There’s something not quite right about the photographs in Chris Dorley-Brown’s book “The Corners” (published by Hoxton Mini Press). The scenes are ordinary enough — intersections in East London with people going about their normal business — but there’s a tranced stillness about them: a feeling of being in some kind of fugue state. I’m referring not only to the people in the pictures; I’m also describing the effect induced in us, the people looking at them. And when I said there was something not right about them, maybe I meant the exact opposite: something too right, eerily ordinary.
The strange thing about this strangeness is that, to anyone who knows London, these pubs, post offices and people all look so familiar. If the familiarity is photographic as well as geographic, that might be partly because Dorley-Brown has also assembled and edited the color slides of an earlier photographer, David Granick, in another book: “The East End in Colour 1960-1980” (also published by Hoxton Mini Press). This was the era from the pre-swinging ’60s to the punk revolution of the late ’70s, but as Dorley-Brown notes in his introduction, the wartime trauma of the Blitz infuses “the mood of this tired landscape … with a melancholic determination to remain in the past.” Architecturally, parts of the East End may still look weary, battered, hung over, but in recent years Hackney and its hipster environs have significantly tilted the axis of London life. The eastward migration has left “fashionable” areas like Notting Hill on the other side of town contemplating a future as affluent cultural wastelands.
In “The Corners,” Dorley-Brown is updating Granick’s work in two senses: recording the changes and continuities of the areas he photographed, and doing so in a way that employs the changed technologies of the moment. Each photograph is actually made up of “a matrix of smaller pictures” of the same scene that are later “composited on a screen.” A typical background is made up of 18 to 21 images with a further selection of details added to create “a montage of time compression covering up to an hour of action.” (We’ll come back to that word “action” later.) A shot of Truman’s Road and Stoke Newington Road — featuring a man in a blue sweater talking on a cellphone while another contemplates the scene of which he is a part — was taken between “12:01pm-12:34pm, 18th June 2009.” A traffic sign enlarges the frame of temporal reference still further — “Mon-Sun 7am-7pm” — only to be outlasted by an Off Licence that is “Open 24 hrs.” A dry cleaners, meanwhile, offers “Repairs and Alterations”: legible confirmation that the photographic moment has been extended and the documentary record adjusted. A sign in another picture alerts us to the fact that, having left the free-for-all of traditional street photography, we are entering a “Controlled ZONE.”
In some of Granick’s views from 1960 to 1980, Dorley-Brown observes that hints of the hipster future can be seen “in a distant haze, just around the corner.” In “The Corners,” the past can be seen emerging from a slight haze, just down the road. That haze can sometimes be more than slight: In the very last image in the book — and in another series of works, “The Fogs” — there lurks a linger of mist that can trace its ancestry back to the aptly named “London particulars” of “Bleak House” in the 19th century and the murky dawn of photographic light. The long exposure times of early photographs emptied those bustling Victorian streets of all moving people and horse-drawn traffic, except for the occasional blur of almost stationary ghosts. The individual images within the large time frames of “The Corners” are taken at shutter speeds sufficiently fast to suspend people in the act of walking. People in photographs by Garry Winogrand or Helen Levitt always look as if they are capable of crossing the frame and, in a second or two, passing beyond it. No such egress is possible within the oneiric zone of Dorley-Brown’s control.
People are rooted to the ground by the effort of ostensibly traversing it, as oddly static as the figures in Edward Hopper’s paintings. So the pictures look like records of a fully immersive street installation that, for those lucky enough to obtain tickets, offers the experience of being able to wander through a world in which time is stalled, isolating everyone else midstride, mid-phone call, midlife.
The sensed absence of time — the result, paradoxically, of an unusual amount of it being accumulated within each picture — is accentuated by another lack that deepens the enveloping aura of emptiness and, as a consequence, emphasizes the connection with the photographic past: no traffic, no congestion. In this world lacking vehicular transit — a result of shooting traffic-less interludes rather than having cars towed away after the fact, in postproduction — the “Chapel of Rest” on the corner of Vernon Road and High Road becomes a conveniently located destination and terminus. The figure loitering across from it looks like one of the living dead: the ghost of long exposures past, summoned into full tangibility. What’s this figure going to do? The question makes no sense. He doesn’t have the time.
Cathy Lomax, in a brief introduction to the book, writes that there is “something happening in every frame,” but it is hard to imagine how less could be going on without the pictures being digitally purged of people. In the background of the frontispiece, a building is being demolished; in another, a police van blocks a road cordoned off by police tape. The sky is more turbulent in this picture than any others, but the two cops on view are chatting, relaxed, doubly happy, in this context, to be on overtime.
The “action” of the pictures is, in other words, almost entirely photographic. Visual detectives investigating “Kingsland Road/St. Peter’s Way” have identified as a person of interest the aged lady in purple top, lugging a matching shopping bag, who between the hours of 12:11pm and 12:36pm on 25th June 2010, somehow found herself wandering in from a Katy Grannan photograph. But how could this have happened, given the inability of people to make meaningful progress across the page? The clue is the street sign just behind her head: “Zone ENDS.” Dorley-Brown manipulates his scenes not to manufacture drama or to bunch people into near-collisions but to create a “truthful” picture that “must match the memory of a moment that never occurred.” He does not specify whose memories, but they have the potential to join and alter (remember that “Repairs and Alterations” sign) our own.
If these scenes of daylight somnambulists seem dreamlike, that is consistent with the idea that there is no time in the unconscious. (Walter Benjamin famously wrote that photography revealed the existence of an “optical unconscious.”) There is abundant information in each photograph — in the form of street signs and shop names — about exactly where we are, but as we have seen, the frame of temporal reference is necessarily hazy. On these corners, the intersection of time and space is consistently angled toward the latter. Dorley-Brown’s admission that he doesn’t have “a journalistic bone in [his] body” fits nicely with Rebecca West’s suggestion that “sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time.”
But that’s not much help to the fellow in the first plate in the book. He’s gazing in the direction of the street name — Sandringham Road — while, behind his back, the film showing at the Rio Cinema implies, in the captioning way of such things, that he might also be “Looking for Eric.” (Ideally the cinema would be screening “From Here to Eternity,” but that would perhaps be too good to be true, and Dorley-Brown’s alterations do not permit the addition of any details that were not actually present. Within their own enlarged conception of the words, the pictures are accurate and authentic.) Nowadays we try to arrive at a movie at the time advertised, but how can you do that when you’re stranded in the East End Dream-time? In an essay on Edward Hopper, “The Nothing That Is Not There,” Leonard Michaels writes: “It wasn’t important, in Hopper’s day, to see a movie from the beginning. People often arrived in the middle, which led to an expression we no longer hear, ‘This is where I came in.’ ” Not when but “where.” That, give or take half an hour in each picture, is what and where we’re seeing here.