Chris Dorley-Brown’s photographs of London during lockdown are “terrifying and exciting in equal measure”
Chris has been documenting London since the 80s but this new body of work paints the capital in entirely new, and eerie, light.
Any Londoner or anyone who lives in a similarly bustling metropolis will surely hold steadfast the same belief as us: that the defining quality of the city is its people. Your day is entirely focussed on who you will see, when you will meet them, how to schedule that meeting around when everyone else in the world seems to want to take that exact train. So the concept of a London devoid of people, the 28 Days Later London has always seemed an apocalyptic idea. For what would be left of the city, what would the city be, if its streets were empty?
On 23 March of this year, the UK government announced a lockdown, introducing new rules which shifted our daily routines more than perhaps any policy in the UK’s history has before. The initial lockdown was enacted by new legislation that gave the government powers to impose upon people’s freedoms, and we found ourselves only allowed to leave the house for a small number of reasons.
In turn, that apocalyptic notion of London sort-of did happen. Areas which usually would be teeming with tourists and commuters completely cleared out – Blackfriars Bridge, empty; Fleet Street, empty; Gerrard Street, empty; even Holborn was empty. It’s these eerie but entirely absorbing scenes which photographer Chris Dorley-Brown set out to document and which make up his most recent body of work.
Based in east London, Chris has been documenting the streets of the capital since the 80s, focusing on social housing, workplaces, hospitals and architecture and has built up a significant archive in the process. In 2018, he released The Corners, a book which portrayed London and its people by splicing together several images taken on one street corner. And he is currently working on a new book which “starts with the closure of West Ham’s stadium at Upton Park and the Ford plant at Dagenham and ends with deserted commercial institutions during the lockdown. It follows an arc of transformation in the London landscape during the last seven or eight years.” Over the years, while making projects such as this one, he has come to know London well, providing him with a level of familiarity from which he could begin to document the city during this unusual time.
“It’s terrifying and exciting in equal measure.”Chris Dorley-Brown
On what has driven him to continue photographing London for so long, Chris tells It’s Nice That: “I enjoy walking and cycling around places that I have a cursory knowledge of, or places that I have created an image of in my mind through books, music, film or archival photos. I use that mythological image to inform my pictures which are like updated myths. I like to imagine that I have been commissioned to make the mundane and ordinary appear epic and dystopian, maybe to echo a scary video game or an old painting. I hear strange and wonderful music in my head, like a thousand trumpets playing all at once!” The images Chris has produced during lockdown are therefore a continuation of his decades-long practice, one which has witnessed London evolve significantly.
While in the past, Chris’ images were concerned with narrative construction, with looking at the effect people have on their locations or at least how they interact with them, these new images take a different stance. They are landscapes, even though they all take place in an urban context, Chris explains, and “the human presence is implied through architecture and residues of industry or a civic-minded society being replaced by a data-driven logistics society. It’s terrifying and exciting in equal measure.” One image which stands out from the series shows Piccadilly Circus, a large image of the Queen staring down from the iconic advertising screens onto a deserted plaza. There’s something disconcerting about the image which shows a location so well known for being busy that its name has become an adjective. Perhaps it’s the prophetic imagining of how the technology we have created will continue to function long after we are gone.
From Chris’ recollection, it seems as if actually being there was almost as uncanny. “It felt transgressive and ‘wrong’ to be there, alone like I was the last person left alive,” he tells us. “I had a long-expired press pass in my pocket just in case I was challenged by the cops and it came in handy on a few occasions. I chose locations that were never empty on weekdays in the middle of the day. It was a dream, a fantasy and I wanted to see if I could capture the mood.”
Having some awareness of the location he is about to shoot is paramount to Chris’ practice, and he often educates himself on an area’s history through biographies associated with it, he watches documentaries and cinema, listens to music or talks to people about their memories and experiences of the place. Before taking the image, he also looks at maps and on Street View, working out the best angle for him to shoot from and where the Sun is going to be at certain times during the day. “Photography is easy, the hard bit is the hour before,” he adds. In one session, Chris only takes one or two photographs as “they take about an hour each, you need patience and belief in instincts and just get on with it.” This assiduity imbues Chris’ imagery with stillness and consideration, allowing you to take in every pixel of detail from the sky to the pavement, a quality which only enhances the impact of his most recent work.
“It felt transgressive and ‘wrong’ to be there, alone like I was the last person left alive.”Chris Dorley-Brown
Chris has been lucky during the lockdown, he tells us, as he’s been able to continue working pretty much as normal, but that’s not to say it’s been an easy time. “Thousands of Londoners have died in last few months and I have lost a couple of friends,” he says. “It’s a time of great sadness, I am trying to see the positives, the sudden drop in pollution, people looking out for each other, spending more time communicating with family and friends via the web etc.” Looking ahead, he’s hesitant to estimate what the long-term effect of the pandemic may be on his life and practice and “it all seems a bit irrelevant, to be honest,” instead, Chris explains how he is “just going through the motions as if I am half asleep… It feels like an era has ended and a new one is around the corner.”
“It feels like an era has ended and a new one is around the corner.”Chris Dorley-Brown
But Chris’ photographs taken on the streets of London are going to play an important role in remembering these months, when we look back with enough time between us and the lockdown to understand its impact. To ensure that images such as these remain in the public consciousness, Chris implores photographers with similar imagery to make archival prints and sell or donate them to as many places as possible. “I am sometimes worried that all digital photos will be lost after a few years unless you are fanatical about making numerous backups,” he says. “That’s what was great about shooting on film, it stood a good chance of surviving years of storage, I think that once a photographer dies who used digital, their work will disappear with them as it will be lost in a sea of passwords and decaying and out of date hard drives.”
Whether they make it into the hands of future generations or not, what Chris has documented and what he describes as “a dream, a fantasy” really did happen – is happening. And this lends the images in this series a certain gravitas, however absurd or droll they may be.
All photographs in this article were taken on weekdays, between the hours of midday and 2 PM.
Holborn, 22 April 2020
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.