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Phil Maxwell’s Old Ladies

June 3, 2012
by the gentle author

Photographing daily on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel for the last thirty years, Phil Maxwell has taken hundreds of pictures of old ladies – of which I publish a small selection of favourites here today. Some of these photos of old ladies were taken over twenty years ago and a couple were taken this spring, revealing both the continuity of their presence and the extraordinary tenacity for life demonstrated by these proud specimens of the female sex in the East End. Endlessly these old ladies trudge the streets with trolleys and bags, going about their business in all weathers, demonstrating an indomitable spirit as the world changes around them, and becoming beloved sentinels of the territory.

“As a street photographer, you cannot help but take photos of these ladies.” Phil admitted, speaking with heartfelt tenderness for his subjects, “In a strange kind of way, they embody the spirit of the street because they’ve been treading the same paths for decades and seen all the changes. They have an integrity that a youth or a skateboarder can’t have, which comes from their wealth of experience and, living longer than men, they become the guardians of the life of the street.”

“Some are so old that you have an immediate respect for them. These are women who have worked very hard all their lives and you can see it etched on their faces, but what some would dismiss as the marks of old age I would describe as the beauty of old age. The more lines they have, the more beautiful they are to me. You can just see that so many stories and secrets are contained by those well-worn features.”

“I remember my darkroom days with great affection, because there was nothing like the face of an old lady emerging from the negative in the darkroom developer – it was as if they were talking to me as their faces began to appear. There is a magnificence to them.”

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

See more of Phil Maxwell’s work here

Phil Maxwell on the Tube

Phil Maxwell & Sandra Esqulant, Photographer & Muse

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

15 Responses leave one →
  1. June 3, 2012

    Despite the apparent unprotected, fragility of their existence they seem determined souls, undeterred in the business they are about, undecorated warriors in the battle of life. What tales lie in those faces indeed.The stamina and life force of these women whose lives,as you say, have been more than hard is very moving. It makes me wonder what sort of old woman I will be. Nicely done Phil and Gentle Author.

  2. June 3, 2012

    Thy’re beautiful. I’m thinking of all the stories each of these ladies could tell…

  3. jo watts permalink
    June 3, 2012

    fantastic photographs, thought provoking

  4. Sue Mckenzie permalink
    June 3, 2012

    Beautiful, moving and wonderfully photographed. Another (daily) triumph

  5. June 3, 2012

    Very moving photos: but like Belle, I wonder how I will appear to others when I’m the same vintage as they are.

  6. Vickie permalink
    June 4, 2012

    Thanks for sharing these photos and for the introduction to Mr. Maxwell’s photography, which was unbeknownst to me prior to receiving this blog post. He certainly captured the “story” in each photo. His work reminds me that so many people in cities all over the world are oblivious to those whom I refer to as invisible women, those whom we generally pass by unnoticed each day. Stunning photography.

  7. Clare permalink
    June 5, 2012

    Great photos Philip, but where is mother?

  8. June 5, 2012

    Wonderful Phil……I particularly like the photos taken on the corner of Vallance Road and Whitechapel High Street in probably the early mid 1980s……remember the place and time well… for aging and beauty……there was once a princess forever doomed to stitch an embroidery of her beautiful face for her suitors. When this was finished she would have to marry one of them (which she didn’t want to do)….and so she intentionally etched more and more lines on her face trying to make herself look older and older in order to put the beasties off her back and nether parts. And as she stitched the lines on the “Never Ending Tapestry of Time” she suddenly realized that the older she got, the more beautiful she would be…..and then she was free..

    And such is the case of the faces of all these old women, they are ancient, beautiful and free……all is wonderful……but it would have been nice to get photos of African Caribbean women and Bengali……but I accept the fact that very few old Bengali women were probably seen on the streets in those days but if they were they the chances of them being covered up would have been a bit less than nowadays….and then your lens could have captured them for ever….

    Wicked work……..and may it find you in the best of health if not wealth!

  9. Anne Forster permalink
    June 8, 2012

    Long live invisible old ladies.

  10. Jenny permalink
    June 9, 2012

    Can you imagine the stories they could tell if they all paused for a rest from their daily business and met up for a chat over a cup of tea!

  11. August 5, 2012

    Some of these old ladies are straight out of my childhood – and then I realised I’ll soon be joining their ranks!

  12. isa permalink
    April 14, 2013

    I too am an old lady well 63 soon.I agree all these woman, have their lives etched on their faces and yes we are all special and unique and women and old gentlemen deserve respect and dare I say love

  13. brian permalink
    April 22, 2013

    I’m from stepney in the east-end . and what great pics to see from years gone by love older people story’s they all could tell wonderful pics thank you kindly .

  14. January 18, 2019

    The lady with the white woollen hat and Leopard skin collar is Mrs Maude Bennett. I think she originated from South London possibly Old Kent Rd. She lived with her family in Princelet St until she was moved out owing to redevelopment. A lovely lady. Salt of the earth…….Great pictures Phil.

  15. Lesley permalink
    January 28, 2021

    The lady at the very top of page. Such style. Love her coat and hat.

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