At the Old Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market
In the last eighteen months of the Fruit & Vegetable Market in Spitalfields, young photographers Mark Jackson & Huw Davies set out to record the life of the market that operated on this site for over three centuries, before it closed forever in 1991. As recent graduates, Mark was working in a restaurant at the time and Huw was a bicycle courier. Without any financial support for their ambitious undertaking, they saved up all their money to buy cameras and rolls of film, converting a corner of their tiny flat into a darkroom.
“It was quite a struggle,” Mark Jackson confided to me, “because we weren’t earning a lot of money. But Spitalfields fired our imaginations. We caught the last tube to Liverpool St and spent the night there taking photographs, before heading into work next morning.”
The result of their passionate labours is a portfolio of more than four thousand images that has recently been acquired by the Bishopsgate Institute, due to be shown there in a major exhibition next year. It is my privilege to be able to show you a small selection of these phenomenal pictures that have never been seen before, as the first glimpse of an undiscovered photographic treasure trove.
I have the greatest respect for anyone who sets out to pursue idealistic projects such as this at great cost to themselves of money, time and labour. In this case, I am equally impressed by the quality of Mark & Huw’s photographs as distinguished social documentary, unsentimental yet infused with affectionate poetry too. Today, we are the fortunate beneficiaries of their selfless enthusiasm over all those months when they stayed up each night to take pictures and worked each day to buy film. It sounds like a beautiful story in retrospect but I have no doubt it took plenty of determination to carry the project through in isolation. I know that the market traders warmed to the young photographers and I think, in part, this accounts for relaxed intimate nature of some of these images, because the traders respected the commitment that Mark & Huw demonstrated, turning up night after night.
This particular set of images take us on a cinematic journey from the busy nocturnal world, when the market was active, through dawn into the early morning when the drama subsided. Mark & Huw photographed a dignified gallery of both the market traders and the homeless people, who were drawn by the fire that always burned to alleviate their discomfort ever since the market was granted its charter. We no longer see any of these characters in Spitalfields. These men would look displaced here in the renovated market today, they are soulful faces from a universe that is gone. When I walk through the Spitalfields Market at night now, it feels like an empty theatre, lacking the performance of the nightly drama that ran from 1638 when Charles I signed the licence to commence trading.
Even though Mark & Huw took their pictures only twenty years ago, they describe a society that feels closer to the world Dickens knew than our own present tense, ten years into the twenty-first century. Inspired by Tom Hopkinson and Bert Hardy’s work at Picture Post, these photographs were to become the first of a series documenting all the markets of London, that might have been a lifetime’s vocation for Mark & Huw. It was not to be. Life intervened and without any support the projected sequence was abandoned. Mark became a writer and Huw is now a teacher – they each have lives beyond their nascent photographic enterprises – but they deserve to be proud of these vital pictures because they are an honourable contribution to the worthy canon of British documentary photography.
Photographs copyright © Mark Jackson & Huw Davies