Post-war East London photographs in glorious colour

Article from the British Journal of Photography 

Written by Eva Clifford

East London photographs

Stifford Estate, East London 1961 © David Granick

East London in the postwar years – in an extraordinary collection of images that photographer Chris Dorley-Brown unearthed in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

“The East End after the war was an imagined territory for me,” writes photographer Chris Dorley-Brown. Familiar with black-and-white shots of the territory by photographers such as Don McCullin, he’d only caught glimpses of it in colour in film and TV footage. “I yearned to find an equivalent mood in a collection of still images but never had.”

Never, that is, until he stumbled across David Granick’s extraordinary colour slides in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives. Born in 1912, Granick lived in Stepney until his death in 1980; he was a keen photographer and member of the East London History Society, and gave lectures on various local history themes which he illustrated with his own images.

Dorley-Brown is a talented photographer in his own right, who has been documenting East London since 1984, and immediately understood the slides’ worth. “I was beyond excited,” he says. “He was our man of the ground, he had it covered.”

Impressed, and keen to share the images, Dorley-Brown took on the task of digitising them, and has now published a selection of them as a book with Hoxton Mini Press, The East End in Colour 1960-1980. It’s the first time they have been published and, says Dorley-Brown, they have “a revelatory quality”.

“It’s like time travel, triggering a mode that we seem to associate directly with memory,” he adds. “Subtle, downbeat, full of clues embedded within the frame, you can take a walk though them and let your mind fill in the gaps. They are like windows into a mythical world.”

East London photographs

Brushfield St, East London 1970 © David Granick

Largely devoid of people, Granick’s shots pinpoint a key period in East London’s development, showing a now-vanished world of Victorian slums and the post-war construction of tower blocks. “What’s important about Granick’s photographs is that they challenge some preconceptions by giving us a wider and more topographic perspective, packed with ‘information’ about how the place looked,” says Dorley-Brown. “Plus, being in colour they are encoded with a photographic language that we associate with more modern documentary work.”

“There was a wilful non-artiness to the images, but they are expertly composed and lit,” he adds. “In that amateurish quality lies their power. They are pictures taken from a human perspective, no tricks, no ‘professionalism’.”

As Dorley-Brown points out, the East End has been through huge upheavals in the last fifty years or so. The closure of the docks in the 1960s and 70s brought pessimism and decline, but in the 1980s “big money began rolling in” and the area started to regenerate. “Now the kids of that generation are buying up the houses and the rest of us are getting priced out,” he says.

“I have always felt that East London presented a vision of past, present and future, simultaneously, a test bed for social integration,” he continues. “Not always harmonious, but always changing. It presents unique challenges for the photographer because it never stays still, constantly redefining and reordering itself.

“I have been looking for these images for twenty years; I knew they were out there somewhere, and now we have them. They are really the last look at a lost world, and I am sure that David Granick knew what he was doing in leaving that legacy.”

East London photographs

Alie St, East London 1963 © David Granick

East London photographs

Commercial Road, East London 1974 © David Granick

East London photographs

Spitalfields, East London 1973 © David Granick