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Fran May’s Brick Lane

May 10, 2023
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.”

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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. May 10, 2023

    Some lovely work Fran.

  2. May 10, 2023

    “Never lose these images.”

    Indeed. And never lose the stories behind them. I am so enriched by these images, and knowing about the photographer’s personal journey.

    Many thanks, GA.

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    May 10, 2023

    How right Bill was about not losing these photos . As someone who grew up with memories of visits to Brick Lane on a Sunday morning from a small child with my dad in the 50’s through to the 70’s I have memories that match the photos. The beating heart of raw London

  4. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 10, 2023

    I think the late great Nigel Henderson who taught me photography would have said the same as Bill Brandt and thank you for keeping these images and sharing them but what an appalling picture they paint of the disgusting litter that some people left wherever they went.

  5. May 10, 2023

    My late father used to chuckle when I told him what Brick Lane was like more recently. He remembered the Brick Lane from these photographs ( well earlier actually because we had moved away before these were taken). “Really?”, he would say, “Toffs in Brick Lane! Who’d have thought it? Well I never!” I can hear him now. Thanks Fran and the GA.

  6. Eva Radford permalink
    May 10, 2023

    These are powerful and compelling images. People seem to be still recovering from the ravages of the war. Fran May is a brilliant photographer and these photos are great.

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