Photographer creates work inspired by Charles Booth’s survey of poverty in East London

Featured on our blog today is photographer Keith Greenough, who has recently printed with us for his exhibition Lifting The Curtain. Find out more below!

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I am a photographer based in South East England. I recently gained a degree in photography from the Open College of the Arts. I have a long held fascination with East London and its history. My work has recently been shown in exhibitions in London, Sheffield and Oxford.

I have always been interested in photography since I was young. But it was only when I retired from full time work that I began to take it seriously. I wanted to learn more so enrolled for the degree course at the Open College of the Arts. Several years later and I have now completed my degree and my work has been shown at a number of exhibitions.

The project I would like to publicise is called Lifting the Curtain. The work was inspired by Charles Booth’s 1889 survey of poverty in East London, Life and Labour of the People.  It takes the form of modern day photographs of places that Booth and his associates visited. The images are presented alongside texts drawn from the 1889 survey. Booth’s view was that ‘East London lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures’. He believed that the mythology of the place (in fiction and the popular press) overwhelmed the reality. His aim was to lift the curtain and reveal the truth. My project shows that, although much has changed in East London since Victorian times, many of the social issues Booth observed back then are still with us and are clearly visible today. In the spirit of Charles Booth, I am donating the proceeds from the sale of prints, the exhibition catalogue and the Lifting the Curtain book to nearby East London charity Toynbee Hall. The charity’s vision is ‘To eradicate all forms of poverty’. Booth and his team used Toynbee Hall as the base for their survey work in the late 1800s. The centenary of Booth’s death will be marked next year.

I am interested in what has been called ‘Late Photography’ – an approach that involves making images of places where significant events have taken place after the fact. For example Chloe Dewe Mathews’ work Shot at Dawn presents photographs of places where deserters were shot during the First World War. Alongside the images, the names of those who were executed are displayed. Little or no sign of what happened at the place is visible today, but juxtaposition of the names of those who died there transforms the images into sites for contemplation of the past events. Simon Norfolk’s Bleed operates in a similar way. Norfolk’s work presents images of places where there are mass graves of those who died as a result of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Joel Sternfeld and Richard Misrach are also significant influences. What I like about this form of documentary is that it has a strong conceptual base and engages the viewer in the process of interpreting the work. All of these photographers work in marginal light conditions and produce technically strong images – often using large format cameras.

The Lifting the Curtain exhibition runs from 15 – 25 October at Town House, 5 Fournier Street London E1 6QE and is part of Photomonth, the East London Photography Festival.

I am continuing my work in East London and am at an early stage on a project that will explore the redevelopment of East London. I am also working on an idea for a project based about Thames Valley suburbia drawing on J G Ballard’s fiction.


Keith Greenough

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