Figures in a landscape?
From time to time academics debate the geographical area required to talk meaningfully about a distinctive landscape type: parish, county, region? All seem to make sense at some time or another as a catch-all envelope for topographical distinctiveness. Sometimes, though, a landscape can be as commanding as a mere twenty yards of pavement adjacent to a bricked up flank wall, as it is in Colin O’Brien’s evocative collection of photographs of Travellers’ Children in London Fields just published.
O’Brien took these black and white photographs in 1987, after coming across a temporary travellers’ encampment close to the railway arches next to London Fields in Hackney. Most importantly, he took them after asking permission from the parents and children, and these vibrant portraits are now published for the first time in one collection. It was noteworthy that some of those portrayed so many years ago came to the book launch, a celebratory affair which took place less than 100 yards from where the photographs were originally taken.
Some will argue that this is ‘street photography’, a genre that has very little to do with landscape. Can we be so sure? A lot of street photography historically has been voyeuristic (taken surreptitiously too), using a grim urban background to add depth to what is essentially an anthropological gaze. There are exceptions, for example in the work of documentary photographers like Helen Levitt in New York and Roger Mayne in Notting Hill, whose respect and admiration for the children they photographed shone through. Respect and affection for his subjects shine through O’Brien’s photographs.
There is every reason to regard these portraits as ‘figures in a landscape’. The run-down setting of Hackney’s former industrial backstreets – halfway to ruin at the time the photographs were taken – represents the marginal places where travellers arrive, stay for a while and subsequently move, or are moved on. Significantly the book’s title Travellers’ Children in London Fields evokes the pastoral landscapes that once existed here, residual elements of which exist in the shape of the popular park which now takes that name. As such, the few yards of Martello Street which provide the backdrop to these portraits are imbued with genuine topographical elements – not stage scenery.
This elegant book is the first publication from the admirable Spitalfields Life blog, already gaining an enviable reputation for heroic endeavours in the field of local history, and well in the forefront of the ‘history from below’ movement in its 21st century digital manifestation and reach.