Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Way Out East

So I got out. Today the wife and I took a trip on the recently opened Emirates Airline, the rather grandiosely-named cable-car that runs from North Greenwich across the Thames to the Royal Docks. Predictably, the sky looked like somebody's grubby fingers had been all over it, and a slight but steady drizzle did its best to lubricate all moving things. It's still a cracking view, mind.

We were on the way to the Compressor House gallery, to see the exhibition of David Bailey's East End photos. I had vaguely thought of walking along the docks to get in the mood, but the realisation that this would only provide an uninterrupted view of the Excel Centre, together with the drizzle, persuaded us to board the DLR for a few stops. The area seemed to be heavily populated by Olympic volunteers, all dressed in their purple and vivid red jackets, though not all wearing their regulation beige slacks (which do look a bit middle-aged, to be fair).

Bailey's selected photos are made up of work from the 60s, 80s and recent years. The earliest include a number of large scale colour prints of cockernee characters, including those nice boys, the Krays, plus the inhabitants of various boozers and card clubs. They're amusing, but they try too hard. I imagine they were originally intended for photo essays in magazines: "How the other half lives", that sort of thing.

The better works are the black and white shots of decrepit areas and their equally ruined denizens, those these too shade into caricature at times. There are old Jewish shop signs aplenty, and images of Brick Lane that wouldn't have been out of place in the Lodz ghetto. It's obvious Bailey was keen to capture what was visibly disappearing through slum clearance and city development.

The 80s shots are concentrated on the Royal Docks area. This was the fallow period between the docks decline and the LDDC regeneration, and before London City Airport arose in Silvertown just across from the Compressor House. The photos are appropriately depopulated except for a handful featuring Bailey's new wife in ironic, noirish compositions, dressed to the nines and holding a handgun (a small echo of the Krays, perhaps). The skies are generally lowering and the buildings sinister. Not wholly unlike today.

These are the set of photos that show Bailey in his professional pomp, wholly in control of the subject and able to extract visual interest from even the bleakest environment. They lack the exuberance of the 60s set, and the wit of his more recent work, but they have a cold and compelling beauty to them. The use of black and white might appear regressive, even nostalgic, but it's better suited to what are essentially sculptural subjects, old pubs in otherwise flattened landscapes, dock gates and railings, and the serried ranks of cranes in the background.

The recent photos were large and in colour, many picking up the vibrant hues of saris and modern shops frontages, but interspersed with junk and jetsam from earlier eras. There's no theme here, these are random shots after all, but there is an air of sadness. Heads are usually turned away from the camera, in contrast with the face-on 60s work, and sometimes cropped out of shot altogether.

There is also a single panel of photos of Bailey's family from the 40s and 50s, including the first picture he took, a group shot on the beach. These look like the record of a destroyed Mitteleuropa. His first recognisable art photo is a shot of his sister, Thelma, in silhouette. This photo hints at the faceless compositions to come.

The sequence in chronological order moves from family, through community, via deserted wasteland to multiple communities and personal isolation. You get the sense that Bailey has ambivalent feelings about the evolution of the East End. It's a good exhibition, worth the trip (particularly via the cable-car), but do take a brolly.

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