Wandering the back streets of Spitalfields with 120 colour roll film

Dog Legs of the East End #42: Sclater Street and the junction of Brick Lane (April 2011, Hasseblad SWC, Kodak Portra 160NC)
A lot of photography of the East End is in monochrome which captures the strong character of the people and places. I, on the other hand, have always seen the bold and often garish colours in the urban landscape.

That is one reason why my work with monochrome film (the subject of my last blog piece) was a short one. After a while I began to use colour film and that led me to expand the equipment I used from 35mm format to using 120mm roll film, also known as Medium Format (MF).

Cooperage Doors, Old Truman Brewery, Spital Street, Spitalfields (July 2011, Hasselblad 500CM, Zeiss Planar 80/2.8, Kodak Ektar 100)

What made a big change in my photography was purchasing one of the oddest, yet best film cameras ever made, the Hasselblad Super Wide Camera introduced in the 1950s, often shortened to the SWC. I examined a 1970s version along with the more conventional Hasselblad 500CM at Aperture in London's Museum Street and as the salesman said when I returned the next day “show a man an SWC and he’ll return to buy it!”

(Right) The Hasselblad SWC, little more than a lens and film back with an external viewfinder, and (left) the Hasselblad 500CM, a conventional SLR with a mirror box and viewfinder to aid focussing.

The Carl Zeiss Biogon 38mm f4.5 lens on the SWC is not just legendary for its 21mm (35mm eqivalent) wide angle field of view (almost unheard of in the days of MF photography) but also for its colour draw which is nothing short of sublime. For technical reasons I won't bore you with, developing a wide angle lens for MF film purposes is difficult. In the end the Zeiss engineers said it would be possible but it would not be possible to use it with a mirror box, only a film back. So, there is no through-the-lens viewfinder, you have to clip on a special external optical viewfinder which has a spirit level in it so you can achieve perfect verticals. When perfectly aligned with the horizontal plane the lens has almost no visible distortion. Focussing? Focussing is for wimps! You either guess it, use a special ground glass screen (a very expensive option) or use hyperfocal distance. In fact, on the advice of the friendly Hasselblad technician at Aperture, I shot mostly with the lens set on infinity and stopped down. Beyond f16 everything from 2.5 foot onwards is in focus - so, who cares about the actual plane of focus!

If this all seems crazy then consider that it is only in modern digital times that Medium Format digital cameras have wide angle lenses. That is because in-body software corrects all the ugly, crazy distortion and what can't be corrected in-body is ironed out in post processing.

Flying pink pigs and the steps to the other side of the tracks off Cheshire Street, Spitalfields (April 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 160NC)

One of the first foarys into Spitalfields with the SWC was a visit to the legendary 'Pedley Street Arch', although to be more correct it should really be known as the Fish Street Hill Arch (which is the name of the cul-de-sac it occupies). The arch is all that is left of a freight line which ploughed its way into Bishopsgate, the remnants of which is becoming a hotly contested new brownfield site near Shoreditch High Street Overground station. The arch has also been the backdrop to many films, TV series, fashion shoots and music videos given its earthy, urban grunge vibe.

Inside the Pedley Street Arch. A very early attempt with the Hasselblad SWC, (April 2011, Kodak Portra 160NC)

The full glory of the Pedley Street Arch as embellished by the local graffiti 'artists' (April 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 160NC)

My film of choice was the highly popular Kodak Portra, which is still made today even though the original Kodak company is long gone. Another favourite is Kodak Ektar 100, which delivers a lovely saturated look and favours bold colours with strong contrast.

Brick Lane, towards the Jamme Masjid, early morning (May 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Ektar 100)

It was the Hasseblad SWC which launched my stock photography sales. I was contacted by a journalist at the Financial Times who wanted to use the image above for an article. I pointed out that it was a film scan and not a digital camera file. The picture editor was indifferent to the medium as the scanned image was more than adequte. The article was about how churches are being used for different purposes in the modern era.

Corner of Brick Lane and Fashion Street; early spring morning (May 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Portra 160NC)

Spitalfields has wonderful photographic opportunities for any photographer. Many choose the busy weekends when there is the hustle and bustle around the old Truman Brewery, or the Sunday market in Brick Lane. I have always chosen the quieter times. I describe myself as a 'real street photographer' in that I like to photographer streets and not the people (or the cars) in them. For that reason back in 2011 I choose to photograph early in the morning on my daily walk from Liverpool Street to Whitechapel. One particular route took me through the back streets of Spitalfields.

"Visit Rural Spitalfields By Overground", (July 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Ektar 100)

Most of my photography was spontaneous but for the photograph of the Overground train on the raised embankment next to Allen Gardens behind Brick Lane, I was looking for a very specific image. As the trains sped past I was reminded of the colourful stylised 1930s Railway Company posters showing powerful steam engines racing through the countryside exhorting customers to use the railways for their holidays. Allen Gardens is wide open field sandwiched between the embankment and Buxton Street (named for one of the founders of the brewery). I liked the rural feel of the verges which are left to seed with wildflowers. On an early morning in Summer you really do feel you are for moment in the countryside and not in the heart of one of the most densely populated areas of London. My idea was to capture the 1930s railway analogy along with the contradiction between urban Spitalfields and this small oasis of natural calm. The Hasselblad SWC only has a highest speed of 1/500 but this is enough to stop the motion of a large object like the train for a sharp image. I attempted this photograph at least three morning running before created the capture I wanted.

