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The Barbican in 1975, by David Hoffman

1 July 2019

When I took the Barbican pictures in 1975 I was in my 20s and really angry. I was angry at a lot of things. Angry at the inexorable march of the City building out eastwards, rolling over the houses that my friends and I were living in, demolishing the pubs we drank at, erasing the little old shops & cafés we used. Angry at the council 'decanting' my neighbours to Nowhereland, taking over and bulldozing any housing that the City didn't swallow to build places that we couldn't live in.

I was angry at all sorts of shit. Angry at the way the police stopped and searched us whenever we poked our heads out onto the street. The world around us felt structured to reduce us to an insignificant irrelevance. Designed to isolate us, to exclude us, to oppose us, to sideline the social causes – equality, racial integration, decent employment, affordable housing and effective health care – that we cared about.

A massive, imposing structure seemingly dropped from the sky, the Barbican typified a wider uncaring and absolute power over our environment. Its great weight, the unassailable concreteness of it, the way that it resembled a walled city with whole areas locked and gated against outsiders – all these came together to say “You are no part of this”. It was the very opposite of welcoming; reeking of wealth, only navigable by those who knew the secrets of its confusing mazes and owned the right keys.

Built to separate rich from poor, to make the wealthy wealthier, the Barbican obliterated a space previously filled with shops and housing and pubs and libraries. An organic ecosystem supporting people on low incomes, people who worked in the area, whose families had grown up there for generations was expunged.

The Barbican represented something profoundly anti-human. Its very structure boasted of its conquest. A hundred times taller than a human, its coldly invulnerable mass presenting only walls and barriers smugly impervious to human interaction, the estate seemed designed to emphasise the unimportance of our individual lives.

So I found the Barbican interesting as a symbol of all this. I didn't find it attractive, but I didn't want to make it look evil. I felt it would be more effective to show its nature as objectively as I could. I used a tripod to slow me down and make each view a considered one. (I was young and took myself very seriously.)

I think I only had one lens for my Nikon FTn – a 50mm f1.4 - but I was able to borrow a 20mm sometimes and I liked that for the way it showed the space. It was all shot on Tri-X, developed and printed in my Whitechapel squat. I suppose something slower would have been a more usual choice but I had a dodgy supplier of cheap Tri-X at the time and now I like the grain.

I've just published a Café Royal book on the Barbican, coinciding with this Summer's 50th anniversary of the first tenants moving in. I'm working on two other books; one will be another in the Café Royal series, part of a boxed set coordinated by London Metropolitan University, looking at protest in the East End in the last century; and I have just started on another, much larger, book covering my time in the '70s and '80s squatting in Whitechapel, which is planned for autumn 2019.

Longer term I'm planning a more analytical book on protest, using text from myself and others complemented by a series of video slideshows.

David Hoffman has worked as an independent photojournalist since the 1970s. Avoiding the constraints of commissioned work he instead chooses to supply media with self-generated work from his photo library. Driven to document the increasingly overt control of the state over our lives, his work sheds an unforgiving light across racial and social conflict, policing, drug use, poverty and social exclusion.

Protest, and the violence that sometimes accompanies it, is a thread that has run through Hoffman's work, gaining him a reputation as ‘the riot photographer’s riot photographer.’ The same determination and willingness to look uncomfortable realities in the eye are evident in his photographs of homeless people using open and unregulated shelters offering support and respite.

Often raw and uncomfortable, Hoffman’s work is both dispassionate documentary and social challenge. By engaging with the image, we are forced to recognise the world as others live it and to consider our own position. Working to document the reality of injustice, the frequent oppression of the state and the all too often tragic consequences, Hoffman’s photography has underpinned legal challenges, brought racist perpetrators to justice, and most importantly, reached wide audiences through mass media publication for more than 40 years.

See more work by David Hoffman

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