Found Images

When the Geography department closed in what is now London Metropolitan University, these large format photographs were rescued from the skip. Many of the black and white negatives were scratched and the colour transparencies were faded (the now rosy colours would certainly not have been what the photographer intended nor what was seen when the images were first developed) but these altered photographic qualities contribute to a sense of the passage of time.

Initially, the authors of these found images were somewhat mysterious; “Brian”, “Steve” and “Don” written in pencil on several of the negative sleeves suggested rather vaguely whom the photographers might be. However, it transpired that in the 1970s Don Shewan had been working in the Geography department at Queen Mary’s College as a cartographer. Collaborating with two assistants, another cartographer Steve Pratt and Brian Canarens, a photographer, Shewan had been in the process of making an atlas of the East End and mapping social trends; there were huge and complex changes in the area with rising unemployment, factory closures, redevelopment and the start of the transformation of the Docklands. However, when Don Shewan began a new job at London Guildhall University (now the London Metropolitan University) the project did not progress and although he had kept the material for teaching purposes, when the department finally closed, many photographs were discarded.

This small, rescued collection now forms a part of East End Archive at The Cass and, although not individually authored, the agenda for making the work is clear: to provide a social document of the time. In order to do this, the photographers chose to use an unwieldy 5x4 camera that requires a tripod and therefore a fixed position, the purpose of which must have been to clearly communicate the detail. In some photographs, however, a shallow depth of field obscures information and the edges of the frame reveal a less considered composition that is more concerned with the subject matter than any aesthetic consideration. From a contemporary perspective however, the foibles, flaws and damage contribute to the fascination these images hold as emissaries from another time, communicating a particular photographic approach and providing evidence of the social changes that have occurred in population, culture, fashion and architecture.

  Links to related essays:

1. Found Photograph, circa 1971 - Words by David Howells
2. Time(s) of Photographs1 - Words by Reza Tavakol
3. Found Photograph (12/19) - Words by Danny Flynn
4. Found photograph, circa 1971 - Words by David Howells
5. Millwall Park E14 ca.1971: on finding an image and misplacing a memory. - Words by Katherine Lazenby
6. Found photograph, circa 1971 - Words by David Howells
7. Critical nostalgia, or, how else to look at a photograph

Found Photograph, circa 1971 - Words by David Howells


La forme d'une ville change plus vite, hélas, que le coeur d'un mortel.
-Baudelaire, Le Cygne.

The identity of the photographer is unknown to me, nor his or her purpose in taking the picture. In terms of genre it would certainly be considered a documentary image, and its exact location is quite familiar to me. But no other information attaches to it; apart from the stall - which explains itself well enough - there are no obvious signs as to what it is I should be looking at, or why. My purpose is not so much to look at the photograph as to inhabit it, if only for a few moments, in which case the less I know of such things the better.

I could be standing there with the photographer, a few feet away from the stall. It is mid-afternoon, warm, probably summer -I know this from the shadows that fall across the pavement on my side of the street. The sky is a purple artefact of 1970s colour chemistry and has probably shifted in hue over the decades, but it is in any case impossible to verify such things. The colour of the sky almost exactly matches the printed floral pattern of the nylon dress that a middle-aged woman is wearing in the foreground. She is counting money out of a purse to pay for something, as another woman (they are both wearing white shoes) turns back towards her. They do not look like tourists and quite possibly live here, part of an ageing urban proletariat that still inhabits the city centre. Their children will have already moved to the suburbs.

On this afternoon the stall is doing steady business but the food itself is invisible, hidden behind the counter. Nor do the signs give much away: 'F….s for Jellied Eels'; 'We Lead Others Follow'. Something hand-written and sellotaped in the window, but illegible, can be had for 25p. There is a bottle of vinegar at one end of the counter. Three men are standing, one at the counter in flared corduroys and two others either side of the stall, all with their backs turned, heads down. I imagine them to be eating some small and gristly stuff that requires a degree of concentration on their part. Having bought their takeaway food they haven't taken it very far, and still face as if in deference toward the stall. Perhaps they do so in order not to face each other, and are slightly ashamed of themselves. A canopy in red and white Punch-and-Judy stripes keeps a white-coated stall keeper - whom I hadn't noticed at first - in the shade at the back. He too busies himself with something that I cannot see, his eyes downcast.

A businessman in a suit is not even stopping at the stall, but walking fast along Whitechapel High Street, heading east out of the city. His left leg is dissolved in the motion of its step, as in the early daguerreotypes. The exposure, and the moment of the whole photograph, must be slightly longer than I had first appreciated, and time builds itself around this moment: enough time for the other six people and myself, but not for him. None of the group is interested in the picture that is being taken of them, or in my imaginary presence. It is quite probable that I already know more about them than they will ever notice of each other. But this knowledge cannot escape the confines of the photograph.When the few moments that it holds together are over at least six of they will walk away, and so will I.

Many things are less permanent than they appear to be. That stall still stands today in exactly the same spot, its territorial rights presumably guaranteed by some obscure and as yet unrepealed byelaw.But other things - streets and buildings and whole quarters of this city - will steal way as surely as these eel eating customers are about to. Tubby Isaacs' address is written over the counter of his stall: Billingsgate EC3. Billingsgate is the ancient site of a fish market at the Pool of London that will continue for another ten years before it is evicted to Poplar in 1982, and then somewhere even further over the horizon in the early 2010s. As the 1970s continue, 'markets' will become increasingly remote and abstract things with - paradoxically - more and more power over the lives of ordinary people. The stall is in fact a wheeled cart, as if it were meant to return whence it came each night, presumably pulled by its operator. But I have not known it to move from Goulston Street in forty years, although it now faces competition from an adjacent burger stall – easier meat.

