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Alan Dein's East End Decollage, 1989

September 14, 2010
by the gentle author

Alan Dein, who photographed the East End shopfronts in 1988, sent me some different pictures. A fascinating collection of details that caught his eye – textures, torn posters, graffiti and marginal artwork – which complement the shopfront images through bringing us closer to the streets of 1989/90. Ephemeral minutiae that witness the human presence are rarely recorded and today Alan’s pictures reveal a great deal about the life of the neighbourhood at that time. It is a commonplace to describe the culture of the East End as one of many layers, yet Alan’s photographs make it visibly apparent. These walls speak eloquently and they tell us that everything is in the details, as Alan explained to me.

“I’ve recently rediscovered more batches of transparencies, negatives and prints, dating between 1988 and 1990. Amongst one lot, the focus is on the results of random, natural, and perhaps motivated, destruction of fly-posted political and entertainment adverts. Another set contains relics of hand-written or painted signage. Every one caught in time, at a certain point in their decay, before they were erased forever.

I have favourites: the face of Karl Marx split in two (taken at the time the Berlin Wall came down), the Bollywood dancer that appears to be ripping his own face off (Brick Lane was then awash with brightly-coloured film ads and political flyers), the handsome illustration of a barber’s handiwork, the close-up of a door without a handle (a reminder of all those derelict properties in the backstreets of Stepney at that time), and the hand-painted price list for fireworks that adorned a wall in Bacon Street for years and years.

I’m especially touched by that worn flyer in Angel Alley. It’s for ‘The Streets of East London’ by William J. Fishman. ‘Bill’, as he’s known by his students and his friends, an inspirational figure for many of us who were, and still are, seduced by the social history of the East End.  His walking tours were legendary – and at the Freedom Bookshop he was signing copies of his classic, ‘The Streets of East London,’ which came out in 1979.  I don’t suppose this photocopy pasted on the wall dated back to then as the book was reprinted many times over, but it could have…”

As a short-sighted day-dreamer, these photographs reflect how I tend to see the world – as a set of close-up details – when I am walking around the East End lost in thought. Transient details like these exist at the fringes of consciousness. Although rarely substantial enough to bear recognition, nevertheless we observe them in peripheral vision, creating the backdrop that informs the drama of our daily lives. You can read them as map of the collective unconsciousness of the neighbourhood.

This set manifests the background to life in the East End twenty years ago, both literally and metaphorically. Scrutinising these photographs today, we see evidence of the decline of manufacturing, the politicisation of the Asian presence and the enduring radical tradition set against the end of Communism. Time imparts an emotional resonance too, aestheticising these textures in retrospect, as what was unremarkable and barely noticed in its day becomes emblematic to the eyes of posterity.

Yet there is a compelling ambivalence about these pictures too, because we can never know how much is deliberate or random. We cannot know whether tearing the posters was an act of violence or play. We cannot tell how much neglect was wilful or the result of broader changes. We cannot say if these signs indicate personal loss or social development. After a mere two decades, we are already left with human marks that are as ambiguous as cave paintings and, like cave art, we appreciate them for their abstract qualities as much as their elusive significance.

Collage is when you bring elements together to create a picture and decollage is the opposite, when you tear things apart to explore their meaning. This set of pictures is Alan Dein’s East End decollage.

Karl Marx in Spitalfields 1989

Lost door knob in Stepney 1989

Brick Lane 1989

Brick Lane 1989

Brick Lane 1989

“Fireworks without boxes” Bacon St 1989

Whitechapel 1989

Brick Lane 1989

“The Streets of East London” Angel Alley 1989

Shoreditch 1990

Brick Lane 1989

Brick Lane 1989

Commercial Rd 1989

Whitechapel 1990

Shoreditch 1990

Photographs copyright © Alan Dein

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Welwynder permalink*
    September 18, 2010

    Extraordinary how photographs of something in a state of semi-destruction and disappearance can be so powerful, so eloquent – as you say, it’s all in the layers. Thanks, as always, for sharing these.

  2. jeannette permalink*
    September 18, 2010

    “evidence of the decline of manufacturing, the politicisation of the Asian presence and the enduring radical tradition set against the end of Communism”


    this sight of these pieces reminded me of the work of the great american collageur, Romare Bearden. i don’t know how radical or politicized he was, but as an african american/social worker artist, one assumes a certain awareness. he began collaging in the 1960s, the civil rights activist era here in the states, and his pieces — collected in a large 2004 retrospective, stand as surreal, jazz-inflected, both a scissored deconstruction of media images of black people and a reconstruction. very, very radical and fascinating.
    thanks for this.

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