From the Krays to the London 2012 Olympic Games, Newham sees David Bailey's East End

By Ben Miller | 17 July 2012
A photo of various religious and national cultures passing each other on a London street
© David Bailey
Exhibition: David Bailey's East End, Compressor House, Newham, until August 5 2012

Born a Leytonstone lad in 1938, David Bailey says east London is “in his DNA”.

He wants the world to gaze upon an area he’s been looking at “all my life” in this self-styled return to his roots, commissioned by the local council as part of the annual Create programme in the capital, and the opening section should gain attention: images of gangster twins the Krays, taken during the 1960s for the Sunday Times Magazine, feature a gambling club firebombed minutes after the photographer left, as well as unrecognisable high streets, children playing in bombed out buildings and some inimitable East End characters.

A black and white photo of a fashionably-dressed woman sitting on a boat on a canal
Catherine Bailey, Docks (1983)
© David Bailey
The brothers’ impending trial scuppered any chance of the shots going to print, but they make for a compelling start to an exhibition set within the Royal Docks, the largest man-made docks in the world when they were constructed 150 years ago.

Bailey returned to them for the second part of the show, from the 1980s, recording stately buildings in crumbling condition and cranes through barbed wire fences and mesh wire.

But never one to shirk a touch of glamour, Bailey also used it as a backdrop for a photoshoot for his newspaper, the Ritz, which countered fading facades with high fashion, worn by his wife, Catherine.

The finale has Bailey returning to Stratford for a modern glimpse of an area experiencing changing times again as the Games approach. Residents live “cheek by jowl”, from white working classes to Asian women in saris and burkas, co-habiting a landscape of fences beneath imposing towers and serene rivers passing sodden marshes.

“It's very personal,” says Create Director Hadrian Garrard, saluting Bailey as “a local icon.” “His work explores the characters, cultures and physical landscapes which make the area so unique. This is a once in a lifetime show, at perhaps the most important time in the area’s history.”

A photo of two women in colourful dresses standing side by side having a cheerful drink
The Rio Club (1968)© David Bailey
Sir Robin Wales, the Newham Mayor, wants old and new generations to contemplate an evolvution. “We have ensured our residents will be able to see this exhibition for free,” he explains.

“David is from Newham, and now he’s back in the Royal Docks. This area was once thriving and then it fell into decline, so it's great to see it buzzing with activity and massive potential again in the run-up to the Olympics. For us, the astonishing transformation here is all about our people and making the most of a new era.”

Observers should be able to make their own mind up about that, judging via the eye of a photographer who says he’s “always tried to do pictures that don’t date.”

“I always go for simplicity,” adds Bailey. The history his photos tell is complex enough.

  • Compressor House, Royal Docks, Dockside Road, Newham. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-7pm (9.30pm Thursday and Friday). Admission £6/£4 (free for Newham residents with ID). Book online.

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