The great day (Tuesday, 15 November) has arrived. This evening, Jacquie and I will be at the presentations and awards of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery. The three winners know who they are but not in what order. It must be really knicker-gripping hoping that it's your portrait that gets the £15,000 cheque for the first prize.
I do not know the format of the evening other than we shall be served celebratory drinks and be viewing the exhibits. For me, it's been incredibly exciting, not only to have had my image selected but for it to have used for the exhibition catalogue cover, postcards and I understand it features prominently on the banner outside the National Portrait Gallery and publicity posters. If that were not enough, the first image up on the NPG website is the one taken by yours truly. Here's the link: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/twppp-2016/exhibition.php
Wednesday, we are at the NPG again for the Press View. That'll be interesting.
So, what does it all mean? For me, it is a wonderful opportunity to represent the enthusiast photographer with just a camera, no assistant, no studio or lighting, no planning or preparation, just curiosity and hard pavement pounding. Don't get me wrong, last year's winner was a superb study of five teenage girls, exquisite lighting, expertly, planned, arranged and executed. Stunning. Mine took less than 3 minutes to shoot and that's what has given me a kind of warm glow.
These days, it feels like the number of barber shops in Brick Lane is beginning to outnumber the curry houses. Perhaps this is as a result of, if you will excuse the pun, the growth of beards. Half way down the street there is a new shop, Jack the Clipper, whenever I pass, there is rarely an empty chair. Then there's a newish walk-in on the corner of Fashion Street where the scissor wielders look like heavies and sport huge tattoos.
Everywhere one looks, you'll see the hirsute. The current fashion for facial hair goes something like this. Well covered chin and cheeks, preferably with a slight ginger tinge, fairly sleek and not too luxuriant at the sides with decent growth on top. For maximum effect, worn with skinny black jeans, black T-shirt and long pointed shoes. All combined with a special kind of demeanour that says “I’m hip even if there are hundreds more just like me". I think they are called hamsters but I'm not sure about that, confirmation required.
Elsewhere, there is a traditional Bangladeshi barber shop also near Fashion Street, where I suspect that the prices are a fraction of those in places frequented by the hamsters.
Now to the point. I've been inspired by the late, great New York photographer, Saul Leiter and trying to capture splashes of red, views from under awnings, views through the windows of cars and vans. It's hopeless of course trying to reach Saul's levels of creativity but I am going to persevere. I tried to snap the Bangladeshi barber in action through the shop window, but he waggled his fingers indicating no! I waved back, smiled and moved on. The next occasion, I looked through the window, smiled and gave him the thumbs up sign - and moved on. On the third occasion, he had a client in the chair, pointed at me with my camera, the client turned towards me, gave me a friendly stare and 'click'!
There is a series running on BBC television at the moment depicting the living and working conditions in the East End of London. Episode 1 started in the 1860's and each week, the episode moves on a decade.
No matter how grim the depiction, it is not really possible to convey the horror that London's poor had to endure. The production company also makes the wonderful "Who do you think you Are" programmes where famous people look into their ancestral past. I see that one of the advisors is Sarah Wise, who has written some wonderful books about the same period including 'The Blackest Streets'. I can strongly recommend this book if you have an historical interest in this period or ancestors who lived here in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
I applied to take part in the programme but strangely, my wife baulked at the idea of living in a hovel for three weeks, odd that.
My own family passed through the East End around the time covered by the programme. My great, great grandfather left the Grenadier Guards as a Colour Sergeant and started work as a lodging superintendent for Baroness Angela Coutts at Columbia Market, just a few hundred yards from the infamous 'Old Nicol' slum. He died shortly after of pneumonia. In the 1880's, another branch lived not far away in Mile End New Town near Brick Lane. Howard Buildings was designated housing for the 'Industrious Classes'. Later still, my paternal grandparents arrived in England from Eastern Europe and settled in Whitechapel.
All this helps to explain my fascination for Brick Lane and its immediate surroundings. In 2014, my wife and I helped towards the publication costs of the wonderful 'Spitalfields Nippers' book of photographs taken over 100 years ago by Horace Warner. Horace was a Quaker from an affluent family whose income enabled his photographic hobby. The Quakers were very actively involved in trying to alleviate poverty in the East End and gave their name to Quaker Street that today still runs westwards from Brick Lane. In Horace's time the street would have been a deep maze of alleys and courts, not anymore. On the southern side is a long, blank brick wall, part of the Truman Brewery complex, to the north there are some low level flats and a very creaky old warehouse.
My photo here was taken in Quaker Street, what with Brexit and Trump looming, or maybe not, I thought it a good idea to try to make you smile, with a typical piece of East London humour. It reminds me of the wonderful radio skit about a pathetic bank robbery attempt when Kenneth Williams uttered the immortal phrase 'Hold up your stick, this is a hand up'.