Sarah Ainslie, photographer
When I met Sarah Ainslie at The Pride of Spitalfields last week, she told me she had some photographs of the market in Brick Lane that she had taken in the nineteen eighties. So two days later, my curiosity led me round to her studio in Ezra St, where she produced a box of large prints to show me. As she spread them out on the table, I was rapt by her pictures and we spent an enjoyable, absorbing hour shuffling them around to create this photo feature for you of Brick Lane in 1987-8.
This was exactly the time I first visited Spitalfields with Joshua Compston and Sarah’s pictures allowed me to recognise how fundamentally the texture of the market has altered in the intervening years. Here you see more old people than you do today and a smaller variety of people, with barely any of the fashionable young people who descend upon Brick Lane every Sunday these days. In 1987, Brick Lane was not the place to be seen that it is now.
The market portrayed here was a more insular, less structured affair with many stalls merely consisting of piles on the ground - a surreal environment in which stallholders commonly dumped what was unsold and people enjoyed scrabbled through the rubbish, seeking anything of value. Sarah told me she was fascinated by the chaos and energy of the market, and the sense of people bringing their lives out onto the street when they displayed their personal possessions for sale.
Sarah’s pictures convey a wonderfully immediate panoramic sense of the life and atmosphere of the market, but a closer inspection reveals more. Like all good photography, her photos get more interesting the longer you look. Spot the man with plastic elephant nose standing on the corner of Cheshire St, spot the lady with the bag on her head in the rain, spot the pair of disembodied legs reclining on a bench, spot the reflection of the man with the bad false teeth caught in the circular mirror. These eye-catching fractures in the surface of reality lead us to scrutinise these pictures, searching for the significance in this compelling spectacle of humanity and all the wonderful arbitrary old junk we trash, we trade and we treasure all over again in an endless cycle.
It is my great pleasure to welcome Sarah Ainslie as a contributing photographer to Spitalfields Life, Sarah will be accompanying me on some of my interviews in future and you can look forward to seeing more of her distinguished photography alongside stories here in these pages over coming months. The Spitalfields Life header for the month of February is a detail of another photograph by Sarah from this same set of pictures.