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Fran May’s Brick Lane

April 5, 2021
by the gentle author

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In 1976, Fran May arrived in London at the age of twenty-one to study photography at the Royal College of Art and some of the first pictures she took were of Brick Lane.


“At first, exploring London was daunting, too big and exhausting. Someone suggested I visited Brick Lane, but I would have to get there at dawn for the best of it. An early bird by nature, this was not too difficult. And what a reward. I wore my hair long and had a duffle coat—the perfect disguise. My dominant eye is my left eye, so the camera is always in front of my face. It is like the child of two who covers their eyes and thinks you cannot see them. I had become invisible too. I went time and time again. It was like stepping into a different world, a different universe, a film set. Characters, faces, businesses, from another time, caught in a time warp.

Head of Photography, John Hedgecoe, came to me one day and said I had been selected to be taught by Bill Brandt. The first time I went to his house near Kensington Church St, I took my landscape photographs. I confess I did not know all of Bill Brandt’s work, but I knew of the nudes on the beach. I rang his bell, acknowledged by a woman’s voice, the door clicked open. Once through the open front door, a voice called from beyond. “Come in. Come in.”

Bill sat before a fire in the grate, the light from the flames flickering on his face. “What have you brought me?” he asked in his gentle voice. I placed my portfolio on the floor and lifted the pictures to him one by one. He was silent until he looked at me and said, “I don’t think I can teach you anything, do you?” I did not know how to take this. I packed everything away, thanked him and left.

A couple of days later, I bumped into John Hedgecoe again in the corridor. “How did you get on with Bill Brandt?” he asked. I told him I didn’t think I should go again because Bill had said he couldn’t teach me anything. “No, you must go see him again. You must make the most of your opportunities”. So off I went, this time taking some of the images I had taken while at Sheffield and the more recent ones shot in Brick Lane.

This was a different experience. Bill studied each one for a long time. Seated on the footstool at his feet, Bill moved his reading light nearer and re-settled himself in his chair. I studied the firelight flickering on his face. Then he put the pile of photographs flat on his lap, breaking the silence and said, “Ah, Fran. Let me tell you something. Never loose these images, don’t think of them just as student work, for they will have social significance one day”. His eyes twinkled as he smiled at me.

I returned one more time to visit Bill Brandt. He told me he had not really known what he had achieved until later. The photographs he had taken were commissioned jobs. When they were put together in a particular order, they meant something new and that the passage of time mattered. Well, I did keep these images.”


Fran May’s Brick Lane photographs have recently been published in two books

BRICK LANE by Fran May, published by Cafe Royal Books

FRAN MAY, PHOTOGRAPHY 1974-78 published by Storm Books


Photographs © Fran May

You may also like to take a look at

Raju Vaidyanathan’s Brick Lane

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane

Marketa Luskacova’s Brick Lane

Homer Sykes’ Spitalfields

11 Responses leave one →
  1. April 5, 2021

    Marvellous that you keep bringing us these wonderful photos and memories.

  2. April 5, 2021

    Wonderful photos that bring time to a standstill. Thank you.

  3. April 5, 2021

    Impressive photos. and only 2 years later (1978) I came to England and London for the first time — I make myself aware that that was “my time” too!

    Somehow deeply touching to see the people of that time in their simple existence…

    Love & Peace

  4. paul loften permalink
    April 5, 2021

    Bill Brandt had the eyes that instantly spotted the talent. Fran’s photos have a quality that want you to keep returning to them . I don’t know why, but I felt a pang of sadness on seeing the photo of the man holding the hawk. Perhaps because it should have been soaring in the clouds rather than perched on a hand down the Lane. Thank you both for these photos

  5. April 5, 2021

    Wonderful photographs. We came from Bristol and lived in London briefly in 1975 until I became pregnant. We later moved to Paris. How I miss street life now! These pictures are indeed a precious part of social history.

  6. April 5, 2021

    I so enjoyed the images — plus the photographer’s story of her journey really enriched the whole banquet. Stories of mentorships (in all of their shadings and variety) have always

    “We are not immune to our influences, but enriched and emboldened by them”. — a wonderful quote from design diva Linda Fargo. These words are posted on my drawing table, and I see them every day.

    Thank you, GA, for always shining a light.

  7. Clive permalink
    April 5, 2021

    The sheer poverty…

  8. Ron McCormick permalink
    April 6, 2021

    Well done Fran and Spitalfields Life for bringing these wonderful pictures of life around Brick Lane to a wider public. I am reminded I owe you a book and will get it sorted in the next week or so. x R

  9. Aleks permalink
    April 6, 2021

    Great photos..
    I started going to Brick Lane around 1988 when I was 16 was still like in these a time warp in the centre of London,still lots of the old traders and full of characters from another era.
    Caught it just before the developers moved in in the 90’s !

  10. john Clark permalink
    April 7, 2021

    Was that John and Valerie Profumo I saw ? He was working at Toynbee Hall at that time I think.

  11. April 13, 2021

    Thanks for publishing these marvellous photographs.

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