The ghosts of Old London

London, shop in Macclesfield St, 1883

Catherine’s post of yesterday about the ghosts captured on the old French daguerreotypes reminds me of an old post of Spitalfields Life. Its gentle author picks out from time to time a handful of photos from the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute, the cultural center of East London’s Spitalfields district. This time he/she draws the attention to those figures which, just like on a steampunk Google Street survey, were accidentally trapped in the camera photographing the hitherto disappeared buildings of the neighborhood.

“The slow exposures of these photographs included fine detail of inanimate objects, just as they also tended to exclude people who were at work and on the move but, in spite of this, the more I examine these pictures the more inhabited they become.

On the right of this photograph, you see a woman and a boy standing on the step. She has adopted a sprightly pose of self-presentation with a jaunty hand upon the hip, while he looks hunched and ill at ease. But look again, another woman is partially visible, standing in the shop doorway. She has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph, yet she is also present. Look a third time – click on the photograph above to enlarge it – and you will see a man’s face in the window. He has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph either, instead he is looking out at the photograph being taken. He is looking at the photographer. He is looking at us, returning our gaze. Like the face at the window pane in “The Turn of the Screw,” he challenges us with his visage. Unlike the boy and the woman on the right, he has not presented himself to the photographer’s lense, he has retained his presence and his power. Although I shall never know who he is, or his relationship to the woman in the doorway, or the nature of their presumed conversation, yet I cannot look at this picture now without seeing him as the central focus of the photograph. He haunts me. He is one of the ghosts of old London.”

At the back of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, 1877.

A man peers from the window of a chemists’ at the corner of Lower James St and Brewer St.

6 comentarios:

Marshall Colman dijo...

The first impression of these old street photos is their quaintness, with old-fashioned shops and the period typography of the posters. But in all such photos, whether of poor or prosperous areas, everything is shabby, nothing appears to have been painted for the last twenty or thirty years, everything is rubbed and worn. People wore their clothes for much longer as well - perhaps the adults in these photos had been wearing their jackets and dresses for 20 years. We look at these photos as a record of, say, the 1880s, but because nothing has been renewed, they are probably images of the 1850s.

One of the consequences of prosperity is that we paint, repair and renew everything, and there is nothing really old. Moreso in Britain and America, of course. When I was in Budapest a couple of years ago it was notable that some parts were brand new while others were still as they had been in the 1950s.

Studiolum dijo...

You’re right. Interestingly, to me, watching these photos from Budapest, their shabbiness has seemed quite normal, just like that of most of our similar neighborhoods. And when I am in Germany or France, I am desperately – and unconsciously – looking for the same impressions in the outskirts, taking this shabbiness for a sign of authenticity, a trace of history. Maybe this is just an illusion. But maybe you are right, and the lack of repainting, repairing and renewing in fact preserves some history, let’s say twenty or thirty years - exactly what one needs for some healthy nostalgia al mezzo del cammin.

Catherine dijo...

In France, in the outskirts, shabby places are rather a sign of poverty than of history : places forgotten, or just waiting to be pull down. In small towns, it's certainly mostly poverty again but maybe also that time runs in a different rythm and it doesn't seem so necessary to repaint a building every 10 years. Is it a sign of authenticity, I don't know — I don't even exactly understand what you mean by it — I perceive history as a movement, not as an ideal (?).
And are we sure we remember exactly how thing were 20 or 30 years ago, or do we construct with our memories some world which is only ours, with some erased parts and emphasized ones?
But yesterday I came by chance to a very budapest-like courtyard in Paris, quite a "twin" yard of one I had seen last summer, with a funny message under the passage, forbidding tenants to walk on the roofs during parties — so history here is just an illusion, old inhabitants have dispeared long ago and are replaced by artists and students who may wear old fashioned clothes just to be in accordance with the walls.

Studiolum dijo...

I think shabby places are everywhere a sign of poverty, not only in France, but also in cities in Europe’s eastern finisterrae where almost every place is shabby. Nevertheless, their shabbiness always promises to bring you in touch with the past, with the very surfaces people touched twenty years ago, the very shop labels people saw fifty years ago, like in Lwów. This is what I call their authenticity (while of course I also perceive history as a movement, not an ideal). Certainly you do not touch or see something which was exactly like this twenty or thirty years ago. But it offers you the starting launch to construct with your memory some world which is your own, but which you can share with others, too, at least by way of belles lettres, conveying the experience of your encounter with history. Like you did in your beautiful essays on Galicia.

Catherine dijo...

Thank you, Studiolum. I see what you mean about being in touch with the past or with things people touched twenty years ago, but I don't consider the past in this way. In some way, past is not important to me. I love history as a discourse on the past, as a way to dispute and interpret traces, testimonies, texts, as a store of endless enigmas — and here, past can merge with present. I don't know if this sentiment is just a personal one or if it is not also a western Europe relation to the past, except for Germany: destructions were not on the same scale, for example in France, and we didn't lose the same amount of lives, places, belongings and memories than in eastern Europe. I love fifty years old shop labels in Lwow, because they are in Lwow and because they are the only remaining trace of another world — but I pass the same in Paris without taking notice of them: what message could they bring? from whom? (indeed, I also love some of them, if they have a beauty of their own).

Marshall Colman dijo...

I also think the neglected and unmodernised parts of old cities are more authentic.

Here in Britain, where we are in love with our past, many old places have been given the heritage treatment: restored to what they are thought to have been, but are mended, painted and polished. And, because they are part of the tourism industry, there has to be a teashop, a gift shop and a visitor centre as well.

I prefer to find corners that have not been given this heritage treatment. There are more such places in the north of England, left behind by industrial decline. You can also find them in old places where people still work - in docks and fishing villages for example. The difference between the heritage centre and the authentically old is that there is often some smell - of oil, or fish, for example - in the authentically old.