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Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

July 24, 2011
by the gentle author

Phil Maxwell is the photographer of Brick Lane – no-one has taken more pictures here over the last thirty years than he. And now his astonishing body of work stands unparalleled in the canon of street photography, both in its range and in the quality of human observation that informs these eloquent images.

“More than anywhere else in London, Brick Lane has the organic quality of being constantly changing, even from week to week.” Phil told me when I asked him to explain the enduring fascination for a photographer. “Coming into Brick Lane is like coming into a theatre, where they change the scenery every time a different play comes in – a stage where each new set reflects the drama and tribulations of the wider world.”

Phil’s work is distinguished by a strong empathy, drawing the viewer closer. In particular, he is one of few photographers to have photographed the Bengali people in Spitalfields successfully, winning the trust of the community and portraying many of his subjects with relaxed intimacy. “That’s because I live on the other side of the tracks, and the vast majority of my neighbours are Bengalis – I’ve been to Bangladesh at least half a dozen times.” Phil revealed, “The main problem that Bengali families face is overcrowding, with parents and four or five kids living in one bedroom flats. That means their living space is not enough to be able to socialise and express themselves freely. And so, Brick Lane tends to be the place where they can feel free to be themselves and communicate with each other, in a way they can’t at home.”

When I confided to Phil that the lyrical quality of his portraits of old people appealed to me especially, he pointed out the woman with white hair, enfolding herself in her pale overcoat. “She seems bemused by what is happening round her, but in her appearance she is very much part of the built environment that surrounds her.” he said, thinking back over the years “I find older people have a kind of demeanour which derives from the environment they’ve been living in, and because of that they’re more interesting to photograph.”

In its mutable nature, Brick Lane presents an ideal subject for photography – offering an endless source of fleeting moments, that expose a changing society within a changing environment. And, since the early eighties, Phil Maxwell made it the focus of his life’s work to record this place, becoming the pre-eminent photographer of Brick Lane. “Whenever there’s a big fight on Brick Lane, the papers will send a photographer down to get some images, but that photographer has no relationship to the community.” Phil explained to me, conceding, “If my work has any authenticity, it is only because I live here in the middle of the melting pot, and I prefer living here to anywhere else.”

“The bananas, the bridge and the man are all gone now.”

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

Phil Maxwell’s latest exhibition A Sense of Place: Living in the East End runs at the Rich Mix in the Bethnal Green Rd until Saturday 6th August, and I recommend Phil’s daily photoblog Playground of an East End Photographer.

More pictures by Phil Maxwell

Beggars, Newspaper Sellers & Bubblegum Machines

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Remembering the Cat Lady of Spitalfields

4 Responses leave one →
  1. William J.Swain Nisbet permalink
    July 24, 2011

    I was introduced to Brick Lane By Danny Wright. I was there to Buy Second Hand Vinyl. Danny introduced me to The Brick Lane Market, this Cultural Centre of East End Life. As like a High Class Jeweller from Covent Garden revealing a Gem of Great Value…. I grew up in Glasgow and frequented both The Barrows and Paddies Market and so felt at home in Brick Lane. These Photographs brought back Pleasant Memories .

  2. Philip Green permalink
    July 25, 2011

    Yet another beautifully observed and written piece. I’ve known Phil Maxwell’s work for almost 25 years, and it is deserving of much wider recognition than it currently receives. He observes but never intrudes, and manages to obtain fine and spontaneous images because of the rapport and trust he can instantly build with the people he photographs. They never seem to be subjects but partners in the images taken.

  3. August 26, 2011

    I have been going through your work, it was like tracing footsteps in a former life, how familiar it all seems, I love the film of Sandra her life and her vitality, and the music of Maria Callas.
    the man with the basket is Bernie Saunders, a friend and a Labour councillor before he passed away, yes I agree, Brick Lane does inspire with its history and its dreams

  4. Lucy Johnson permalink
    December 11, 2012

    It is a privilege to be a friend of Phil’s. What wonderful photographs!

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