Capturing Spitalfields ’91
Our new exhibition, now on display in the market roof, features a collection of images captured by photographers Mark Jackson and Huw Davies during the Market's final months as a fruit and vegetable wholesale market in 1991.
We delve into Old Spitalfields Market’s not so distant past this month with an exhibition of images by photographers Mark Jackson and Huw Davies, taken during its last eighteen months operating as a Fruit and Vegetable Market.
The Spitalfields ’91 exhibition comes in advance of the publication of their coffee table book – a collection of images documenting the life of the Spitalfields Fruit and Veg market and the people who worked there.
We spoke to Mark and Huw about this fascinating historic project…
What was the inspiration behind the Spitalfields ’91?
Despite doing a chemistry degree I was always interested in writing and had done some stuff for uni newspaper.
We just wanted to do something different and for a joint photography project it was a fantastic environment. We’d go through the whole area from the Isle of Dogs up to Camden looking for a project, in part influenced by Chris Killip’s fantastic images focusing on the north east coast of England.
Huw had known of Spitalfields and we walked up there early one morning as the market was just finishing and thought “this is it”.
Then once we discovered the market was going to be moving it gave us a natural deadline.
It was a complete self starter amateur project. I had been into photography for quite a while. Mark and I met as students at uni and found we were both working in London in the late 80s, early 90s. For me photography was a release and Mark was interested in being a journalist.
I had known the area quite well since the early 80s, as my brother was in the Met Police and his section house was down in Shadwell. Driving there we’d often pass the market at night and it’s quite a distinctive building.
When Mark and I started looking for projects that we could photograph it stood out as a fantastic social working backdrop.
What was the atmosphere like in the market when you were there to capture photographs?
A number of times we got the bus and stayed there all night until the market started peter out at seven in the morning.
Through the night was interesting… the night watchman would come and open up and watch the produce and keep it open for deliveries. The lorry park was very much part of it too, which has now completely changed and sat where you’ll now find Bishop’s Square. People would climb out of their vans and have a chat, lots of banter would take place. It was very coarse, very London…mixed and diverse, a real melting pot.
From around 5.30am to 6.30am it would reach its chaotic peak, when green grocers would descend and disappear inside to haggle.
At points there were families, wives and kids roaming round and a jellied eel stall in the middle of the market dolling out food to the greengrocers, as well as Dino’s cafe down the road, which was all polystyrene cups and cheese rolls. Then there was The Gun pub, we never went in there and got the camera out, but it was open all day and all night for the porters.
Sometimes we went every week, or twice a week, because we were interested in anything that would render more light in the images, such as rain and cloud cover for photographing the outside of the market. We also found the photographs were improved by overnight rain and cloud cover at dawn.
It was a technical test and a test of stamina. To do your day job, get there at midnight, then go all the way through and go back into work in the morning.
We were definitely noticed when we started. People were curious. One chap, a porter, came up and said “What are you doing mate?”. When we told him we were photographing the market’s final months there he said “What you are doing is in order mate. It’s in order”. We always stopped and had a cup of tea with him after that.
Our focus was on the commerce, the work, the labour. But we’d stop at stalls and get fed bananas, it was a great experience. I remember the stories about Richard Harris and Richard Burton being out on the town and passing through Covent Garden dressed up in their DJs and going for a big breakfast or a beer and it was like that in Spitalfields too. People would walk in still in their ball gowns and DJs and buy a piece of fruit. People just wondered back and forth.
But we were made very welcome and we would often sit and chat. It means we took photographs of certain people a couple of times, some portrait, some candid. As people got used to us we could just shoot away.
Do you have favourite images from the collection?
I have got a couple of favourites. There’s one of an old fella that I believe passed away while we were there, that has that almost Dickensian charm. He has a polystyrene cup in front of him and these big fat fingers. He had that everybody’s grandad type look about him and a Peaky Blinders flat cap. A character with his cup of tea. Just fantastic for a portrait.
I also like the one Mark took of the loaded cart. Behind it there’s the brick wall which you can still see, although now it’s part of the flats and shops.
It was so interesting going through all the images. We took 3000 or so in the market, maybe 4000 if you include the area around it.
You end up having pictures that always come back to you, like the one of that porter on of the first few nights that we went. His thumbs up felt like a bit of a passport.
There’s a shot of a London taxi on Brushfield Street and all of the crates alongside it… it feels very London. It’s a cliché, but it does.
I also like the one where they are working, hauling stuff onto carts, as the carts really were a symbol of the market. And the man walking along the side of the market with a notebook. Because that’s how it was.
A book containing pictures from the Spitalfields’91 collection, along with supporting essays, will be available to buy from Mark and Huw’s stall in the Market on the 10th and 11th November.