In the background of the photograph, on the other side of the main road, a new office building is under construction, recognizable as Beagle House, a modernist design of Richard Seifert - 'the colonel' of London's post-war planning battles. It has recently been proposed for demolition, with approval from Tower Hamlets Borough Council. In 1971 the popular reaction to some of Seifert's more notorious projects - Centre Point, Euston Station - has not yet begun in earnest. The exterior is spanned by a technoid grid of interlocking modular cells; not inelegant, but the overall scheme is mediocre. For that reason Beagle House will probably escape the opprobrium but will not be missed, or even remembered, when it disappears again in forty-odd years' time.

The middle ground between the whelk stall and Beagle House is empty, save for the traffic moving rapidly past along Whitechapel High Street, and what must be a car park on the other side; the new building is actually further away than it appears to be. In 1971 the Aldgate road junction has recently been converted to a gyratory system, the last word in town planning following the publication of the Buchanan Report in 1963. For a post-war economy that can't actually afford much modern architecture, urban traffic systems knocked through nineteenth century cities offer a kind of modernity on the cheap. In 1971 all this is still new, and for a while, it even seems to work; the traffic is moving, after all. The Aldgate junction will eventually be restored to two-way traffic - Corbusier's 'pack-horse way' - in 2009.

Some things are more permanent than they seem to be. The shadows that fall forwards across the street from where I am standing are strangely familiar. I now realize that they are cast by some temporary hoardings immediately behind the camera. Behind them, just over my shoulder, is an empty plot, site of the original Aldgate East tube station that was abandoned in 1938, damaged by wartime bombing and demolished in the 1950s. In 1971 the site is still derelict, and will remain so. It will be briefly cleared of trees and undergrowth, as if for redevelopment, just before the economic concept of unlimited growth comes to an end in the global financial crash of 2008. The plot behind the hoardings will then gradually return to a state of nature, a Piranesian sump colonized by ferns, rosebay willow herb, ivy, and other self-seeded flora.

I have now been staring at this scene for rather too long - possibly longer than any of the other human beings involved, including the photographer - and a strange thought has crossed my mind.I cannot be sure, but the mauve of the sky seems to have shifted again in hue - slightly further towards the red end of the spectrum. My memory for colour is unreliable, but I suspect the light in this photograph is still changing, slowing down. Like a receding galaxy, this and other colour photographs of the 1970s continue to send their light towards us, but with a marked colour shift that registers their distance and the velocity with which they retreat into the past. Eventually, as the generations die out that were still able to make contact with these images by an effort of imagination and memory, they will become history: still extant but invisible to the naked eye of a present tense.

It is time to stop: the light is weakening now and this moment has come to an end.

Contact David Howells



Time(s) of Photographs1 - Words by Reza Tavakol

[1] The found photograph scanned backward from the original negative (left), and the  original (right).

Between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss.
- Berger and Mohr, Another Way of Seeing, Granta Books, 1989.

I was drawn to this found photograph (upper image) of a lock, and a lock keeper’s house, which at first glance seemed to be familiar: a lock on the Mile End section of the Regent's Canal. As I looked closer, however, there seemed to be something wrong, something that did not quite fit.  I kept coming back to the image from time to time with the hope of finding out what it was exactly that was out of place. I  noticed it was the position of the lock keeper’s house relative to the direction of the flow of the canal that seemed odd. Maybe this was the image of  a different lock  from the one I had suspected? Then an idea crossed my mind: could the image have been (inadvertently?) scanned backward from the original negative, turning left to right? I flipped the image and the resulting photograph (lower image) made a lot more sense, fitting the image I had of the Mile End lock and the canal. This little puzzling initial encounter was an eye-opener for me: there is an openness associated with found photographs which is not purely due to their authorial indeterminacy, but related to the potential ambiguity concerning their spatial orientation. It further highlighted the important fact that the act of seeing a photograph (like that of its initial recording) is never instantaneous, but a process that requires time, however short its duration may be. 

Relieved I look at the photograph again, this time more calmly concentrating on its details. It shows a two-chamber lock which was originally designed to allow two-way traffic, with the second chamber later converted to an overflow weir. Next to the canal, on the other side, stands a two-storey lock keeper’s house with an adjacent single-storey house, which is a boiler house where a steam pump was initially housed to maintain the water level in the locks. Further along the canal, on the other side of the lock keeper’s house, is what appears to be a warehouse (or a workshop), which judging by the presence of the parked cars and raised cranes is still in operation at the time the photograph was taken. In the upper right-hand corner of the photograph, behind the boiler house, naked branches of what seems to be a young tree suggest that the photograph must have been taken on a cloudy day sometime between October and March. Overall the canal and the lock seem to show signs of neglect,  judging by the peeling paint on the lock poles and the condition of the path and the canal side, a testimony to the fact that by the time this photograph was taken the canal had already been abandoned commercially for a number of years. The slight mistiness adds a somber twilight feel of the end of an era to the photograph, which is a reminder of those economically depressed times in the East End of London. So all in all, given the context of the time and the place it was taken, this appears like an unremarkable photograph. 

Despite this seeming normality, there is something uncanny about this photograph that I find unsettling, haunting. What can that be? In looking for an answer, I close my eyes, thinking of my long memories of this canal and how it, its function and specially its wider neighbourhood, have been so drastically transformed since this photograph was taken. I open my eyes and look again. This time my attention is drawn to the foreground of the image, to the surface of the water on the canal. I notice the shimmering reflections of the lock keeper's house and its smokeless chimneys, superimposed upon slight ripples on the surface of the water.  Were the ripples caused by the very slow flow of water feeding the leak that is common to all closed locks; or were they brought about by a slight breeze, or maybe even by a combination of both? I cannot tell. Despite their apparent stasis the ripples seem to create a sense of temporal tension, hinting at unknown becomings outside the frame of the image. Even in representing the seemingly obvious, photographs, like inaudible whispers, seem to leave something unsaid, something undecipherable. As if in their attempt at bringing about representational closure, they always end up leaving a gap open to the unknown. My gaze is drawn to the region in front of the lock. It seems dark and empty of water, at least down to the level seen in the photograph - like an abyss.

