Phil Maxwell’s photographs of London’s East End 1980s

East End article taken from the wonderful Spitalfields Life. Original post can be found here

In 1981, when Phil Maxwell got a job in the East End and moved to London from Liverpool, he found himself living in a council flat in Pauline House at the end of Hanbury St where he lives to this day. “In Liverpool, they told me, ‘You won’t find people in London as friendly, they don’t have the Scouse humour.”” explained Phil, recalling his arrival in East London, “But when I moved here I found that Scouse humor and East End humour are almost the same, produced by similar forces. Just as in Liverpool, you have the river, the dockers, strong trade unions, a history of unemployment and seasonal work – humour developed out of hardship, people were able to laugh at their own demise. The East End was a small world and a wonderful place in those days. The area was a desert, so much corrugated iron, so many bombed out buildings, and many old Jewish people with a great sense of humour.”

Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s

As a teenager, Phil ran away from home in Coventry to Euston, “I stayed two nights at St Anne’s Centre in Soho and I fell in love with the place.” he told me, disclosing the origin of his affection for London.Although he spent his childhood making cameras out of boxes and created a darkroom in his bedroom, Phil’s aspirations were not encouraged at his secondary modern school,”You were basically taught you were useless and you’d be lucky if you got a job in factory,” he admitted regretfully. But it was in Liverpool where he had his first job, as a teacher of religious instruction, that Phil began to take pictures seriously. As he explained, “I was a great admirer of Bill Brandt, Humphrey Spender and Henri Cartier Bresson, and passionate to record the lives of ordinary people.” Living independently for the first time and escaping his catholic upbringing, Phil also came out amongst the teachers at his school and to some of the pupils whose parents he met on the gay scene at this time, which meant that he could no longer continue teaching. “I wasn’t going to be put in a situation where I was forced to be secretive about my sexuality.” he confided to me.

In London, Phil’s work as a media resources officer, preparing visual material for schools, allowed him an income and the time to pursue the photography that was his central concern. At once, he dedicated himself to documenting the lives of working people in the East End, commencing a lifetime’s project that thirty years later has led to the creation of an unparalleled archive of work, both in street photography and as a record of the popular antifascist political movements in London.

“I was obsessed with photography but I never thought I’d be able to make a living. And ultimately I was very lucky, because although I freelanced for some magazines, I never got a job on a major publication – which means that I kept all my negatives. And now I find that I am unique among photographers of my generation because I have complete ownership of my work. In the end, my lack of self-esteem worked to my advantage because it gave me freedom. I’ve found a way of working independently without having the integrity of my work undermined.”, outlined Phil, looking back without regrets upon the evolution of his singular career as a photographer.

The fluent pictures you see here, which serve as an introductory glimpse of his vast archive, are amongst the first Phil took in Spitalfields and the vicinity, after he arrived from Liverpool in 1981. This was the place as he found it – where he discovered his creative and personal freedom – the location which he has photographed ceaselessly throughout the intervening years and continues to photograph today. As well as recording the changes in the neighbourhood, these pictures capture many remarkable personalities that Phil knew personally. Phil’s involvement with his subjects means that he is never merely taking pictures, he is always recording life happening. Every single image is another frame in an ongoing drama, with the same people and places recurring over three decades. For this reason, Phil’s pictures have never contained anonymous faces in the street, because for him these were all the people he lived among every day.

Describing the couple stepping out of Whitechapel Station in the second photo below, Phil explained they lived in the flat below him and, once the wife died, her husband enjoyed the freedom to do all the things he was not allowed to do while she was alive. In the few years that he lived on after his wife’s death, Phil regularly steered him home drunk and left him sleeping in a chair. The demonstrators with bicycles in a lower photo were gathered in Brick Lane in support of Afia Begum, a Bengali woman who was threatened with deportation after her husband died in a fire in 1982.

It is this affectionate yet unsentimental relationship with his subjects that gives Phil Maxwell’s photographs their special quality. As Phil admitted open-heartedly, “I would be nowhere without these people, they are my constant inspiration. I always have a camera in my pocket and whenever I go out I always see something I have never seen before. I love the different cultures and histories that are on the doorstep. Wherever I travel in the world, I always come back and find a little of it here. I’ve always said I couldn’t live anywhere else – such a mixture of class, race, cultures, and aspirations and it’s all here in one go.”


Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s Phil Maxwell's photographs of London's East End 1980s




Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

Outstanding Contribution to Photography From Simon Baker

Article from Creative Review charting the outstanding contribution to photography Simon Baker has made at the Tate by .

Tate Modern hosted two major, critically acclaimed photography exhibitions this year: a retrospective of the work of German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and The Radical Eye, which revealed Elton John’s spectacular collection of Modernist photography. Poles apart in content, the exhibitions epitomise the commitment that Tate now makes to photography.

Outstanding Contribution to Photography From the Tate's Simon Baker

The Wolfgang Tillman

This was not always the case. When Simon Baker joined Tate in 2009 as its first ever Curator of Photography, the institution’s interest in the medium was pretty low and it lagged behind other galleries and museums around the world in the collection of photographic works. But in just eight years, due to the work of Baker and his team, this has changed dramatically. This achievement is why we have chosen Baker for our Outstanding Contribution to Photography award in the Photography Annual this year.

