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Sarah Ainslie, photographer

February 1, 2010
by the gentle author

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.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. amalie permalink
    February 1, 2010

    love your there a book available?

  2. February 1, 2010

    Wonderful photo’s! I’m glad to hear you and Sarah have teamed up. Also ditto to the above comment by amalie, I would love to own a book with these photo’s!

  3. Anne permalink
    February 1, 2010

    Like the photos.I’ve always loved the simplicity of monochrome images, they appear less complicated and my house is full of them.
    They could easily be from the 1950s, they have a timeless quality. I grew up near to the centre of Manchester in the 1950s and 60s and photos i’ve seen from that era have the same atmosphere. Markets were more like that in those days.

  4. January 8, 2011

    the first photo is particularly eye-opening
    it makes me feel that 1980s london markets must have looked kind of third-worldish

  5. Lisa permalink
    February 15, 2014

    Wow, looks like Berlin street markets in the late 70’s… impressive!

  6. John Bailey permalink
    June 16, 2019

    Great photos. Interested that your studio is in Ezra street. My family lived at 21 Ezra Street, next to Megan Jone’s dairy. My parents wedding reception was upstairs at 21. Some of the family were killed while sheltering in Columbia Road on 7th Sept 1940, first night of the blitz. We must hang onto our history.

  7. shell rubin permalink
    May 1, 2020

    brings back a lot of memories, used to go down club row and the rest of the market , right upto the carpenders arms , goldfish in plastic bags, old clothes , the smell of roasted chesnuts, dalkins apple fritters, couldn’t wait to eat them but had to wait or you would burn your lips on the apple skin.
    the biegal shop , guy used to sell cassette tapes and records always playing max miller really loud, the pet shop , that used to sell tortoises with the price painted on their shells, he was a tall albino guy, really quiet nice man, sold parrots and other birds too. the better antique stuff was on stalls inside the clothes recycle warehouse ,right next to the railway , if I remember righty, nearer the carpenders arms. seems like yesterday. driving back through the city , dead as a donut empty with the stuff we had bought lol .. well happy ….

  8. Judith Bonner permalink
    December 13, 2023

    I used to go shopping in Brick Lane in the 80s – so it was great to see these photos. I still have some lovely wall lights I picked up on the second hand market It was greaat People used to pitch up – with tables or just put stuff on the floor.

    I’d buy fabrics form a very stern Jewish lady. Can’t remeber the name – but the shop looked small from outside but was a warehousee inside. And lovely soft long cotton t shirts and sunspel underwear!

    My mate ended up living in a block of flats next to the Sptialfields City farm in 1987 when it almost closed! The street has now gone along with the old railway station that served the goods yard also gone. Pity I didn’t photo any of this!

    Sad it’s such a pastiche of itself now.

  9. Judith Bonner permalink
    December 13, 2023

    Couldn’t see how to edit my other esponse. My mate lived inPedley Street At the time in 1987 there was nothing except the old red brick block he lived in and land around it. There was a huge garden to the block we would set up dinner tables in it

    And an old station that had a pulley.We always cycled there from south London and sometimes drove!
    I have a vague memory of a station above Pedley Street having a winch on the Pedley street side. But every one tells me there was only the Shoreditch station there?

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