The third part of my travels through a small planet with a film camera

Walking across Altab Ali Park (January 2010, Leica M7, Fuji 400H)
In the last two blog posts I have shown the result of my travels through the ‘small planet’ of Whitechapel with film cameras. The ‘small planet’ is a reference to the semi-autobiographical novel by Emanuel Litvinoff (1915-2011), the author and a famous son of Whitechapel, who wrote so eloquently of his life there. 
In this article I conclude my travels with film cameras with colour film photography from the central area of Whitehapel.

Two views of The London (The Royal London Hospital) old building from Whitechapel Waste (March 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Potra 400). The time on the clock is accurate - I would often photograph between 7-8AM before my day in school started.

Easily the most identifiable building in Whitechapel is the original London Hospital (later renamed the Royal London Hospital) building which is a mixture of a Georgian central facade with additional Victorian wings. It is no surprise that it was a regular subject of my photography with film cameras. I learned from a former Whitechapel resident that the strange angular windows at the top of the building are the old operating theatres which by necessity had to be high up to catch the best light in the days before electric lighting.

I do not recall where I learned the colloquial name for the wide boulevard which is Whitechapel Road, the 'Whitechapel Waste', which locals shortened to 'the Waste'. Descriptions of the Waste before the Second World War appears in both Litvinoff's book and also in 'The World Is A Wedding' by another famous literary son, Bernard Kops. (Another great book, well worth reading if you can find it).

(Left) Crossing in front of The London (2009, Nikon FE, unknown film), (Right) 'Whitechapel Fried Chicken', early morning on the Waste (March 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 400).

The name dates back to medieval times when a 'waste' was common ground for all to use for grazing purposes. By Tudor time the area was well known to pleasure seekers with its market and the now lost Red Lion Theatre, one of the first playhouses of its type in London, which some historians think was near the junction with Cambridge Heath Road. During the initial preparation for Crossrail some efforts were made to locate the foundations of the structure in case there needed to be some diversion of works to preserve them but they were never found.

Two views of Fulbourne Street, off Whitechapel Road.
(Left) Showing the building in which the Bolshevik Party, including Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky met during their conference in London in May 1907 (March 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 400),
(Right) Construction in Whitechapel for Crossrail, behind the concrete block is an 1818 parish boundary marker for Christchurch Spitalfields (February 2013, Fuji GF670W, Fujifilm 400H)

I have surprisingly few film frames of Whitechapel Road and the simple reason is that I preferred to look for subjects in the back roads of Whitechapel. One of these roads was Fulbourne Street, which at one time I believe was called Ducking Pond Lane, (or it was nearby) and indeed there was a pond for this type of ancient attempt at determining guilt somewhere in the area. Fulbourne Street links Whitechapel Road with Durward Street which was the historic northern boundary of the Waste. Durward Street marks the line of the ditch on the edge of the Waste which ran all the way into the City where it became known as Houndsditch.

As I wandered the back streets of Whitechapel one particular subject fascinated me. It was the number and the range of the local authority housing blocks, spanning from the interwar years up to the 1960s. I believe that they make worthy photographic subjects.

(Above) Bullen House, Collingwood Road, Whitechapel (March 2012, Fuji GW690, Kodak Portra 160)
Bullen House in Collingwood Road is a good example of high density local authority housing built in the 1930s by London County Council. It is a commanding brick structure of four stories with some decoration in the form of contrasting brick edgings at corners and around window frames. It is one of six similar housing blocks forming an estate with a significantly sized central area devoted grass.
In its time I am sure it offered many amenities which were sorely lacking in the slum housing it replaced. Today, given the location the flats remain desirable as residences. The sheer scale of Bullen House, and other interwar blocks like it gives it grandeur beyond its purely commercial value. Many of the flats in the blocks are now in private hands and currently command prices of £450,000 and upwards. This says something about the quality of the building and its longevity.
(Above) Bullen House, Washing Line, (November 2009, Leica M7, Kodak Portra 160)
This particular ground floor apartment in Bullen House often drew my attention due to the washing line and it colourful contents. There is something about the use of the front of the property which renders it individual despite the uniformity of the block in total. As mentioned above, note the use of contrasting brickwork to add detail and decoration to the exterior.

