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Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

April 27, 2021
by the gentle author

Tonight Tower Hamlets Development Committee decides upon the Truman Brewery’s application to build a shopping mall on Brick Lane with four floors of corporate offices on top. Click here for the link to watch the meeting live at 5:00pm

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 lived here in the middle of the melting pot and I prefer it to anywhere else.”

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

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

More pictures by Phil Maxwell

Beggars, Newspaper Sellers & Bubblegum Machines

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Remembering the Cat Lady of Spitalfields

5 Responses leave one →
  1. David Gooding permalink
    April 27, 2021

    Deprivation personified by these hardy souls.
    If only there had been a Phil Maxwell around when my Jewish Polish ancestors began arriving in Spitalfields in the 1880’s.

  2. April 27, 2021

    Good luck with the hearing.

  3. Kelly Holman permalink
    April 27, 2021

    A wonderful collection of photographs, thank you. It’s astonishing how the empathy of the photographer transfers across into the pictures as if by some magic. I followed the link to ‘Phil Maxwell, Photographer’ from the 6th August 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed reading more of his story too.

  4. Eric Forward permalink
    April 27, 2021

    Nothing beats a stroll up Brick Lane on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

  5. Pamela Traves permalink
    April 28, 2021

    These are Lovely Pictures of These Dear People. Well Done!???????

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