Vintage Glamour In London’s East End

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Two years ago, when Martin Usborne and Ann Waldvogel set up Hoxton Mini Press, they did so with the intention of producing collectable art books about “the city’s most exciting and vibrant area” – London’s East End. They have stayed true to that vision, so far producing more than 10 books, each of which has proved as eclectic in nature as the area represented.

Vintage Glamour sees curator Michael Greisman and Frank Harris, both keen amateur photographers and collectors, bring together a selection of the work of Whitechapel-based studio photographer Boris Bennett. The images, many of which have been restored to their original pristine condition by Greisman and Harris, were taken between 1927 to the mid-1950s, a period of time in which Bennett was the go-to photographer of the Jewish community in the East End. A mononymous celebrity in his own right, he was simply known as Boris.

Boris was born Boris Sochaczewska in 1900 to a Jewish family that ran a textile business in Ozokoff, Poland. Aged 18, he moved to Paris, where he initially worked in a photographer’s studio but later as a salesman for a German company producing photographs on celluloid. It was while working as a representative for this company that he was first sent to London in 1922. Boris never went back.

The Whitechapel area he lived in and worked in was home to a thriving Jewish community. The demographics of the East End were transformed from the 1880s onwards by Jewish migration from Eastern Europe, transformed again some 90 years later by an influx of Bangladeshis who made the area their home.

Whitechapel was never the most salubrious of areas. The grime and crime of the Dickensian era still persisted, but profound social shifts brought about a dual narrative of life in the East End: an attempt to change the area (and its opposite – xenophobia and racism), and on the other hand the attempt to escape from it all. Boris’s photography was all about the latter – the need to escape.

From the 1860s, photographers were hawking their trade in Whitechapel for people who quite literally wanted to picture themselves somewhere else. Most of this escapist photography was done as a sideline project for people practising other trades. Barbers would offer haircuts alongside photography, with the assistance of a bouncer, for the punters who didn’t care for their picture. From these humble beginnings there developed a whole Jewish photography studio scene.

The Baumgart Brothers opened their first studio in 1897 and ran a successful business until 1930, opening two further studios. L&J Suss opened their first studio in 1898 before moving to 25 Whitechapel Road in 1904 where they opened their famous Vienna Art Studio. These studios specialised in what we would see now as very dour, very formal Victorian portraiture. But the times they were a-changin’, and into these changes appeared Boris.

He opened his first studio in 1927 at 150 Whitechapel Road and became an overnight sensation – a photography legend was born.

The gas lamps of the Victorian East End were long gone, electricity not only lit up the streets and advertising hoardings, it also powered something far more influential – cinema. The hordes of clients that made their way to Boris’s studio knew what they wanted – Hollywood. And Boris knew how to give it to them.

Rather than the staid pictorialism on offer, people wanted to look like Rudolph Valentino, Norma Shearer or Clara Bow. Boris employed the Hollywood lighting techniques of George Hurrell, using Deco-inspired backdrops and his own blend of showmanship – customers were greeted outside his studio by the imposing figure of Sidney Long, a former fish porter from Billingsgate market, in full commissionaire’s regalia.

Vintage Glamour contains a portrait taken of Boris before his death in 1985; it shows the photographer as immaculately dressed then as he is in an earlier image from 1932. A very dapper chap, perhaps a legacy he carried with him from his days in the family’s clothing business.

Business boomed for Boris. He shot all the great and the good. By 1940 a typical Sunday could see him shoot up to 60 couples on their wedding day. Crowds would gather to gawp at the spectacle of dozens of wedding parties in their finest waiting outside his studios.

A December 1936 issue of British Journal of Photography saw an announcement in its Commercial and Legal News section of 2000 ordinary shares at £1 each for Boris Studio at 14 Whitechapel Road – which would equate to £130,000 at today’s prices [excluding property price inflation]. No small sum; in fact, business proved very profitable for Boris, so much so that by the outbreak of World War Two Boris had established five studios stretching as far as London’s West End.

The post-war period marked another period of transition in the make-up of the population of the East End. Boris’s client base began to evaporate as the Jewish community began to move way north to Hackney and Tottenham, east to Ilford and Gants Hill, and north-west to Golders Green. Boris recognised the changes and began to diversify away from studio photography, opening a retail camera shop, Bennett Cameras, on Oxford Street. Other shops were to follow before this part of the business was sold to Dixons in 1963.

More than 150,000 images were created by Boris during his working lifetime. Many of these prints now form part of the permanent collection at London’s Jewish Museum, alongside his ‘Big Bertha’ Kodak. A biryani restaurant now occupies 14 Whitechapel Road, where once a diagonal neon swash proclaimed the legendary Boris Studio.

But what of his wider legacy as a photographer? While the portraits that make up Vintage Glamour tell us very little of where the subjects came from – in fact, quite the reverse – they do tell us where they wanted to go. For their subjects these photographs were to be a marker laid down for the future. The portraits are remorselessly elegant, one wonders what August Sanders would have made of his work.

In 1927, the year Boris opened his first studio, Sanders, speaking about the work that was to become his seminal Face of Our Time, wrote: “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.”

Unlike Sanders, Boris employed every trick in the book; however, his take on ‘ghetto fabulous’ contains its own truths about the transformative powers of hope and ambition.

Vintage Glamour In London’s East End, curated by Michael Greisman, is published by Hoxton Mini Press, priced £25.