My mind wanders and suddenly, and unexpectedly, this image suggests an uncanny resemblance/parallel between photographs and locks. But in which way can photographs and locks be similar?2 They are both barriers against flows; one blocking the flow of the water, the other the flow of time. Or rather they both attempt to do so but never wholly succeed, as they are partially porous to potential multitudes of flows on the other sides of their respective barriers. They both seem suspended in time, awaiting becomings that are not evident at this moment. The lock hanging cross-armed, patiently awaiting its opening to let out a torrent of water to drown the dark abyss in its front. And the photograph sitting still - like a slowly withering petrified witness, oblivious to the real or imagined becoming(s) of its subject, which the photographic act had failed to petrify - waiting for the floodgates of memory and imagination to be burst open by the gaze of an onlooker.  

The most unsettling, almost magical, feature of photographs is their seeming ability to do the impossible: to capture now, by freezing a time cut along the trajectory of becoming of their subjects. But in trying to capture now photographs always end up capturing an interrupted then! A receding now that in its uneven march to the past often leaves its material and historical contexts and becomes more and more contaminated/enriched by nostalgia and imagination. So the presence photographs depict is always bound up with a profound absence; of all the other nows that the trajectories of their subjects have travelled in their absence without them. All the moments, real or imagined, that furnish the abyss between the moment(s) locked in the photograph and the moment(s) of looking. An absence that is made immeasurable when a photograph survives the passing of its subject and becomes its placeholder in the world; when all that remains is a fading image and the passing memories of that which is no longer. Thus surprisingly, despite their spatial nature, photographs encode time as a key feature, or rather times: interrupted times, remembered times, imagined times, desired times, forgotten times; a nonlinear superposition of crisscrossing times. Thus every look at a photograph is by its nature multiple: an uneven mix of the initial moment(s)  trapped by the photograph, and all these other real or imagined times. Curiously also, despite the irreversible and uni-directional nature of physical time, there is a sense in which photographs - like two-chamber canals - allow two way temporal journeys: as every gaze at a photograph has the capacity to unsettle the initial meaning/significance of the image intended by the recorder. It is these multitude of potentialities that render photographs temporal and open, despite their apparent spatial nature and closure.   

And photographs age; but like people, like rocks, like clouds, different photographs age differently. But how? Are not all photo-graphs light-drawings which once captured fade with time? This physical ageing is only one way  in which photographs age. Perhaps the more profound way in which a photograph ages is dependent on the depth of its corresponding abyss (or rather depth(s) of its abyss(es) given the plurality of the moments of looking). That depth is neither given a priori, nor is it purely a linear function of the elapsed physical time, but is dependent on the corresponding historical and material changes that the subject of the photograph and its environment have experienced since the time the photograph was taken. It is the specificity of its abyss(es) that makes every photograph spatio-temporally loaded and intriguing.

And what of this particular photograph? What does it whisper to me?  Its subject and the specific time and place of its setting open a floodgate of memories, and a window to imagination. My mind wonders further back, to long ago, long before this photograph was taken, to the early days of this canal - the days of horse-drawn barges that passed through this lock.3 I try to imagine the multitude of happenings and changes that this lock, this canal and this lock keeper’s house have witnessed in their long history. Strangely, this photograph also reminds me of a big part of my own life, the many years that I worked near this lock. Unaware of its existence, I have been a witness to the trajectories of this setting almost since this image was taken on a cloudy day all those years ago. And over this time I have also been a witness to countless other variants of this image - un-photographed: some faded in memory, others lost forever - in different lights, from different angles, in different seasons, in different moods and with different eyes: variants about which this and all photographs remain silent.   

And perhaps more importantly I have been a witness to the drastic transformations of the wider neighbourhood that once housed the setting of this photograph, and its bygone inhabitants. Every time we look at a photograph it unlocks a temporal imagination not only about the trajectory its subject has taken in time, but importantly also about all the other trajectories it could have taken. Given the inevitable becoming/passing of their subjects and their settings, all photographs are also a representation of a loss, whose magnitude is measured by their specific abyss. Given the depth of its abyss, the loss associated with this photograph is particularly poignant. As a measure of  this loss, I remember Marge, I remember Lucy, I remember Chris, three wonderful people4 who lived in this neighbourhood all their lives, and worked only yards away from this lock, around the time this photograph was taken. I wonder what they would have thought of this photograph? Like this canal, like this lock, like this lock keeper’s house, they had witnessed so much in their hard lives. What memories did they have of this canal and its neighbourhood that are now erased for ever? Were they alive today, how would they have viewed this abyss: the irreversible changes that the wider neighbourhood of this setting has been subjected to? A neighbourhood that was once theirs – with little memory of them. Recalling who they were and what they represented, this photograph brings an avalanche of conflicting images and memories, with a mixture of anger and nostalgia. And with their memory on my mind I imagine how the changes that have taken place in this wider neighbourhood during the lifetime of this photograph could have been otherwise.


[2] Curiously the construction of Regent's Canal and the invention of photography were historically coeval!
The first partially successful photograph was made around 1816, which coincided with the year of opening
of the first part of this canal!

[3] The last of which passed by this lock around 1956, a decade and a half before this photograph was taken.

[4] Who welcomed me to the East End of London with humour and open hearts.   


Found Photograph (12/19) - Words by Danny Flynn


There’s a vast difference between somebody’s having a picture of something, which demands imagination, and an illusion, which demands gullibility.
- Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues.

The first part of looking for me involves coldly describing to myself what I see, other times I just allow myself to enjoy staring in a trance-like state, however putting the visual into words always helps with any understanding.

