Residents of the streets of East London are captured with startling clarity by the enigmatic C A Mathew. The purpose of the photographs remains unknown, but on the morning of Saturday 20th April, 1912, our photographer walked the short distance from Liverpool Street Station into the heart of Spitalfields, taking his camera with him.
In contrast to the more formal, posed photographs of the time viewers may be more familiar with, these photographs engage vividly with a modern audience, who see the people, the streets and the everyday details, just as C A Mathew himself would have seen them.
Mathew lived in Brightlingsea in Essex, having only begun taking photographs a year before these images were made, he passed away 4 short years later in 1916 leaving this series of images that in the words of the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life are 'the most vivid evocation we have of Spitalfields at this time.'
Because C.A.Mathew is such an enigmatic figure, I have conjured my own picture of him in a shabby suit and bowler hat, with a threadbare tweed coat and muffler against the chill April wind. I can see him trudging the streets of Spitalfields lugging his camera, grimacing behind his thick moustache as he squints at the sky to appraise the light and the buildings. Let me admit, it is hard to resist a sense of connection to him because of the generous humanity of some of these images. While his contemporaries sought more self-consciously picturesque staged photographs, C.A.Mathew's pictures possess a relaxed spontaneity, even an informal quality, that allows his subjects to meet our gaze as equals. As viewer, we are put in the same position as the photographer and the residents of Spitalfields 1912 are peering at us with unknowing curiosity, while we observe them from the reverse of time's two-way mirror.
The other source of fascination here is to see how some streets have changed beyond recognition while others remain almost identical. Most of all it is the human details that touch me, scrutinizing each of the individual figures presenting themselves with dignity in their worn clothes, and the children who treat the streets as their own.
These pictures are all that exists of the life of C.A.Mathew, but I think they are a fine legacy for us to remember him because they contain a whole world in these few streets, that we could never know in such vibrant detail if it were not for him. Such is the haphazard nature of human life that these images may be the consequence of a delayed train, yet irrespective of the obscure circumstances of their origin, this is photography of the highest order. C.A.Mathew was recording life.
- Gentle Author, Spitalfields Life
edited version of article dated 21st September, 2010
C A Mathew's Spitalfields images are preserved in the archives at Bishopsgate Institute and have been carefully restored by contemporary Spitalfields photographer Jeremy Freedman.
Limited Edition prints available for purchase with Bishopsgate Institute receiving a donation from each print sale.
A series of events curated by Bishopsgate Institute will run concurrently with this exhibition. More information to follow.