During the ’70s and ’80s, Neil Martinson used his camera to document the community he grew up in, creating a vivid portrait of east London – before it changed forever.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Neil Martinson used his camera to document the community he grew up in, creating a vivid portrait of east London – before it changed forever.

Neil Martinson was still at school when he first picked up the camera. Growing up in Hackney during the ’70s, he saw it as an opportunity to engage with a world much larger than the one immediately available to him – one that felt, at times, fairly unforgiving. 

“It was a cultural wasteland,” he says, describing his neighbourhood back then. “There were no bookshops, derelict houses littered the streets, and the cinemas were closing one by one. It was a depressing place to be. Many people just got out.” 

Photography, though, provided respite. Not only did his surroundings open up, but people – interactions – did too. The “magic” that came with developing and printing his own photos kept him hooked, even when he was still finding his feet as a storyteller.  

“It was very hit and miss at the beginning. My first camera was a Russian Zenit-E – built like a tank. It wasn’t an easy camera to use compared to how they developed. I couldn’t afford much film so I had to be careful in thinking about what photos to take.”

While he was primarily documenting what he could see around him, Martinson was always particularly concerned with social action. As he grew older, much of his work began to centre around campaigns and activism: from the occupation of Hackney Town Hall in 1981, to a long-term project on the housing crisis that played a role in successfully convincing the local council to change its policy on putting up homeless families in squalid, run-down hotels. 

Now, all of that work features together in Hackney Archive: Work and Life 1971 – 1985, the seventh instalment in Hoxton Mini Press’ Vintage Britain series. Taking the reader on a 14-year journey, it begins with Martinson’s first pictures, before concluding with Hackney on the cusp of sweeping gentrification. 

“Cities and places within them have always changed,” Martinson says. “My grandparents came from Holland and Russia to make new lives. Many of the factories I documented [during the ’70s] lay empty for 15-20 years. But some are now loft apartments, or have been taken over by the digital industry.”  

“Immigration always brought new energy and ideas. The empty houses and cheap rents in the ’70s and ’80s created the space for artists, radicals and diversity. That’s changed and it’s only people with money that can afford to move to Hackney. So… it’s a mixed blessing.”  

Hackney Archive: Work and Life 1971 – 1985 is available now from Hoxton Mini Press.

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