The appearance of the top half of a street light to the far left belies a side street immediately on the other side of the brick wall, which stands tall and extends through the central part of the photograph, taking up almost a third in proportion and divides the brick buildings in the background from the flat expanse of yard in the foreground. It has rained recently or something has been washed. There are pools of water trapped on the dips in the flat surface of the concrete, which appear like lakes and rivers seen from an aerial view, along with the scars and cracks that appear like field perimetry. The figure stands alone in the frame of the photograph, isolated like many protagonists of surrealist narratives, however his alert and ready stance with knees bent, upper body tilted forward and arms down by his side appears to signify another presence (in addition to that of the photographer) out of the frame to the left and in front of him. It is as if the composition of the photograph has been deliberately arranged with the freedom open to a painter or studio photographer because of the incidental compositional aesthetics within the picture that are clearly present. The accidental luck of capturing the geometry - for instance of the telephone anchor wires, which fold down at 45 degree angles on each side of the post and offer a triangular grid - serves to emphasize the forward lean of the solitary figure on the right and connects him to another figure which is presumably just out of frame on the left. Perhaps a failure in the wide shot? The vertical and horizontal shapes of the London bricked walls and buildings (which seem to be the back of an industrial works rather than terraced housing) make the triangular formation stand out even more. Is he a worker? Taking a few moments to play with his coworker? Had they found a punctured and discarded, half-inflated ball?

The light is coming from the right of the frame, behind the man, and if you look closely at the centre of the photograph and against the brick wall you will notice a cluster of dark anomalies, each with reflected blurs of light. These appear to be projectile objects. From their decreasing position in the air they seem to be following the same drop in velocity and will land just short of the man. The chair, which at first looked like it was lent and propped up against the wall, now suddenly appears to be airborne too. The evidence that the chair’s legs cast no shadow further supports this idea. The base of the triangle acts to measure the distance of the traveling objects. So the man is bracing himself in front of an air born assault, like a goalkeeper without his defense and waiting for the ball to be kicked in his direction. But is he waiting to intercept or studying the oncoming arrangement in order to dodge out of the way? Had this developed into a barrage of projectiles meant in jest? Is he in a serious confrontation? The broom and shovel propped up against one of the bulk load of large cylindrical metal bins, that balance half the photograph on the left and put emphasis on his solitary figure on the right, indicate that some kind of spillage is swept up off the floor and deposited into the containers. Rubbish? Coal? Are they coal containers? I would imagine a truck enters the yard to receive whatever the contents are.

Yet there is a shifting certainty. Is the distance the chair has to travel if thrown into the frame unrealistic? Does the blur of the man’s right leg indicate he might have thrown the chair himself - moving his role as respondent to that of the perpetrator of the action. Are the anomalies something else? Perhaps, disturbed and vertically rising birds? Suddenly the idea of another person dissolves and the framing of the picture with a figure to the far right is now explained with the central focus being on a flock of birds. 

The picture gets me thinking of many other odd photographs I have previously seen. First I allow the simile of the flying chair (hung by wire) in Halsman’sDali Atomicus from 1948. Something about the anticipation reminds me of a badly taken photograph that I have always loved (which originally appeared in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1926) of Benjamin Péret, the publication’s surrealist-minded director who is captured (presumably verbally) insulting a priest who passes him in the street. As far as I am aware the exact nature of the insult hurled at the priest is unknown but it is enough to see these two figures engage with each other’s arresting glances. The figures in the black and white photographic Pose Work for Plinths series from the 1970s by the Scottish artist Bruce McLean also come to mind. He depicts his body as an art object in a multiple of gravity induced poses as he drapes himself semi horizontally and allows himself to either hang from, or braces himself within, three white plinths, his limbs bent at contorted angles.

As a small child I would drive a mixture of English farm tractors, 1970s race cars and military tanks in and out of a puddle of water, while World War Two English and German soldiers, along with 18th Century Prussian soldiers ¾ all set in their alert and ready poses, aiming riles, leaning forward with fixed bayonets and laying on the floor about to throw grenades ¾ were positioned misaligned from each other, surreally disengaged in their readiness, and surrounded by a line of plastic Roman Legionnaires who were pressed in the mud and tilted at angles as they faced the frozen lack of action. A photograph of all of this was taken (with permission from my mother) when someone passing observed my playing. A photograph I myself have never seen.


Found photograph, circa 1971 - Words by David Howells

'But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere.' 
And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on rare occasions may be seen to rise. 
- Jack London, The People of the Abyss.

Watching is not something I would normally be doing, either on a street or in a photograph, but in this case I have my reasons, as you shall see. The pavement here is unusually wide for London and the market less crowded than I expected it to be. Nevertheless, any progress along the street will still be impeded by stalls, shoppers, hangers-on, piles of rubbish. The stall is rudimentary, even for this place. I cannot see very well the items on sale which hold the attention of some elderly shoppers who have stopped here, but in any case I'm not watching them, or the stall holder who has just reached down into one of his plastic basins to retrieve something, or just as likely, to put it back. Nor am I watching the boy who may or may not work here (who has just taken off his watch, or is perhaps putting it back on again having set the time, or has just bought the watch etc.). This scene is really a distraction, or a cover for my true purpose, which is to wait here and to keep watching.

Two lines of sight  cross each other in front of me: (i) right - to - left, or north - south: the stall, the market shoppers looking back at it, the stall holder, the boy: this is the axis of the everyday. The moment of this scene is recognizable as a moment among others; it is what would once have been called a 'genre scene' and it is as repeatable as it is essentially static, for all the activity of the market. Photography is recognized in such scenes or moments - they are its currency. (ii) The other line goes into the photograph, east-to-west following the street, and here the moment opens out a little into an immediate future and an immediate past. At first very little happens - the breeze blowing the leaves of a plane tree away from me, people walking towards or away from the stall. But it is enough to have a relationship with things in time, as the photographer must have done. Instead of something to see,  there is a potential of seeing something which has already departed, or not yet arrived. Extended a little further, this is the axis of history, and it is along this axis that I am watching the photograph very carefully, waiting for something to turn up. It is in this respect that a photograph may exceed its face value.