“When you walk around [Tate] now you do see photography everywhere” Simon Baker

“When I started working at Tate I was really the only person pushing, a really annoying pressure group,” he admits, “constantly proposing things and pushing people to put photography up. And now we’ve got to the point where you actually do see photography everywhere. As a cultural shift, Tate has gone from really having only taken photography b into account on rare occasions to having it as part of its DNA.

“Personally, I don’t regard that as being my achievement – I work in a team, there’s myself and there’s Shoair Mavlian, who’s the Assistant Curator and between the two of us we’ve worked really hard to get photography normalised at Tate. So when you walk around now, you do see photography everywhere, and in displays we haven’t chosen and in exhibitions that we haven’t proposed. As an eight-year achievement for me and Shoan that has been really gratifying and positive.”

Outstanding Contribution to Photography From the Tate's Simon Baker

Wolfgang Tillmans show at Tate Modern, 2017 © Tate

As well as photography featuring in numerous exhibitions, and across the collection in the expanded spaces in Tate Modern, which opened last year, Tate also made the significant acquisition of Martin Parr’s photobook collection this year. An arrangement six years in the making, the collection was purchased with support by the LUMA Foundation and now makes Tate one of the leading institutions in terms of photobooks.

“We’ve literally gone from zero on the world Geiger counter of photobook collections to arguably having the broadest and most interesting and most diverse collection anywhere in the world,” agrees Baker. “That’s so exciting for the future, for researchers and for visitors, and it’s also great for Martin because the acquisition enabled him essentially to set up the Foundation [his new gallery and studio space in Bristol, which opened in October].”

Tate has also shown a commitment to the photobook world for the past three years by hosting Offprint, a photobook/independent publishing fair held in the Turbine Hall to coincide with the annual Photo London event.

Outstanding Contribution to Photography From the Tate's Simon Baker

In addition to his work for Tate, Baker also curated (with Tomo Kosuga) Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase’s Incurable Egoist show at Arles this year. Photo: Aurore Valade

Offprint allows visitors direct access to photographers and publishers, and also the opportunity to buy relatively cheap artworks direct from makers. “We love the idea that Tate is the ‘off’ venue,” says Baker. “Photo London is a commercial fair for collectors, who are wealthy collectors, and we have this fair at the same time which is for people who can buy an original for £30. That whole world, the world of independent publishing and photobooks, is very friendly, it’s very young, it’s very creative – people design their own books, they publish their own books … it’s a really lovely world and something that we’re so happy to be the home of.”

Appropriately then, the photobook world is one of Baker and his team’s key sources for discovering new talent. “We really do most of our research and our work through the photobook,” he says. “That’s where we b discover people – we go to all the book fairs … we look around, we look at the publishers, we look at the great books that are coming out, we go on juries.

“The next show we have at Tate Modern in May – Into The Light: Photography and Abstract Art – the three youngest artists in that show, who are all in their 30s, they are all people we’ve met through the book world,” he continues. “We’ve seen their amazing, beautiful books and then you go and talk to them…. That leads you to their galleries but it also leads you to understand their work quite fully and quite directly in an unmediated way, because they’re often able to make exactly the book that they wanted, rather than waiting for Thames & Hudson in 30 years’ time to do the retrospective book.”

Outstanding Contribution to Photography From the Tate's Simon Baker

Masahisa Fukase’s Incurable Egoist show at Arles

Baker cites independent publishers as leading the way in the UK in terms of championing new talent in photography. “As a result of London not having a very strong photography gallery context, by comparison with New York for example, the young publishers have become like the talent spotters and curators for photography,” he says. “If you keep an eye on who Michael Mack is publishing or you keep an eye on who Arön Morel is publishing, or Trolley Books or any of these smaller publishing houses, you’re really seeing the best new stuff because they’re making a big effort to find the best people and decide how to support them. That’s the equivalent of our colleagues in contemporary art going round the smaller galleries.”

While 2017 has been a great year in general in UK photography, with galleries including the Serpentine, the Whitechapel and the Science Museum also hosting significant shows, and festivals taking place in Oxford, Derby, Brighton and Edinburgh, amongst other destinations, Baker admits that the UK still tends to lag behind countries such as France or the US in terms of its commitment to the medium.

“We’re certainly not anywhere near the level of France,” he says. “If you think of the Arles festival – admittedly it’s been going for 30 or 40 years – they get the Minister of Culture and usually the President visiting. It’s unimaginable in Britain. I know it’s not comparable but I don’t see the Ministry of Culture and the Prime Minister going to Format in Derby. There is a difference. There’s a cultural attachment to photography in France and America, and to a certain extent in Germany, that we don’t really have. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have it, just because we haven’t had it historically.”

Baker can see the medium continuing to grow in the UK, and Tate is committed to collecting and exhibiting photography from all areas, from documentary to art to fashion and other more commercial spheres too. He sees photography’s innate accessibility as key to reaching new audiences.

“As art has become quite conceptual and quite difficult for people to engage with in some cases, photography offers people a bit of a hand, a bit of a help,” he says. “If you go to a photography show, you have an understanding of some kind of connection to the real world, and some kind of connection to your own experience, which needn’t necessarily be the case if you go to see a sculpture show or a painting show. The work doesn’t have to be simple, but there’s always a way into it.

“It’s a very obvious thing to say,” he concludes, “but it’s so important that photography is just seen alongside other mediums as equal. When you walk around Tate, it’s just there, next to the Warhols and the Picassos and everything else.”