Interview: A Stroll Through...East London

with Photographer Chris Dorley-Brown

British photographer and filmmaker, Chris Dorley-Brown (b. 1958, UK), has been living and working in London since 1978. For over 40 years he has roamed the streets of the East End, creating hyper-real tableaus through multiple exposures. His critically acclaimed series, The Corners, was shot between 2009 and 2017 and published in book form by Hoxton Mini Press in 2018.  

Chris Dorley-Brown joined TPG Print Sales in 2019. Print Sales Coordinator, Marie-Kathrin Blanck, speaks with the artist about East London, community, and challenging the prevailing dictum of “the decisive moment” in documentary photography. 

Q: You set up your photographic practice in 1984. What brought you to photography in the first place?

A: I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, I was surrounded by cameras, binoculars, telescopes and all manner of optical devices when I was young, my parents and elder brothers were always recording, looking and filming things, to me it was normal. I left school and instead of going to college, I got straight into it, firstly working in print finishing, then as a camera assistant to Red Saunders whose work I admired. He is an uncompromising artist and politically active alongside his photography, so it was a complete education for a young lad.

Q: The focus of your work has been London’s East End, with an extensive archive of images on the London Borough of Hackney in particular. What initially drew you towards this particular place?

A: Mum and Dad were both from East London families; generations of Irish dock workers on my mother’s side. Even though I wasn’t born in London I grew up in an atmosphere formed by London culture and language so my curiosities were to find out more about my family roots and using a camera as a tool (or an excuse) to do this. Not surprisingly, my family were not bothered about the east end though, it was part of their past and they were more interested in the future, our trajectories were going in opposite directions, they couldn’t see how it offered any kind of promise, whereas to me it was everything. I was free to define it or remake it on my own terms.

Q: How come you focus on "corners" in particular for this series?

A: It was natural to find different ways to make images that had some kind or formal structure in a fairly chaotic environment and I liked the geometry of street intersections and junctions. They suggested historical perspective via the architecture, and I had photographed buildings professionally for years. I wanted to “complicate” the pictures with a social narrative by making multiple exposures of passing pedestrians and creating simple groupings or spacings in order to replicate a series of decisive moments that created dynamic movement. The pictures then became studies of people in a very carefully chosen setting that had historical and cultural contexts, some of which made reference to other photos or films that I had studied in archives or from movies, literature etc. but I didn’t feel it was necessary to reveal these sources in any overt way. 

Q: Your photographs consist of multiple exposures, combining multiple "decisive moments" taken over a period of time in one image. What are you looking for when shooting on the streets of London, and how do you decide how many shots you need to create the final image?

A: I only make one or two pictures per day. I will have researched the locations and visited at various times of day to look at the light and how people were using the space. The shoot itself lasts about an hour and I will make about fifty pictures at each spot and end up using about 30 of them, 18 to 21 for the background - empty of people and vehicles and then choose another ten or so of the people. I am led by the light, the time of day and the vibe I get from that particular place. The composition and processing of the raw images then takes another two or three days  in my workspace in Stratford where I work on half a dozen pictures at any one time. Sometimes I am not happy with the results and may go back and reshoot bits or put them aside for a while as I am sick of looking at them too intently.  

Q: At the time of our conversation, the World is undergoing much change in its fight against a pandemic. As a result, people are staying at home and many streets are now deserted. As symbols of ephemerality and permanence, for me, your photographs have become even more poignant. What do you hope people will take away from your work?

A: Yes, it is strange and a little bit scary what is going on with social distancing, but I am continuing to work in the same way despite this. I hope that any viewer of the work sees London in a new light, maybe with a bit more breathing space than is normal for photographs of this city. Often these tend to focus on quite close up images of Londoners going about their lives, some of which are courageous and revealing images, but I am no good at this approach as I like to take a step back through an imaginary wall behind me and give things a bit more time. 

Q: In this time, there’s also a sense of people and neighbourhoods coming together. For example, more than 750,000 volunteered to help the NHS. Much of your work is centred around collaboration and you have partnered with various London institutions and Borough archives before. How do you think the current lockdown will affect our understanding of community and future interactions on the streets?

A: A very good question, my response would be:  it's way too early to tell what effect the pandemic is going to have on us and how we relate to each other. I imagine that there will be a longer period of social distancing than we expect, maybe a year or so until the virus is eradicated or vaccinated.

April 24, 2020