(Above) Gouldman House, at the corner of Cephas Street and Cambridge Heath Road (March 2012, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 400)
The architecture of Gouldman House, on the corner of Cephas Street and Cambridge Road, built in the 1960s and about 100 metre to the East of Bullen House could not be more of a contrast.
Where the decoration in the facade of Bullen House and green spaces between the other blocks on the estate create a village-like atmosphere, Gouldman House is all about practicality. It feels that it is plonked down on this narrow strip of land as an attempt to use leftover space. The building is raised on tubular steel legs which allows an open area beneath it but it is unattractive concrete and not grass. The whole building shouts 'commercial tender, lowest bid, highest return'. Each box like rectangle is a two story dwelling which makes best use of the economical thinness of the structure. It is extended upwards to five stories in recognition of the lighter but stronger building materials that evovled in the thirty years in between the construction of Bullen House.
This building lay half way between my school in Brady Street and the sixth form centre in Hadleigh Street on the other side of Cambridge Heath Road. I worked out having trudged the route, sometimes two or three times a day that I could shave precious seconds off my dash between the two buildings by cutting off the corner and taking a short cut under the legs of Gouldman House. I photographed it many times over the years and discovered it is best to wait until the winter when the bare trees allow an almost unobstructed view of the frontage through their branches.
The housing blocks of the East End may seem like an odd subject for a photographer but I do believe that creating a visual record of them is important. Two other examples of local authority housing also appear regularly in my photographs.
Old Montague Street looking towards Pauline House at the end of the street. Davenant House is on the left of the frame (October 2012, Hassleblad SWC, Kodak Portra160)
Spring Walk, taken a few minutes later that morning (October 2012, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 160)
From talking with colleagues who lived there in the 1960s and former residents who grew up there even earlier, Old Montague Street was a large and vibrant community with shops, places of worship but with housing that was of the lowest possible kind. In the 1960s the local council began to clear the street and replace the housing with modern blocks. The first to be completed in 1960 was Pauline House, seen at the apex of the photograph (above) which for a long time was the tallest building in Whitechapel and remains the tallest in the local vicinity. I particularly liked to photograph this street in the early dawn light, catching the reflection of the buildings in the plate glass windows of the health centre at the Greatorex Street end.
A little further down the street I was intrigued at the artistic possibilities contained at the end of Spring Walk. The alley which extends through the building frames a view which looks almost like a painting within a painting. I photographed this view many times over the years and I feel I can still improve on it, even today.
(Left) The Edward VIIth fountain on Whitechapel Waste, (Right) Two Grade II listed structures, the K2 Telephone Box and the frontage of 'The London' - both digital camera frames taken in 2019 in Whitechapel.
Film photography is a wonderful medium. I experimented with it on and off until 2018. I still own one film camera but the truth is I have not put a film through it in at least a year. Part of the problem is laziness. Good film photography requires commitment and skill. Good digital photography requires a decent camera and a good eye. Focussing and exposure are taken care of by the electronic ciruitry and post processing can hide a multitude of sins if you get it wrong. In mitigation, as my professional work has increased I can only meet the requirements of clients with a digital workflow. In many cases it would either be too time consuming or near impossible to use film.
In terms of Whitechapel, notwithstanding the enforced separation as a consequence of the lockdown at present, I am still photographing the area but now exclusively in digital. Some people might take offence that in my photographs (above) that I do not avoid the reality of the urban environment. If I was selective about what I shoot I would be applying self-censorship which would be against everything I have learned from the work of the great photographers of the last hundred years. And in any case I truly believe that both in the past, now and in the future Whitechapel really excels at being photographed 'warts and all'.