Island History

On Tuesday evening I went to the opening of Isle Of Dogs Then & Now: Photographs By Mike Seaborne, which is showing at George Green’s School Café Vert, a venue for various community and youth organisations, open to the public at times. But it is rather easier for most to see Mike’s work elsewhere, particularly in the ‘Then and Now‘ section of Mike’s 80sIslandPhotos web site.

Mike Seaborne talks about his work on the Isle of Dogs in the 1980s at Café Vert

In 1983-6 Mike undertook an extensive photographic project on the Isle of Dogs in East London to document the area prior to its redevelopment, in conjunction with the Island History Trust. In 2013, a Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled him put approximately 1500 of his black and white photographs into Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives where the albums can be viewed by the public. But you can also see them on his 80sIslandPhotos web site, where they are covered by a Creative Commons license that allows them to be copied and used for non-commercial purposes provided they are correctly credited (Copyright © Mike Seaborne) and are not altered or cropped. So here is one of the pairs of images in the show at Café Vert,

View south from the Plate House belfry, Burrell’s Wharf.                             Copyright© Mike Seaborne

In the show his black and white images from 1983-6 were paired with colour images taken from the same place over the past year or so. For some it was easy to know exactly where he had taken the earlier photograph – the belfry was still there, and the chimney of the former colour works has been retained, although it is the only thing in the recent photograph that remains – even the river walls have been rebuilt since then. The power station across the river on Deptford Creek is long gone – and you can see the chimney in mid-air as it was dynamited in one of Mike’s pictures.

Mike’s photographs of the area form an important record, not just because of the quality of the work but also because of the information that is attached to them, both by him and also by others, and part of the reason for making them available on-line is to enable others to come forward with more information about the people and places in them.

You can also see more of Mike’s work from this and other places on his main web site, and also on the Urban Landscapes website that we set up around 12 years ago and co-curate.

Although I took quite a few pictures on the Isle of Dogs around the same time as Mike in the 1980s – some of which are in my book City to Blackwall 1977-84  (preview here) – my work there just a small part of a much larger project on post-industrial London and not dedicated to a particular area. His is a much more in-depth study than mine and one that involved considerable interaction with the local community. It was only a few years later that I got to know him, when I joined a group of photographers he set up, London Documentary Photographers, to document the changing city, though by then I had seen some of his work – both of us had four pictures in the 1988 BJP Annual, two of his from the Isle of Dogs.

At the opening I talked briefly with Mike about the problems of re-photographic projects such as his, particularly in areas like the Isle of Dogs which have undergone almost complete redevelopment. I’d had a few hours spare and had walked through the Island on my way to the show, taking a few panoramas. Much of the way I was walking along streets and paths I’d walked on back in the 1980s, and little remained. I think I would find it tricky to exactly pinpoint the locations of many of the pictures I made back then, or the exact direction in which my camera was pointing.

Later I began to take more careful notes about locations, and as well as street names the contact sheets from much of my later work also contain grid references, although these only locate to a 100 meter square. Life would be much easier now with GPS and the ability to automatically record the image location into metadata.

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