In the early 1980s I became aware of a French photographer, Eugene Atget, who worked in Paris in the late 1800's. Atget made his living by making 'reference' portraits for painters who would then work from his reference or, I believe, overpaint his reference. At the same time, Atget was also a walking photographer and he made some 1,400 images of Paris which can be found in volumes of his work. If you take any of these volumes to Paris, as I have done, you can navigate to the exact spots where Atget made his images and I found this a really interesting and exciting experience.
When I became aware of Bermondsey, in the early 1980s, I found it a very atmospheric place, decaying and derelict certainly, but very atmospheric and, with Atget's example in mind, I decided to make some images of the place.
Years before me, other photographers had the same idea and the images of Paul Barkshire are both remarkable documents and pleasing images at the same time. Southwark's Local Studies Library, the John Harvard Library, holds a range of images of Southwark and many of Bermondsey. Many of these images have been made by relatively unknown photographers who have found themselves driven to record London at various times and, taken together, these images show the changing face of London, relentlessly torn down and rebuilt through the decades.
I hope that this small collection will add to the historic perspective and act against the PR waffle of estate agents who re-write history to suit market conditions.
Making and collecting the images
I came to Bermondsey St on the advice of Norman Ackroyd RA, who moved his etching studio to Morocco St in 1982/3. Bermondsey Street was one side or the other of its lowest ebb at that time and its potential was not widely recognised. The major obstacle was in obtaining a 'change of use' for a small warehouse building to achieve some element of residential use.
At that time, Southwark Council was a fully paid up member of the 'loony left' and it wasn't easy to obtain consent to live in or around Bermondsey Street because it was zoned as an 'employment area'. The reality was that it was an 'unemployment area' because Southwark Council were still pursuing a fast fading dream of a resurgence in 'light industry'. The impact of this policy was that many buildings in the area were decaying and falling into dereliction whilst there were artists who would willingly have bought into the area if they could have obtained consent to live there as well as work.
There were a relatively small number of successful residential consents, one of which was for 3 Tanner Street which I had located in 1985. It was, at the time, a part derelict warehouse dating from 1838 and, in 1986, my partner and I set about renovating it, a project which was to consume a large chunk of my life, a large chunk of our money, and which was also to derail my career as a photographer.
We moved to Tanner St in December 1988 just as Pan Am flight 102 was descending on Lockerbie and, once we had settled in, I started to make photographs of the area, albeit in a rather haphazard manner. This activity accelerated when I became involved with Southwark Council's Conservation Areas Advisory Group and that involvement caused me to make some rather more comprehensive photographic surveys of the area. (At the time of writing, Southwark's CAAG can be contacted via email@example.com )
Between 1983 and 2006, I gathered together a modest collection of images, many my own and many rescued from skips and dustbins. This blogsite will, over time, carry as many of those images as I can scan as they are all film based.
Niall Connolly, Somerset, December 2010
(updated September 2012)