Neil Martinson presents “stories of work, love, hardships, joy and community” in Hackney
Taken throughout the London borough of Hackney during the 1970s, local resident and photographer Neil Martinson transports us back to a time before gentrification.
- Hassan Sharif
- 17 February 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Over past decades, the word gentrification has become almost synonymous with the London borough of Hackney. Towering around us is an environment built around all things new and digital, as well as countless eateries and hip cafes splurging out. For the longstanding local businessman or growing family rooted in the borough, we can imagine such change would be hard to navigate.
Within Hoxton Mini Press’ recent release Hackney Archives: Work and Life 1971-1985 photographer and local resident Neil Martinson takes us back in time to a very distant version of the borough. Peering into his black and white photographs, Neil transports us to a time and place before gentrification changed local lives forever. You can almost hear cheers of children playing outside and the vibrant chatter of a community amongst “impromptu market stalls and the smell of stale, stagnant second-hand clothes,” as the photographer describes.
For Neil, the medium of photography offered an opportunity to change the world, built from a curiosity to explore Hackney during his freedom as a child. With a camera in hand, his adventures were the source of his earliest photographs, “taken around Brick Lane, Ridley Road and the Dalston Waste markets.” Inspired by his new creative outlet and “partly looking at photography books at Stoke Newington Library,” Neil’s work looks to create a voice for the local residents and “improve life for people in the borough.”
The Hackney Neil describes is very different from the one we know today: “In the 70s and 80s, Hackney was very run down. There was a lot of dereliction, and it was a place that many people wanted to get out of.” In turn, Neil depicts a story of a changing community as “many fled to the sunny uplands of Essex... Yet there was vitality and resilience among local people, and less inequality than there is today. Few people owned their own homes, there were no gated communities and no gastro-pubs.”
The intimacy in Neil’s work is reflected in his position, not as an outsider but as a resident invested in the lives of those around him. Since he began photographing, Neil has also been involved in many politically-focussed campaigns, “keen to record the lives of the people who made Hackney,” and was even part of a local history group. During the 1970s the photographer additionally began working in local a bookshop, Centerprise, which began a “publishing project in the 70s and gave voice to local people.” Consequently, a strong theme of social justice is heavily featured throughout Neil’s work, such as documenting protests campaigning outside the likes of Hackney Town Hall.
Around this time Neil moved to Rachel Point on the Nightingale Estate with his parents. “A planners’ dream of the future. It was so modern,” Neil describes within Hackney Archive: Work and Life 1971-1985. “There was a fitted kitchen and the heating magically came through grills in the walls.” This sense of wonder and innocence is woven through many of Neil’s photographs, for instance, one of his particular favourites is of a young girl wearing sunglasses: “I was working at De Beauvoir adventure playground and we were on a coach trip to Margate. It was the first time most of the children had been to the seaside and even a Box Brownie was able to capture the magic of the moment.”
Throughout the publication, Neil’s work is presented as extremely inclusive, representing women in work, an active Jewish community, as well as tensions “between the black community and the police.” His body of work is a celebration of such rich cultures not afraid to shy away from political unrest, or the failed attempts of trade unions to keep factories open. However, despite strong efforts, Hackney’s charm began to shift into instability, as the borough crept into the 80s. Focussed on “stories of work, love, hardships, joy and community,” Neil’s photographs pay homage to a community of hard workers and craftsmen trying to remain unfazed by a change they could only bear witness to.
Throughout Hackney Archive: Work and Life 1971-1985, Neil’s photographic prowess is mirrored in the characters of Hackney’s residents, a community standing together through to the end. Despite these changes what’s most important for Neil is that viewers gain a “broader understanding of the people and history of Hackney,” through his photographs. As fierce debate rages on in regards to gentrification, the question remains, does “more life and more money” make for happier residents?
Even throughout such uncertainty, the photographer remains curious all these years later. Even when we asked Neil what’s next for him, he simply replied: “Wait and see.”
GalleryAll images by Neil Martinson as part of Hackney Archive: Work and Life 1971-1985, courtesy of Hoxton Mini Press
Neil Martinson: Hackney Archive: Work and Life 1971-1985, courtesy of Hoxton Mini Press
About the Author
Hassan joined the It’s Nice That team as part of The HudsonBec Group's Thrive Placement in February 2020. After graduating in architecture from Newcastle University, he is excited to expand his creative skillset working within the editorial, creative and project management teams across the company.