The view is unpromising, but I know that this is the place to watch. Whitechapel may be the nearest thing that the East End has to a centre, but it is still a road to somewhere else.  Strictly speaking 'east' is a direction, not a place. But it is here that a young man from Eastern Europe or Russia or the Empire, just off the boat at Tilbury, might find his bearings, or cross the road to get to the hospital, or find lodgings at the dismal Rowton House ('All that civilization requires for the poorer class of working man') which lies a few streets behind it. It is from this place also that a fast escape could be made if necessary, via the underground railway that runs beneath it ('Through tickets are issued from this station to all parts of London'). The history that I am looking for - the event before the event - does not draw attention to itself, and I don't wish to draw attention to myself either. That is why I am still looking, or pretending to look, at a market stall.

Instead I find myself watching the middle distance where, just in front of the tree, there is a small monument, 'In grateful memory of Edward VII, Rex et Imperator, Erected by subscriptions raised by Jewish inhabitants of East London, 1911', with allegorical figures of Justice (with conventional accoutrements of scales and a book) and Liberty (more interesting: a passenger ship and a motor car). The sculptor has done his best, but the beaux-arts classical language available to him would have been severely stretched to answer a distinctly modern commission. Sixty years before this photograph was taken, in the aftermath of popular fears of mass immigration, there were anxious political debates over 'security', 'floods' and 'aliens', and the need for 'caps' and 'quotas'. 1911 was also the year of the notorious Sidney Street Siege in which a Latvian anarchist cell had perished nearby (one of the first events of its kind to be recorded in photographs, published in the Daily Mirror).  

Matters were rapidly coming to a head in that first decade of the twentieth century - the globalisation of commercial enterprise and the movement of capital across borders on an unprecedented scale, the consequent mass migrations of labour, and the emergence of radical dissent following three decades of falling wages in the 'long depression'  - only to be foreclosed by the outbreak of the Great War shortly afterwards. The East End was where one might come to understand the problems if not the solutions. In 1907 a young Stalin (whose passport - if he had carried one - would have borne the name Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) turned up here for a conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in Fulbourne Street, the second turning on the right past the monument. Other delegates included Lenin, Trotsky, Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg. Felix Dzerzhinsky (future head of the NKVD) was also expected, but had been detained by police forces en route. No photographs were taken of this event, but many would follow in its wake.

In 1911 market stalls like the one in front of me now would still have been here, selling the same kinds of everyday things, still getting in the way. The perspective depth of this image is blocked by the market's clutter; I can only see as far as the monument, which is itself half hidden and turned away towards the traffic on the road. As so often happens in London, the expectation of the long view is frustrated; one must work by clues, feelings and intuitions to put things in perspective. In any case the East End has for too long been prevailed upon by metaphors of depth as a place to be entered, seen into, revealed (Jack London's People of the Abyss was published in 1903). In this photograph I find myself looking west, toward the City which I know to be in the distance, even though I cannot see it; to be in an East End and looking out of it is a kind of surveillance turned inside-out. Instead of peering into depths I find myself watching for signs of movement, in anticipation of what is not yet history. This is what streets that lead to cities promise: progress perhaps, or at least a change from an old world left behind. It is a cruel promise that reminds us that there is something else always at work in life besides the repetition of everyday scenes, that nothing can be repeated; a photograph can show this as a monument cannot. The street of history may be a one-way street, but the photograph can slow down the progress into the future, and perhaps catch the secret movements by which it unfolds. For this purpose, the less historical the photograph, the less ostensive, the less monumental, the better. 

It so happens in this photograph that the historical moment is circa 1971. Perhaps it is too late: the tide of history has gone out, the East End has been depopulated and quietened, and by a seemingly permanent Cold War cut off from the poorer half of Europe. The old have been left behind, and a new kind of history has only just begun to make itself known - by the boy at the stall, the 'exotic' kaftans for sale which can just be made out on the next market stall, or by the young woman walking towards me who is wearing one.  Above her an estate agent's sign juts out over the pavement. Too late, and also too early: circa 1971 I am too young to appear in this photograph, but within ten years I will be here, walking past this place almost daily; it will become my everyday scene. Now, forty years later I am standing again in the same place, and immediately behind me there is a security camera:  watching, waiting for signs of events which have not happened yet.


Millwall Park E14 ca.1971: on finding an image and misplacing a memory. - Words by Katherine Lazenby



We are poor passing facts
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
- Robert Lowell


Photographs show people there and then, grouping together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded,
changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies. Photographs are the way we possess people, places, time.
re the way we capture experience.
- Susan Sontag, On Photography


This takes me back.

To slicked wet hair and skin white as marble in the bright light of a cloudless sky. To cooling down in water and warming up in sunshine. To games with unspoken rules, infectious laughter and excitement, like the surprise gush of water on an unsuspecting head. To play which is raucous and messy, skirting close to mischief.

This takes me back.

But to where exactly? This is Millwall Park, sometime in 1971, a place I have never visited, over a decade before I was born. So the moment this image preserves is not mine to claim, it has no place in my past. My sense of belonging, to that scene there and then, is misplaced. What I find in the image goes beyond what I see. In this found photo I find my own lost images, ones I’d forgotten to remember.

Coaxed into cold water, tiles smooth underfoot, fingertips tracing grouted grid-lines. Or fishing out bobbing wasps, the surprise stroke of a floating leaf, and treading water to watch dancing ripples of reflected light. A paddling pool on sodden ground, the squeak of limbs on plastic, or blades of wet grass tickling between the toes. I digress, drifting into images of my own: siblings splash each other, ecstatic and laughing, captured in a photograph in the summer of 1990.

