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.”
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.”
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell