Skip to content

Homer Sykes, Photographer

January 27, 2011
by the gentle author

On Brick Lane in the nineteen seventies, on a damp January day like today, it would have been a toss-up between the Liver & Chips at 36p or the Fish & Chips at 27p for dinner, but either way I know that the Semolina Pudding at 6p would have finished it off nicely. Yet this dilemma will always remain hypothetical for me because I was not there, though thanks to the engaging vision of photographer Homer Sykes I am able to glimpse the lost world of the recent past in the East End. In Homer’s masterly picture, this cook will eternally be gazing down Brick Lane waiting for the next rush of customers, full of eagerness to clear every dish off the blackboard. With his strangely shaped hat and quaint apron, he is like a character from Breugel –  and through Homer Sykes’ lense he is transfigured to become the ultimate custodian of the steamy cafe where hot dinners can never go cold.

“I was a middle class boy who came to London from Birmingham to do photography for fashion and advertising, and make money,” Homer admitted to me with self-depreciatory ambivalence, “And then I got interested in reportage. Everything in London was new to me, I’d had a sheltered background and I wanted to explore the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots.” But even before he came to study at the London College of Printing, Homer was photographing gypsy encampments in the centre of Birmingham and undertaking photographic road trips around America on greyhound buses.

For decades, Homer Sykes has enjoyed a lively and wide-ranging career as a photojournalist working for all the major publications and he has published a string of books including, “The English Season” and “Mysterious Britain,’ whilst also pursuing personal work, created in parallel to his public commissions. It was only in 2008, when scanning his collection of negatives, that Homer revisited the photographs he had taken in Spitalfields. “People are interested in what places were like thirty of thirty-five years ago,” he explained to me with a philosophical grin of delicate amusement, “But it doesn’t seem like thirty years ago to me, even though it was before an awful lot of people who look at my pictures were born.”

Homer heard that the Peabody Estates were to be demolished and, throughout his twenties, came to the East End whenever he had days free between assignments.” I used to walk around photographing stuff that was different and interesting and visually exciting.” he said, “The old lady in her flat at the top of Brick Lane, I would have spent an hour nattering with her to wait for the moment when she put her head in her hands.”

“These flats were being boarded up and people were moving out, and I remember thinking,’I'd better go and photograph this.’” he recalled, “I met this woman outside in the street and we got chatting and she invited me in. You have to talk to people and get their trust. What I like about this picture – she’s wearing a coloured housecoat – is the nice wall with the paper, the photographs and the kids’ paintings, and the teapot and milk bottle on the table. Her whole life is there and yet she’s being moved out.”

L.Elgrod, watchmakers, the last building standing in an alley off Whitechapel High St, incarnates the dogged persistence of the people here  - while the details of clothes speak to us in voices that are  no longer to be heard around Brick Lane, whether of the East European cook with his arcanely styled apron buttoned onto his coat, or of the black children so neatly dressed, in frocks with kneehigh socks, simply to play in the yard outside their Peabody flats. “Clothing tells you so much about who people are,” as Homer put it plainly.

These are unsentimental photographs, filled with human sympathy, yet there is also a classical aesthetic present which gives Homer Sykes’ pictures an enduring quality beyond their importance as social documentary, “All my work is considered, with a sense of formality.” confirmed Homer, “I am interested in composition – the content and composition must go hand in hand. It can’t be just a picture, an extra something is required.” In the selection published here, all are enlivened by unconventional compositions, like the picture of the Bengali sweatshop with an empty space at the centre, or of the woman holding up a mirror whilst trying on a wig in the market – only it is her friend’s face that is revealed to the camera.

“I’m just the kind of guy who needs to take pictures,” Homer Sykes admitted to me with a shrug, yet the serious and soulful body of work he has done belies such levity, even if it is characteristic of the spirit of the man.

You can see more of Homer Sykes’ East End photographs by clicking here

Photographs copyright © Homer Sykes

12 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    January 27, 2011

    The poignancy of that teapot and the milk bottles …

  2. January 27, 2011

    Marvellous photographs Homer. Many thanks.

  3. January 27, 2011

    Stunning..really emotive

  4. January 27, 2011

    Such astute observations captured ever so artistically.

  5. Lucy A permalink
    January 27, 2011

    Gorgeous.

  6. Chris F permalink
    January 27, 2011

    I am a life-long devotee of the greasy spoon, but I should like to content myself by believing that the old gent in the apron & hat is actuallt taking a well earned break from washing the pots rather than dabbling in Haute Cuisine! Mind you…. Fish & chips at 29p… I might just risk it!

  7. Abdullah permalink*
    August 3, 2012

    Fantastic picture of the garment factory.
    I remember growing up in the East End of London, and visiting places like this. Life was hard for recent immigrants with both the wife and husband working long hours in terrible conditions.

  8. September 17, 2015

    Wonderful shots and history. Love mono as I am the same and love street photography, it can be dodgy on the street if someone spots you.
    I try to use the sympathy vote as I’m 68 and have Parkinson’s, It usually works.
    Dreadful using my disability I know, but hey if it works
    THANK YOU

  9. steven harris permalink
    May 13, 2016

    The fourth picture is of great eastern buildings. The girl looking out of the window is my cousin, Jackie. Its around 1970-72.
    If anyone knows of people who lived there during the 60s I would love to hear from you. I am writing a piece on life in the buildings.

    We are not allowed to place our email addresses here but if you respond to this message, maybe the gentle author will put us in touch?

    Thanks

  10. July 24, 2016

    Dear Steven Harris, I have just seen your comment on my photograph, ” … is my cousin Jackie … “. I would very much appreciate you getting in touch with me please, I am easy to find on the internet. I would like to be able to add your cousins name to the picture caption on my website and clarify if these building were indeed part of the Peabody estate. Perhaps the Gentle Author would pass this message on to you.

    Many thanks.

    Homer Sykes.

  11. Raju permalink
    October 24, 2016

    Hello Homer,
    about the Garment factory shot (from 1978, we worked it out). Anam (his nickname was Bruce, after B Lee) asked me for a copy this summer when we had a 70-80s reunion. Of course he is now much older and not in Esat London. How could he get a copy of this. I saID i WILL FIND OUT.
    tHANKS

  12. November 17, 2016

    Raju, please get in touch with me, I am very easy to find on the web, type Homer Sykes, and at the bottom of each page is a “contact” link.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS