Sunday, 15 July 2012

"Hackney - A Tale of Two Cities" by Zed Nelson

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times".

So begins Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities". He was writing about London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution whereas Zed Nelson's exhibition is about the London Borough of Hackney in 2012 and yet the contrasts shown in the exhibition are almost as extreme as those documented in Dickens' novel. When I spoke to Zed at the Preview of the show, he felt that perhaps he was cheating a bit by studying his own locality. However, the fact is that he lives in an area with a dangerous mix of new found prosperity and lingering depravation; an area ravaged by revolution only a year ago in the form of the London Riots of 2011.

So, what of the photographs in the exhibition? Well, they are beautiful as I had expected from the man who took my photograph entitled "Paradise". As with me, his subjects have been seduced by Zed's warm humanity - you can see it in their eyes. You can see it in his eyes.

The photograph of the white Grandmother and her black Granddaughter (I assume that they are related) is an example of this. They have been stopped in the street by a complete stranger with a camera and yet they have yielded very easily to his request for a photograph. I love their identical hairstyles and the identical happiness in their faces and yet the Grandmother has perhaps seen things during her life that she hopes that her innocent charge will never see but they smile for the camera and for a moment, all that is forgotten. Until they come across the tree ripped off its trunk and left there as a warning like a head on a pike or the car photographed from inside the windscreen in which we see a blackened hole which looks as if a rocket has been fired through it. The contrasts continue; two elderly women chatting over a cup of tea, an attractive blonde strolling past an upmarket cafe, three hoodies posing slightly menacingly on a recreation ground. All life is here. Two lovers kiss on a small rowing boat surrounded by bright green algae lying on the still water. An old man - disorderly or disabled either by drink or disease - holding himself up or bending down in a balletic pose to touch his shadow. It is easy to find any number of contrasting subjects to photograph in a place such as Hackney but not so easy to tell the stories behind each image with the skill and lucidity displayed by Zed in this superb collection.

I go back and start again and the best picture is definitely the first. There are red berries scattered over the pavement and the road. Those in the gutter are mostly squashed flat - only a few survive. The majority of those on the higher ground of the footpath are intact. There is a very thin line between them. It wouldn't take much to kick the rest of the berries into the road and then see how long they would last. My mind drifts back to 1973 when I was a student living in Clapton. One night, my flatmates and I were staggering up the High Street singing the Banana Boat Song and got stopped by the police and given a warning about our behaviour - probably yards from the places set on fire during the riots last year as the police stood by and did nothing.

The worst of times but the best of Zed Nelson.

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