Memories can be lost as well as found. They may be vivid and exhaustively detailed, or patchy, with gaping holes like a moth-eaten sweater, entire people, places and years submerged in shadow. Some memories we excavate, hauling them to the surface. Others emerge unwittingly, triggered by our various tea-soaked madeleines. Memories are also flighty and unstable, subject to alteration, embellishment, or reduction, the inevitable distortion of distance from our ever retreating pasts. To remember is to reconstruct; it is a creative, or rather a recreative act. In recollection our past becomes a story we tell, to ourselves and others. Doing so we may unconsciously appropriate and implant moments in which we have actually played no part, experiences we haven’t had. For a long time growing up I was convinced I’d been present at an aunt and uncle’s wedding. Even after it was pointed out to me that it had taken place years before I was even born, I found it difficult to shake the belief that I’d been there, that I could vividly recall the moment the bride and groom cut the cake, a moment I later rediscovered in one of our family photo albums.

Slippery and impressionable, our memory is particularly susceptible to the influence of images. To take a picture is to hold on to a fleeting moment - as Susan Sontag writes, they are the way we ‘possess people, places, time. They’re the way we capture experience.’ Photographs remind us where we have come from and who we have been. They occupy the gaps our memory alone cannot fill. We rely on them to help tell our stories, of who we were and who we are; through them we retrace our steps.

We ‘find’ ourselves in photographs in more ways than one. It is instinctive, to seek out common ground, to forge a connection. When an image such as this seems to resonate with us, echoing our past, we feel a bridging of the gap between self and other, a sense of mutual recognition, seeing a reflection of the self in a stranger. This photo captures something universal and enduring, regardless of time and place: the pleasure of carefree play, the transitory experience of being a child. Recognising ourselves, the found photo becomes more personal; anonymous and rootless, we make it belong.

The children capture our attention, just as they captured the photographer that day. Written in their faces and gestures, their thrill and enjoyment becomes a shared experience, projecting outward and hooking the viewer. In this moment fixed onto film the children are the expressions of the pleasure they are creating. The emotional and experiential centre of the photograph is instantly recognisable. Our imaginations instinctively supply what the image cannot: hearing the shrieks, laughter and splashing, feeling the warm sun and cool water, hard wet concrete and the tickling prickle of grass. We have been there before.  

Time doesn’t wait for the photographer. The animated figures in the image make us all the more aware of this. Details of children, dogs and water in motion are lost in a blur, eluding the camera’s grasp as the shutter tries to catch them. Flung from a cup, droplets of water speckle the air, suspended in an arc, echoing the solid arches of the viaduct. Two dogs skirt a corner of the pool, a palpable spring in their step. We cannot tell if they are running from or running to, or simply enlivened by the infectious glee of the children. At the edge of the photograph, a broken rubbish bin, drunkenly off kilter, spills its contents onto the grass. Tipping, it mirrors the angles of bodies leaning and crouching, the flow of pouring water. While the image suspends action, it also suggests actions to come. Children filling cups with water eye potential targets - we sense intention and anticipation, an impelling force, the image inclining forwards.

The composition draws our eye to the action at its centre. The diminishing perspective of the arches pulls us inwards, the expanse of grass below and sky above concentrates our focus on the drama in between. Against the greens, blues and browns that dominate the photo, strong accents of red at its heart stand out and catch our eye. This is where the vitality of the image lies, where its impact is most immediate.

 Here there are no self-conscious poses, no stopping for the camera’s click, though the photographer’s presence does not go unnoticed. A few of the children stare into the camera’s lens, noticing the attention. The children take centre-stage. They command the scene and have captivated the individual who stopped to take their picture. They possess an air of triumph, perhaps even defiance. Were they emboldened by the photographer’s interest, revelling their moment in the spotlight? The vantage point of the image seems low; crouching slightly, the photographer defers to the children, bringing his gaze down to their level. His act communicates their importance. A photograph is an acknowledgement, it states implicitly ‘this is worth holding on to, this is worth attention.’

To attract attention is to possess a kind of mastery. Having caught the photographer’s eye, they catch him in the moment his camera is catching them. In a sense he is one of them, playing a game they recognise, getting and being got: I splash you, you splash me, I tag you, you tag me.

The adults in the image are remote, barely present, bit players in the drama. If we look closely we can glimpse them in the distance: a male and female talking at the far end of the pool, the back of a tiny figure seated on a bench just visible through one of the arches, the disembodied head of a grey-haired woman, a dog in the foreground blocking the rest of her from view. The adults are seen by the camera but are themselves un-seeing, their gazes averted, or backs turned. One adult appears more engaged, a man in red trousers seen pointing at the pool. Yet his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses, he too is at a remove.  The distractions preoccupying these figures are not plain; they are a challenge to read, remote in more ways than one.

The longer we look at the image the more that we see, but this does not necessarily mean we gain a clearer view. With closer study we discover absences. We notice a shadow reaching towards the centre of the image, while the object or person casting it remains out of sight. In the foreground of the photo, items of clothing strewn on the grass trail out of shot, shed garments that make us aware of a figure we are not seeing. Such absences reveal the limits of a photograph, of our attempts to fully capture and revisit a moment in time.

Holding still physical movements in progress, the photograph reminds us of the movement of time, keeping at the forefront of our minds an awareness that this image is a fraction of a wider narrative, part of a never-ending flow of experience. Outside of the photograph it is lost in an instant, too quick to perceive. 



Found photograph, circa 1971 - Words by David Howells




The present order is the disorder of the future.
- attributed by Ian Hamilton Finlay to Louis Antoine de Saint Juste.

