As anyone who lived or even stepped foot in Dalston back in the day will tell you the area has changed immeasurably over recent years. It’s gone from being a place that many considered a no-go zone to an artistic hub to one of London’s most desirable and trendy postcodes and now, depending on who you listen to, it has eaten itself.
Last week saw the launch of Andrew Holligan’s Dalston in the 80s, the latest in a series of east London themed photography books from Hoxton Mini Press, which offers a glimpse into the very early years of the area’s gentrification. Holligan moved to Cecilia Road near Ridley Road Market in 1984 after growing tired of fashion photography in New York; struck by the vitality and humanity of the place he began to capture the everyday characters and scenes he came across.
Shot in monochrome on a 1950s Rolleiflex camera, his affection for the area and its people is obvious – the end result is highly personal yet refuses to be drawn into any narrative thread. We caught up with Holligan to find out a bit more about the project, identity and gentrification.
Could you briefly outline the process of how the book came into being?
I’d just heard through friends that Hoxton Mini Press were looking for stories and projects about east London, so I submitted my work about a year ago and that’s how it came about.
Given that the photos are now thirty or so years old, how difficult was it to come up with the pieces of text that accompany the images?
I more or less remember every single photograph I take. The situations are memorable – I don’t have the best memory but I really try to think about the moment. I don’t take anyones names or addresses. You just see the story there, really, some of it anyway.
You’ve said taking photos in Dalston changed your outlook away from fashion photography and towards street photography. What influenced that change?
I was getting a bit tired of pursuing a career as a fashion photographer, that [living in Dalston] was just the moment it happened. I enjoyed being able to take a camera out and find something unexpected rather than the prescribed approach in fashion photography with the models and make-up and all that kind of procedure. It just bored me really. The freedom of going out with a camera and discovering real people, if you like, was really refreshing. Street photography is what I love most.
A lot has been made of the book being ‘Dalston pre-gentrification’, but as the area didn’t really get gentrified until the 2000s these photos go beyond that don’t they?
There was no sense of gentrification on my part, but it has been said that people like me who moved into the area gentrify it because I was a white artist who wasn’t from Dalston. I don’t think that’s a very reasonable approach, people will always gravitate towards places where you can find cheaper accommodation and workspaces. Hackney was that place.
What about the people you shot, there seems to be a real old East End feel about the photos?
I was literally just reacting, I walked out of the door and if something was happening that I liked I’d photograph it. The photographs were all taken within walking distance of my house at the time, it was just who was on the roads. I took a lot of kids as they tend to hang out after school in the parks and they’re very open of course, they don’t cower if you point your camera at them whereas older people can be a bit more suspicious.
I don’t want to claim that there’s any clever ‘point’ to the book apart from it being very personal. That’s why we did the handwriting and everything because it was really just me wandering around with a camera.
You’ve said that artists obviously move to places with cheap rent, how much of an artistic community was there in Dalston at the time?
AH: Everybody I knew who lived in Dalston was an artist, I was drawn there because my friends were there. There were two big organisations that were very important to the movement of artists in Hackney: SPACE and Acme – they supplied artists with studios for very cheap rent, I had one of those near London Fields for fifteen years.
I was working with photography at the time, trying to treat it in as diverse way as possible. I was doing a lot of gallery stuff, this book was just one aspect of what I was doing. My nature is to consider what possibilities there are with photography.
When it comes to gentrification there are two main schools of thought. First, that people just pass through areas and are custodians of it for a part of the city’s history. The second is more closely tied to identity and a feeling that people can’t leave an area due to a sense of belonging. Do you subscribe to either of these?
AH: I’d have to be part of that first one. To me, identity isn’t about place but creativity. This is often driven by movement. I’ve been criticised for that, the idea that I just strolled in to Dalston for a couple of years, did my thing and left. But who does Dalston belong to? It belongs to everybody really, if you’re from Syria, gone over to London and found yourself in Dalston then it’s their home. It belongs to everybody and nobody. I’m no social historian but Dalston was very unfashionable once, now it’s fashionable, it’ll be unfashionable again – that’s how I see it.
Dalston in the 80s by Andrew Holligan is published by Hoxton Mini Press, £12.95.