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Phil Maxwell, photographer

August 6, 2010
by the gentle author

In 1981, when Phil Maxwell got a job in the East End and moved to London from Liverpool, he found himself living in a council flat in Pauline House at the end of Hanbury St where he lives to this day. “In Liverpool, they told me, ‘You won’t find people in London as friendly, they don’t have the Scouse humour.”" explained Phil, recalling his arrival in East London, “But when I moved here I found that Scouse humor and East End humour are almost the same, produced by similar forces. Just as in Liverpool, you have the river, the dockers, strong trade unions, a history of unemployment and seasonal work – humour developed out of hardship, people were able to laugh at their own demise. The East End was a small world and a wonderful place in those days. The area was a desert, so much corrugated iron, so many bombed out buildings, and many old Jewish people with a great sense of humour.”

As a teenager, Phil ran away from home in Coventry to Euston, “I stayed two nights at St Anne’s Centre in Soho and I fell in love with the place.” he told me, disclosing the origin of his affection for London. Although he spent his childhood making cameras out of boxes and created a darkroom in his bedroom, Phil’s aspirations were not encouraged at his secondary modern school,”You were basically taught you were useless and you’d be lucky if you got a job in factory,” he admitted regretfully. But it was in Liverpool where he had his first job, as a teacher of religious instruction, that Phil began to take pictures seriously. As he explained, “I was a great admirer of Bill Brandt, Humphrey Spender and Henri Cartier Bresson, and passionate to record the lives of ordinary people.” Living independently for the first time and escaping his catholic upbringing, Phil also came out amongst the teachers at his school and to some of the pupils whose parents he met on the gay scene at this time, which meant that he could no longer continue teaching. “I wasn’t going to be put in a situation where I was forced to be secretive about my sexuality.” he confided to me.

In London, Phil’s work as a media resources officer, preparing visual material for schools, allowed him an income and the time to pursue the photography that was his central concern. At once, he dedicated himself to documenting the lives of working people in the East End, commencing a lifetime’s project that thirty years later has led to the creation of an unparalleled archive of work, both in street photography and as a record of the popular antifascist political movements in London.

“I was obsessed with photography but I never thought I’d be able to make a living. And ultimately I was very lucky, because although I freelanced for some magazines, I never got a job on a major publication – which means that I kept all my negatives. And now I find that I am unique among photographers of my generation because I have complete ownership of my work. In the end, my lack of self-esteem worked to my advantage because it gave me freedom. I’ve found a way of working independently without having the integrity of my work undermined.”, outlined Phil, looking back without regrets upon the evolution of his singular career as a photographer.

The fluent pictures you see here, which serve as an introductory glimpse of his vast archive, are amongst the first Phil took in Spitalfields and the vicinity, after he arrived from Liverpool in 1981. This was the place as he found it – where he discovered his creative and personal freedom – the location which he has photographed ceaselessly throughout the intervening years and continues to photograph today. As well as recording the changes in the neighbourhood, these pictures capture many remarkable personalities that Phil knew personally. Phil’s involvement with his subjects means that he is never merely taking pictures, he is always recording life happening. Every single image is another frame in an ongoing drama, with the same people and places recurring over three decades. For this reason, Phil’s pictures have never contained anonymous faces in the street, because for him these were all the people he lived among every day.

Describing the couple stepping out of Whitechapel Station in the second photo below, Phil explained they lived in the flat below him and, once the wife died, her husband enjoyed the freedom to do all the things he was not allowed to do while she was alive. In the few years that he lived on after his wife’s death, Phil regularly steered him home drunk and left him sleeping in a chair. The demonstrators with bicycles in a lower photo were gathered in Brick Lane in support of Afia Begum, a Bengali woman who was threatened with deportation after her husband died in a fire in 1982.

It is this affectionate yet unsentimental relationship with his subjects that gives Phil Maxwell’s photographs their special quality. As Phil admitted open-heartedly, “I would be nowhere without these people, they are my constant inspiration. I always have a camera in my pocket and whenever I go out I always see something I have never seen before. I love the different cultures and histories that are on the doorstep. Wherever I travel in the world, I always come back and find a little of it here. I’ve always said I couldn’t live anywhere else – such a mixture of class, race, cultures, and aspirations and it’s all here in one go.”

Cheshire St

Whitechapel

Brick Lane

Corner of Brick Lane and Hanbury St

Wilkes St

Bethnal Green Rd

Bethnal Green Rd

Bacon St

Cheshire St

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 6, 2010

    I am hoping that you will be able to let Mr Maxwell know how much I have enjoyed seeing these photographs. His portraits of people and places he knows so well are remarkable. The images are full of grace and power, and though still photographs, seem to have so much motion, as well as emotion.

    Thank you again.

  2. Wellwynder permalink
    August 6, 2010

    Brilliantly insightful photos of real people in real places, full of life and narrative and the stuff of real things.

  3. jimmycuba permalink
    August 6, 2010

    great story and fantastic pictures keep up the good work.
    jimmycuba

  4. Joan permalink
    August 6, 2010

    In 1981 when Phil Maxwell moved south i took the reverse route moving from Stepney to Manchester to go to university. And whenever I got very homesick I would take the train over to Liverpool to see people who looked like my family and neighbours back home – Irish dock workers. I found it a great comfort and I can see the similarities that Phil Maxwell talks about.

    Love the photo of the couple outside Whitechapel. She does look very disapproving!

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  5. August 6, 2010

    Great images. I’m a big fan of black and white photography.

  6. Alison permalink*
    September 18, 2010

    A very interesting an moving account. Great photographs, and like the archive quality of the monochrome photographs.

  7. January 20, 2011

    I love these photographs. I am a 24 year old Londoner and it is great to see some familiar locations before my time!

  8. JANE AITCHISON permalink
    May 6, 2011

    I absolutely love these photographs and it inspires me to carry a camera at all times! I did recently see some of them at Spittalfields Market and wish that I had purchased one at the time before wandering off down Brick Lane. Do you have a gallery or are they for sale on line? Thanks for being an inspiration.

  9. Angie Haralambous permalink
    October 6, 2012

    Phil Maxwell’s photography have touched profound, sentimental memories of the Sunday mornings spent browsing around the East End Markets in the late 70′s early 80′s , together with the family. The smells , faces and surroundings, are exactly like these ; still imbedded in black and white, just like the ones above. Thankyou for letting me visualize these happy memories again…………………

  10. hari permalink
    November 19, 2013

    Beautiful photos

  11. Elizabeth permalink
    April 7, 2014

    Ahhhh refreshing expression of a purposeful walk on street filled of feelings. Thank you sir!!

  12. joy elder permalink
    November 28, 2015

    I am thrilled and delighted to have discovered these wonderful pictures and hope to hear from you Phil

    Joy, old friend of the Liverpool days

  13. susan modestou permalink
    October 22, 2017

    Thank you so much for your wonderful photographs,the one of Banjo playing his Kazoo i found esp poignant.My son gave Banjo his first Banjo which had been brought for my son as a gift when the ship my then boyfriend was on visited New Orleans,my son gave it to Uncle Jim when my son was about 7 years old,hoping he might teach him to play it.sadly it was not the one in his belongings after his death.The photos we have found have now become part of our family history,Please if you have any more or know of any let me know,Keep up the good work off documenting life as it is.

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