
Exhibition: C. A. Mathew Photographs of Spitalfields a century ago
You can see for yourself the wonderful photographs that C. A. Mathew
took over a hundred years ago in an exhibition of his images at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery from 7 March to 25 April 2014.
Full details of all our events are available to download.
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