Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

East End Photographs by Steven Berkoff

Steven Berkoff is well known as a director, playwright and actor – a creative giant of the theatre.  He is less well known as a photographer, but his genius is truly revealed in the current show at Lucy Bell’s Gallery in St Leonards. HOT reporter Cathy Simpson visited East End Photographs by Steven Berkoff and discussed his work with Lucy Bell.

Steven Berkoff was born in Stepney in 1937, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Luckily for us, an ‘enlightened cousin’ gave him a camera when he was eleven years old, which sparked a life-long interest in photography. A few years later, he acquired an enlarger and learned how to print his own pictures. Armed with a  second-hand Rolleiflex, ‘the camera became a way of communicating my feelings about sights and people. And I started to record the people who were part of my environment in the East End of London. The camera in many ways preceded the pen.’

The pictures were taken in the East End during the 1960’s and 70’s and are wonderful social commentary, a testimony to a way of life which no longer exists:

‘The East End was changing rapidly and I felt I had to record it before it vanished forever – at the time however I did not realise quite how fast it would disappear. The area was largely Jewish and this made it fascinating, since the early immigrants came with an amazing potpourri of cultures from a score of different peoples.’

The pictures are particularly poignant precisely because he was part of that environment, rather than a detached observer.  There is a sense of intimacy and involvement in all of them.  A particularly interesting piece is Jack Waller’s Widow;  the lady in question had apparently asked him to photograph her wedding photo – all creased and crumpled – in a sense, bringing him back to life.  She was reluctant to be part of the image; reluctant because she had been working with the poultry from which she earned her living and her hands were still stained.

But what a masterpiece he has produced! There is no shrinking away from the harshness of her everyday life, she is clearly a woman whose existence has been rough and tough – but the tenderness is unmistakeable. The juxtaposition of this brave woman with the image of her younger self  on her wedding day is made all the more telling by the glamour of the calendar in the background, and even the sheets of paper on the wall are placed so that they lead us back to her portrait.

Repeatedly, he has turned these ordinary people into icons, an impression which is increased by his use of composition.  Most of the photographs are in a square format, with the subject placed firmly in the centre and making eye contact with the viewer.  They are masterpieces of design, but uncompromisingly human, including the pieces which portray shop fronts or apparently empty townscapes.  Berkoff has conveyed the colour of everyday life, paradoxically in black and white photographs.  His work has been described as ‘a unique historic portrait of the East End area’, but it is so much more than that!

The exhibition will be at the Lucy Bell Gallery until 13 February 2013;  it will then be travelling to Middlesex University, and there are plans to display it at the International Center of Photography Museum in New York.  We are very privileged to have the opportunity to see this work in St Leonard’s, and I strongly recommend a visit!

The book, East End Photographs by Steven Berkoff is available at £16.99 (pub. Dewi Lewis, Limited Edition prints are available at £500.

Lucy Bell Gallery
46 Norman Road
St Leonards on Sea

Open Wednesday-Saturday 11am-4pm
or by appointment on 07979 407629

01424 434828

Posted 09:25 Sunday, Jan 20, 2013 In: Photography

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