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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with Phil Maxwell, photographer of Brick Lane

Photographer Phil Maxwell explains how documentary photography has involved him in the life of Brick Lane over three decades.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell batman

Photographer Phil Maxwell has spent three decades documenting life on Brick Lane, capturing the locals at work and at play in evocative black and white photos, which are now compiled into a book of the same name and are currently on show at Rich Mix London (read my listing here). Here he answers a few of my questions about his work.

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell boy and scales

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell launderette

What has been the most memorable photo you’ve taken across 30 years? (because of the situation or timing or people involved) and why?
This would be the photo of the couple kissing in the launderette. I took this photo when I was doing my washing in the Brick Lane launderette. It was not staged and I later got to know the subjects when they moved for a brief time into the tower block I have lived in for most of my life. I always carry a camera with me to capture life around me; you never know what you might encounter. I took several frames in the launderette which appear in my book. The daughter of the couple recently contacted me asking for a print – which I was pleased to supply.

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell corner

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell

What do you look for in a successful photo?
I am fascinated by the way ordinary people interact with their environment. Most of my photographs are of people and I try to celebrate their lives. For me a photograph is successful if the composition is right and the humanity of the subject shines through. I try to alert people to the natural understated beauty that we encounter every day in our lives.

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell girls

Why did you shoot all your photos in black and white?
When I started taking photographs 40 years ago I took the majority of my photographs in black & white because I processed the film and printed the images myself. This was the cheapest way of doing things but it also gave me complete control over the entire photographic process. Today I shoot in both colour and black and white. I find black and white is very powerful for documentary photography.

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell march

Boys on Swanfield Street

Why do you love living in this area, and what is your best (or most unusual) recommendation for visitors when they come to Brick Lane?
I love the area I live in because of the diverse cultures that live and thrive next to each other. The tower block I live in is very cosmopolitan. I am fortunate to live in a flat on the eleventh floor which enables me to observe the ever changing skyline. I would recommend to visitors to Brick Lane to take their time when exploring the area; also they should explore streets off Brick Lane like Cheshire Street and Hanbury Street. Its always best to visit during a week day rather than the weekend when it gets terribly busy.

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell market

Where do you love to eat, drink or hang out? Can you share your top tips?
For a curry I would go to the Meraz Cafe in Hanbury Street or to Chez Elles a lovely French bistro on Brick Lane. My local pub is the Golden Heart with its charismatic land lady Sandra Esqulant on Commercial Street. All visitors should visit the marvellous Spitalfields farm next to Allan Gardens just off Brick Lane; its a great way to relax away from the crowds.

Woman with newspaper, Brick Lane 1984.

Brick Lane, photo by Phil Maxwell protest

What do you think the future of Brick Lane will bring?
Brick Lane is constantly evolving and will continue to be a magnet for visitors from around the world. Hopefully it won’t become too expensive and corporate. Its proximity to the City means there is constant pressure on property prices. It is difficult for small businesses to survive in this climate. Hopefully the Lane will retain it’s unique personality and not become another bland location on the tourist map.

There are a few days left to catch the exhibition at Rich Mix. Brick Lane is published by The Gentle Author and is out now, available here for £10.


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