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David O’Mara’s Spitalfields

July 8, 2016
by the gentle author

I have published many pictures of renovations of old houses in Spitalfields but David O’Mara‘s candid photography reveals the other side of these stories, recording the back-breaking labour and human toil that is expended upon these endeavours

“For the past ten years I have worked as a painter & decorator in London, both as a means of surviving and also funding my artistic practice – but the roles of artist & decorator are not always easily reconciled, time demands and budgets often lead to a conflict of interests.

My work is described as ‘restoration,’ though I began to question the truth of this description. From the beginning, you strip back the layers of previous occupants. Cupboards, doors and walls that were later additions are all removed. At every turn and removal you notice the evidence of previous lives, all to be erased and replaced with freshly painted blank surfaces – everything is pared back to the tabula rasa.

This has a resonance with my own experience: the daily repetition of tasks erodes memory, time is distilled into but a few recollections. I started photographing my working life as a way of recording the disappearing history of the houses and also to combat the erosion of memory through the repetition of work.” – David O’Mara

Photographs copyright © David O’Mara

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A Renovation in Fournier St

Before & After in Fournier St

All Change At 15 & 17 Fournier St

Dave Thompson, Joiner

Jim Howett, Designer

15 Responses leave one →
  1. July 8, 2016

    These photos are fantastic, each one tells a tale, most impressive. Valerie

  2. Jane B permalink
    July 8, 2016

    David, story-telling at its best — both the motivation behind the image making-record-keeping and the chosen moment captured and now shared. Brilliant. Beautiful. GT, your setting of this work too :-)

  3. Jane B permalink
    July 8, 2016

    and on the subject of layers of life and the loss of homes, what news of VB’s trials and yesterday’s court case?

  4. July 8, 2016

    David is a super man, you have to strong physically and mentally, to survive on these restoration projects a certain amount of dedication is also required. David has these attributes he has provided us with a good photographic record of his endeavours. When stripping walls, he perhaps, see’s the lives of the previous occupier’s before him layer upon layer. ?Who were they, if only these walls could speak they could have a story to tell David of their lives. All this must have a fascination for him, perhaps occupancy of these older houses goes back to early Georgian times. John B

  5. July 8, 2016

    Great work David, you can smell the dust and toil. I was involved in the Market makeover and I still cough up history from time to time. Hard dirty filthy work. We called it ‘shit, blood and broken bones’. The main compensation was breakfast at the Market Cafe and a hilarious pint or two in the Ten bells at the end of the day.

  6. July 8, 2016

    Interesting insights, thanks

  7. July 8, 2016

    While I loved these images I am not convinced about the repetition of tasks destroying memory. I can understand that the restoring of one place blurs into another but isn’t the memory of the work is physically remembered in the bodies of the workers? In the same way that dancers / yoga practitioners etc have muscle memory and try to get their bodies to physically remember movements doesn’t this also happen to the workers’ photographed here? The muscles – and the back pain – reflect the past restoration even if this is not specifically cultivated!

  8. aubrey permalink
    July 8, 2016

    Dark, dreadful, dangerous, odoriferous working conditions. A kind of hell!

  9. Shawdian permalink
    July 8, 2016

    Excellent captures of work and toil David. I lived and worked in a NT Historic House, and have been inside many renovated Historic buildings some dating back to 17th Century and what most people never really think of is the work and repetative toil that over the many years has gone into making these buildings as we wish to see them, all spick n spam. People like You leave behind only the splenders of your back breaking endeavours and rightly so, but what a shame we never see you. When ever any renovation work took place in the Historic buildings I lived in, I would photograph the ‘before and after’ but must confess not the men who did the work and I note, not one woman did I see doing this type of necessary slog. Each NT property has a history log of all the renovations taken place over the Centuries but not the people who did the work. What a shame those who make these buildings what they are, are like ghosts, never to be seen and never to be heard, but you are there within each of the walls and wooden frames. It is human beings that bring a building to life and within every piece of brick and mortar lies the handy work of ‘a person’, who will leave behind their ghostly presence for as long as that building remains.

  10. July 8, 2016

    Love the framing of these pictures and glimpses of rarely captured grafting.

  11. pauline taylor permalink
    July 8, 2016

    My son will sympathise re stripping back the layers on older buildings when renovating them. He is busy working on one of the rooms in our ‘new’ bookshop premises which actually dates back to 1475, later on the inside of the building was given the latest up to date look in 1790, so imagine if you can all the history there, we have discovered a ‘scary’ face beside a window aperture which caused great interest on Open Heritage day last year, and the different colours in the layers of paint is something to behold!

  12. Alison Ashfield permalink
    July 9, 2016

    A wonderful series of photographs. How I would love to see some captions – which house, when were the renovations were undertaken and the first names of the men pictured…..especially the ones 9 and 10 in the sequence. What was happening in the (?) basement area? I feel the exhaustion of the young man bent over his shovel.

    And the black gentleman perched in the window – what was he contemplating? Are his braids grey with age or dust? I feel the latter, as his arms and hands seem young. The inherent dignity and skills of the men who labour to work lifts my spirits this soft Scottish morning.

  13. Peter Holford permalink
    July 9, 2016

    The standards of health and safety were terrible. I worked for six months on a building site in Manchester back in the 1970s – no hard hats, no first aid box and very lax practices. The 7th photo shows a drill being used in a confined space. I ended up using a jack hammer in a space like that with no protection and no ear defenders. Two of us also emptied a wagon of 5 tons of cement (100 bags) by simply carrying the stuff! Brutally hard and dirty and I didn’t stay for long – I went teaching instead! In the process I took a big cut in pay.

    Great photos.

  14. gabrielle permalink
    July 10, 2016

    Touching to see such hard work going into the restoration of these historic houses and yet taking the time to record and share.

  15. Ros permalink
    July 10, 2016

    yes, great photos with important bits of the story to tell. Thanks to David O’M for taking them so beautifully.

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