I am looking at this photograph in order to solve a problem. Since it is a problem of appearances, the photograph presents both the problem and the only prospect of a solution. It is of a commercial building that I have not once entered, despite having walked past it many times over thirty years. But this photograph has recorded something that I had never noticed (which is why I am still looking at it now): that the building is incomplete, interrupted approximately two thirds of the way along its length by a much smaller, shabbier construction, a sort of shack which occupies the gap in the facade without even matching its height. Rank visual inconsistency is a characteristic of London, and of its East End in particular, which in common with many of its inhabitants I have learned not to notice. If pressed, I will explain away such things in terms of the wartime bomb damage by which London continues to recognize itself,  even in the twenty-first century. I will continue to say of the East End that it is damaged, as one would of a person injured beyond recovery, and keep walking. Photographs are different: they offer no escape from appearances and we cannot walk through them; we can only either look, or not look at all.

But in fact I'm quite wrong about the damage in this case, which is possibly the reason why the photograph was taken in the first place. The story of this building is locally famous: in the early twentieth century Wickham's department store was planned as a 'Harrods of the East'. Numbers 69 to 89 Mile End Road were acquired as a suitable site by the developers, with the exception of a jeweller's shop at number 81 that obstinately refused to sell up. In 1927 the Wickham family decided to start building anyway, on either side of the older property, perhaps expecting its owners to eventually capitulate, which however they never did. This arrangement survived the war intact, and at the time that this photograph was taken, Wickham's had already gone out of business, whilst the jewellers continued to trade and would do so for another decade. The two disjoint Wickham premises would henceforth be occupied by a series of separate and rather temporary businesses, and as of 2012 the chain stores Tesco Express and Sports Direct. Number 81 Mile End Road is now empty and derelict. The real mistake of its builders was to try to make something that looked like architecture. The creative destruction of commercial forces - only briefly interrupted by the war - produced this anomaly, and continue to produce London's uniquely unfinished environment. One has to leave the city altogether for some time, or see this process at work in a photograph, to see it at all.

I may know the story but the incompleteness of appearances still troubles me. A photograph is a superficial thing twice over: an accident of light by which one surface is caught upon another surface, a beautiful frozen mirror without substance. Buildings are substantial, but it is by their surfaces that they make themselves known. A classical facade - even in debased form - promises order and completeness, symmetry and the correct relationship between the whole and the parts, between cause and effect, all in a composition intended for a single point of view at one point in time. It is a form that anticipates the rectangular frame of the photograph itself.

In this least ideal of cities, such promises are soon broken. The photographer finds that he or she cannot set up the camera directly in front of the building: to do so would require standing in the middle of the Mile End Road, and already by the 1970s a mass of carelessly parked cars obscures the view at street level. The symmetry of the facade is in any case already broken, not by an accident of posterior history, but by a prior accident of design. The aesthetic of classical ruins, in which the symmetry of origins gives way to the asymmetry of fate, has become so familiar as to be reassuring, but this ruin runs in reverse. And on closer inspection, those Ionic columns aren't holding anything up at all; their feet do not even touch the ground and it is actually their weight that is being supported by a curtain wall structure in order to leave uninterrupted window frontage on the ground floor.

Photographers have not only recorded this devaluation of appearances: they have also helped to bring it about. As the population of photographs increases without limit, so will the importance of the image world in our experience of the city. We now expect buildings to look like photographs of themselves. By 1927 iron-based industrial building techniques had already destroyed the integrity of classical ornament, and although modernism was supposed to address that problem by embracing it, integrity itself was never in question. The twenty-first century expedient of 'facadism' - the preservation of a listed historic facade but demolishing the rest of the building for redevelopment - will bring about a much more radical dissolution of substance and accident, and future inhabitants of London will need no longer think of surfaces as concealing depths, or of exterior appearances as expressing an interior nature. The patient work of research to discover truth in a resistant physical substance, and the attendant archaeological habits of mind - too slow, too linear! - will have to be unlearned.

If I imagine this photograph as part of a sequence which will include all the photographs in the world, arranged somehow in the right order, it will make a kind of film of history. I know of course that this is an inadequate view of both history and photography, but it is one that I cannot easily give up. It is a history in which I should be able to see how buildings have been put up and taken down, how one style has replaced another, how villages have grown into cities, and cities into ruins in the course of empire. It is what the traveller in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine can see. That is what I'm trying to do now, looking at this photograph, but it isn't working; something right here in the film of history is broken; each time I come across it the film has to be stopped and then started again. I can only make sense of this image by inserting something, a kind of erratum: 'for x read y'. I must do this every time I look at it, and I am beginning to wish that I had never seen the photograph. It used to amuse me; now it irritates me.

The name of the jewellery business that is responsible for all this trouble can be read quite clearly in the image: it is Spiegelhalter, meaning mirror-holder in German. The mirror-holders have long since fled the scene, but symmetry cannot be restored. I am now turning this photograph upside down and back to front in my hands, trying to get behind the image, to see past it, to find something inside, beyond or before it. But I cannot, it will not yield anything more than what it appears to be. Besides, I have forgotten to mention something else about this photograph: that it is not a print but a transparency, a 'diapositive'; it has no other side.


Critical nostalgia, or, how else to look at a photograph


The photographs presented here were found in the storerooms of the erstwhile Geography department of City of London Polytechnic (itself now a part of London Metropolitan University) and were probably taken in the winter of 1971 and summer of 1972.  The sleeve notes are incomplete, but from the credits to 'Brian' (Canarens), 'Steve' (Pratt) and 'Don' (Shewan) , it was possible to identify these images as part of a survey undertaken by Shewan when he worked at Queen Mary College, before bringing the photographs with him to the Polythechnic.  Although the scenes are of an everyday nature and often casually composed, the photographs were taken in a large (5"x4") format, suggesting a kind of deliberation and purpose - or at least a need for detail - which is uncommon for the type of subject matter, which would more typically have been shot in 35mm at the time. They are emphatically not 'street photography' in the usual sense of the term, and the itineraries that they trace are more likely to have been undertaken by car, and according to a plan, than 'on the run'. The large format may have served to distinguish a scientific - as opposed to journalistic - use of photography.1

Our purpose in writing about these images, and in this format - choosing to give them a kind of attention for which they were probably not intended - is twofold. Firstly, it is intended as an experiment in 'critical nostalgia'. The latter is a term which acknowledges both a vernacular trend (as in the recent popularity of historical images exactly superimposed on contemporary views of the same scene, or the use of found photographs in literary fiction, etc.) and a distinct historicist turn in certain forms of photographic art practice - over the last decade.2 Secondly, we seek to bring three kinds of reading - visual, critical, and topographic, each employing a different register of 'place'- together in one document. It is intended to be the first in a series which will eventually form an atlas of found photographs, an atlas that may be used to find one's way through a terrain which is both real and imaginary, a kind of collective dreamspace. Such a claim might seem exorbitant, were it not for the important fact that city spaces - especially of legendary status such as London's East End - have always been the site of historical speculation, of the hopes and fears of the masses that live in them. Indeed, a city which was simply an efficient and pleasant place in which to live and get things done would not be a city at all.

During the 1970s - very close to the time when these photographs were taken - the theorist and photographer Victor Burgin wrote a series of essays on photography which would be published in his anthology Thinking Photography, whose purpose was to reconsider how to look at photographs.3 The book recognised that a 'second nature' of photographic images in their ubiquity required new ways of critical thinking on the part of the viewer, and in particular that neither aesthetic formalism on the one hand, nor social realism on the other, could furnish an adequate response to the strangeness of photography. Photographs are neither purely aesthetic objects, nor self-evident, lucid documents of reality. But the arguments of Burgin and his precursors - Barthes especially -  responded to a very different set of historical circumstances, in an era before digital photography, before the internet, before an economy of 'sharing' had made every consumer of images into a likely producer of images also. Photography has long been - almost from its very inception - a 'disruptive technology' in that it quickly allowed anyone, trained or untrained - even the visually illiterate - to make an image. That is something we take for granted, despise even, but do not adequately think through, and its consequences are far-reaching.

As both the quantity and velocity of the circulation of images increases, it is quite possible that at some point in the near future - if indeed that point has not already been reached - that most people will spend more time making and circulating photographs than they will looking at them; attention is after all a finite resource. What would be the consequences of such a state of affairs? Would the apparatus of late twentieth century critical theory, predicated upon a model of photographs as 'representations' or 'messages' still be adequate to the task of understanding them?

It is also possible that in the future most images will be 'found' images: not necessarily anonymous, but viewed and circulated for reasons that the photographer could not wholly have intended. This unintentional aspect of photography has always been latent in the medium, which inevitably records more than the photographer could have seen, but it is surely exacerbated as the number of images in the world, and the technical possibility for their storage and transmission, increases.4  Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that photographs are not only 'found' but also, increasingly, 'given', in the sense that sense data are 'given'.  To say that an image is 'given' presents a serious challenge to the kind of critical practice that Thinking Photography represents, which is founded upon the premise that an image is something produced, that is to say by historical, institutional, discursive etc. circumstances, which it is the task of the photographer/theorist to understand and engage with.

The original purpose of the images reproduced here can only be inferred; the project for which they were made has not survived. As documents they are irreversibly incomplete. Their value is therefore that of fragments or ruins which, whether found or given, require a conscious effort of imagination, or synthetic memory - in other words a kind of day dreaming - if we are to look at them for more than a few moments, longer that is, than the time it takes to simply categorize them. In one of the essays of Thinking Photography Burgin notes that 'to look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to court a frustration; the image which on first looking gave pleasure has by degrees become a veil behind which we now desire to see'.5 But he does not further trace the possibilities of this frustration, or the desires which lie behind it.6 The mind cannot stand still; other than simply passing on to another image, one response may be to try to decode these images, as Burgin did, in terms of language, myth, apparatus etc. Another would be to take the appearance of things as a starting point for an imagination of how things might have been, and might otherwise have been. In either case one is moving beyond the surface of the image, but in very different directions.

The latter response is the more habitual; reverie and nostalgia are not critical disciplines, but they are popular forms of the imagination. Indeed, critical theory has traditionally been at odds with such habits of mind, and with good reason: imaginative re-workings of the past have often been conservative or escapist, a refuge from the realities of the present and the demands of the future, a kind of 'bad history'. But is nostalgia always and inherently conservative?

This project is an attempt to engage popular habits of reverie - the fascination of old photographs and especially found photographs as talismans of memory - in an exercise of critical nostalgia. Can such reverie be more than a sentimental affirmation of truisms, that 'things ain't what they used to be'? London's East End has, since the invention of the term, been a locus of such desire in a way that other, more salubrious parts of London have not: a vague territory onto which hopes and fears have been projected. Given that such habits are widespread, popular, demotic, we should ask how the energies which drive them might be used critically: in order to test received ideas, to imagine other histories, to understand reflexively the conditions of our own daydreaming. The rich latent content of found photographs makes them an appropriate basis for such an experiment.


More examples can be found on the East End Archive website at

2 See for example Paolo Magagnoli, 'Critical Nostalgia in the Art of Joachim Koester', in Oxford Art Journal, 34, no. 1 (2011).

3 Thinking Photography (ed. Victor Burgin), London: Macmillan 1982.

4 See Samuel Morse's report on the very first photographic image to have been presented to the public, of a Parisian boulevard seen from Daguerre's studio.

5 Victor Burgin, Looking at Photographs, first published in Screen Education, 1977.

6 Barthes would famously do so in his late work on photography, Camera Lucida.

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