Film photography in the footsteps of Don McCullin

The photographs in this blog post are all from a period in 2009 when I made a foray into the back streets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green armed with a film camera. The inspiration for this process was reading the veteran photographer Don McCullin’s autobiography, ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’.

The entrance to Altab Ali Park (October 2009) with the distinctive bell tower of the German Church in the distance, which appears in several McCullin photographs of the area. 

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Don McCullin is a veteran war and documentary photographer who covered most of the major conflicts of the last half of the 20th century. In between times he photographed extensively in the UK, including landmark work in Bradford and Whitechapel. In my opinion McCullin separates himself from the work of his contemporaries photographing wars and everyday life by the sheer quality of his composition and empathy with his subjects. The content of some of his war photography is very hard to look at but the eye is drawn because he not only captures an intimate, if terrible moment but he demonstrates such mastery of this visual medium.
As a young lad I came across photojournalism in broadsheet Sunday supplements, like the Sunday Times Magazines. The most striking articles were the photo essays documenting world events. Wars, famines, natural disasters, revolutions – the weird or the wonderful – were all contained on the printed pages accompanied by glorious colour photography. McCullin would have been one of the many photographers whose work I would have seen.
Many years later the work I recognised as McCullin’s was not his war photography but his photography of Whitechapel. When I began touring the streets of Whitechapel with my camera in 2005, initially on my daily walk from Liverpool Street to Brady Street, I recognised Spitalfields Market and the distinctive open bell tower of the German Church behind Whitechapel High Street.
Stepney Way, junction with New Road, central Whitechapel (2009). The old Dental Institute (r) and Outpatients buildings (l) in the foreground and the not yet complete new Royal London Hospital building in the distance.
McCullin states he was drawn time and again to the streets of Whitechapel to photograph during the 1980s. He explained in a short TV documentary created about his work at the time (still viewable on YouTube) that he felt Whitechapel was one of the most photographically interesting places in London, if not in the whole UK. He contrasted the horror and deprivation he’d witnessed as a war photographer with the harrowing state of the homeless and poor living in the East End at the time.
Fieldgate Street (2009), looking towards Tower House, or as Jack London called it the 'monster doss house', a former refuge for homeless men built by bequest. Both Joseph Stalin and George Orwell used its facilities at different times. It is now converted into luxury flats.
I should explain that I was keen photographer from my late teens through to my early thirties, when the demands of family life meant I no longer had much time for my passion. Obviously, at that time in my life - well before the invention of the digital sensor - I was using film.
In 2004 as I watched a professional photographer covering an event at our school with a digital camera I felt the desire to take up photography again using the new digital medium. For the next 5 years I photographed exclusively with digital cameras and learned all I could about post processing digital files using a computer. I believed during that time that film was defunct and did not change my mind until I read McCullin’s book. 
Mount Terrace (2009), a Georgian Street on the Royal London Hospital estate which has survived even to to this day.
One aspect of McCullin’s autobiography I found interesting was the description of his camera equipment. He travelled very light. A Nikon film camera and two lenses; a 28mm lens for most reportage situations and environmental portraits, and a 135mm lens for close up portraiture.
I decided to buy myself a second-hand Nikon FM 35mm body, 28mm and135mm manual lenses, and to follow in McCullin’s footsteps, photographically speaking. (NOTE: even today, eleven years later the cost of all this kit on eBay is less than £300 - and if your budget is higher you can buy some cracking film bodies and lenses for a fraction of their original price).
The Victorian 'east wing' of the Royal London Hospital (2009) while it was still in use. The new hospital building is behind it but not yet finished. The pedestrian crossing was removed for a time during Crossrail construciton at Whitechapel Station but has now been reinstated.
I am in no way drawing a parallel between my work and that of Don McCullin - which I hope is obvious to the reader.
I do credit McCullin's biography and work in Whitechapel with inspiring me to get back into film photography. This ultimately lead me to undertake a 5-year long project to photograph the beautiful old Jewish cemeteries in Brady Street and Alderney Road, which I did (almost!) exclusively on film  and was published in my book East End Jewish Cemeteries (Amberley Books, 2017). Some of my film photography has also found its way into my other books, Whitechapel in 50 Buildings, Secret Whitechapel and Whitechapel Doors. The first piece of stock photography I ever sold was a colour film frame of the new minaret on the old Huegenot Church in Brick Lane which is now the Jamme Masjid.
The busy entrance at Whitechapel Underground station (2009). The ladies with the shakers in front of the station were from a weird religious sect and provided a regular street cabaret for commuters and passers-by.

At platform level, Whitechapel Station (2009). At the time there were four separate tracks. The interior tracks have been removed permanently to facilitate the creation of the Crossrail station.
Sadly, as the last decade progressed film workflow became progressively harder for reasons I won’t bore you with and today I only have one film camera left, a beautiful tiny Olympus XA. 
In my next blog piece I will present the colour film photogaphy I took as the naughties gave way to the 2010s.
Early morning buses, January 2010, next to Altab Ali Park (originally a colour film frame which I converted to black and white).