In 1972 The Whitechapel Gallery comissioned Ian Berry to capture the changes occurring on the streets on the doorstep of the gallery. “I had just returned to London after a few years working as a Magnum photographer out of their office in Paris,” he recalls. “I had come back with a fresh eye and was just starting a new project when I got the call. It was too good an opportunity to turn down.”
“It was a different time and people were still not used to the notion of street photography. I just walked into schools with my camera, which you could certainly not do now. At the local hospital, they gave me a white coat, told me not to get in the way of the doctors, and just left me to get on with it. You had a freedom then that photographers no longer have.”
Berry remembers “a certain palpable feeling of sadness that was in the air, the sense that one wave of immigrants were being supplanted by another. It was just becoming a multi-racial, but mainly Asian community, and the old Jewish community was in terminal decline. You could sense the sadness on their faces, in their demeanour. That’s what I remember most.”
When speaking of one of the photographs above, picturing two woman in the road, both with their mouthes open, Berry said, “It’s not my favourite photograph and it did not make it into the original show,” says Berry, who, back then, worked mainly in colour and often for the fledgling Observer magazine. “The ladies make a great shape but it just misses being great because of that white car. Had I printed it myself, which I didn’t have time to, I would have darkened that bloody car.”
This chance element remains in all the images, ensuring their honesty and making them great examples of early street photography. The exhibition also shows these photographs at a time when East London is again changing due to the 2012 Olympics, demonstrating the ever evolving face of the capital.