Entrance To Brick Lane (May 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Potra 160NC)

"The Sampan", corner of Brick Lane and Hanbury Street (July 2011, Hasselblad 500CM, Zeiss Planar CF80/2.8, Kodak Ektar 100)

At the same time as I was engaged in walking the streets of Spitalfields photographing with the SWC, I was also engaged in a project inside the ancient Jewish cemetery of Brady Street, in Whitechapel. I began the project using the SWC but pretty quickly I realised I needed the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system camera and I acquired a Hasselblad 500CM body and several lenses. Although I continued to use the SWC I sometimes used the 500CM, as is the case with "The Sampan", above. It says a lot about how Brick Lane has changed in just a few short years that many of the Indian restaurants are gone. The Sampan which was a fixture for many years is now an up-market Pizza bar.

"Reflection House", Cheshire Street (March 2012, Hasselblad 500CM, Zeiss Distagon 50mm, Kodak Portra 400)

I recall taking the photograph of Reflection House on a walk from Brady Street back to Shoreditch High Street station and I believe it was planned rather than spontaneous. The street was rapidly changing in 2012 as gentrification slowly worked its way down from Brick Lane. I figured I should capture the building entrance sooner rather than later - although last time I walked this way, only a few months ago, the frontage is still there. This former stable block created for the Great Eastern railway company was later converted to a warehouse. The glass blocks which frame the door provide an interesting contrast to the Victorian brick work and at the same time a reminder of building materials from the 1960s. I thought the glass and the word 'reflection' go together. Unfortunately, the street signage partially occludes the building name and there was no angle I could discover that would allow me to see it unobstructed.

"The Devil Wears Prada but the people wear £5 plimsoles", Blackman's Shoes, Cheshire Street corner of Grimsby Street, Spitalfields (Februrary 2013, Fujifilm GW670, Kodak Portra 400)

Almost a year later, in February 2013, I was back in Cheshire Street photographing 'Blackmans', a well-known shoe shop in the Brick Lane/Spitalfields area. The sign over the door says it all: "The Devil Wears Prada but the people wear £5 plimsoles". The shop itself is actually a former synagogue, hence the rather ornate frontage which you can see just poking out behind the display of footwear. With only a few exceptions, nearly all the synagogues in this area, that once had a large Jewish community, were created inside a dwelling. By the 1970s with the community all but disappeared many of these premises were sold off for other uses. At present these premises have been completely refurbished as very swish looking offices, reflecting the influx of creatives and other entrepreneurs into the area.

Pedley Street, by the Overground embankment and corner of Fish Street Hill, late afternoon. In the distance one of the new high rises which are slowly gentrifying the northern end of the Brick Lane area is being completed. (March 2013, Fujifilm GF670W, Kodak Portra 400)

By 2013 I was using my film cameras less and less for my wanderings around Whitechapel. Most of the time my film cameras were stored at my school so I could easily transport them into the cemetery where I was using them and continued to use them for another two years.

"Back Inside The Arch", a continual draw for any photographer who knows the area, and one of my final photographs of Spitalfields on medium format film (March 2013, Fujifilm GW690II, Kodak Potra 400)

At the same time I was being seduced back into digital photography. The workflow is self-evidently much easier. You photograph, you upload to your PC, your process and you are done. No wait to finish a roll of film, no rush to and from the store to develop the exposed film (colour photography processing at home is fraught with problems), no hours scanning and re-scanning followed by painstakingly removing dust and processing stains from the scan. It could take me 3-5 days to complete the scanning and processing of a single 12 frame film compared to a few hours with digital.

"Shoreditch Station Poppies", early spring morning (May 2011, Hasselblad SWC, Kodak Ektar 100)


My books contain a lot of my film work and the five or so years I concentrated on only shooting film allow me to say I was no dilettante with the format. I used it - almost lovingly - and even now I can testify that while digital is a lot, lot easier it lacks the kind of 'soul' that you find in film photography. I parted with all my film equipment by 2015 but a couple of years later, in 2017 I was faced with a once in a lifetime trip to South Korea to attend my son's wedding in Seoul. I thought long and hard about what cameras I should take on such a trip and the conclusion I came up with was film. So, I bought myself one of my favourite film cameras (for the fourth an final time), the amazing Olympus XA rangefinder.

"Nomadic Greenhouse", Nomadic Community Garden, Spitalfields (August 2017, Olympus XA, Kodak Portra 400)

Before journeying to Seoul I wanted to test my new acquisition out, so where did I go? Back to my old haunts in Spitalfields. I'm pleased to say the enjoyment was still there and I still own the camera today. Once life gets back to normal (if it ever does) I'll dust off some film and go shoot with it, again.

With special thanks to my good friend Gary Rowlands, an excellent film photographer, who gave me so much help while I was learning to shoot with MF film cameras. All photographs Copyright LouisBerk 2020, no unauthorised reproduction.