Berkoff’s photographs capture the dying days of London’s old East End

by Jeremy Miles

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Steven Berkoff: Photo by Hattie Miles

Director, actor and playwright Steven Berkoff knows a thing or two about the East End. He was born there 75 long years ago, a mere barrow boy’s shout from the chic Thames-side studio that is now his artistic base.

Yes the East End has changed and so too has Berkoff who fought his way from unpromising beginnings as the son of a Russian Jewish tailor  to produce a radical body of theatrical work that has brought him both widespread acclaim and a certain degree of notoriety.

These days he’s recognised as a creative giant of the theatre, equally at home producing hard-hitting avant garde drama, adapting Shakespeare, Kafka and Sophocles or writing his own critically acclaimed original plays. He also has a parallel career as a Hollywood movie actor of course having appeared in a curious mixture of movies that include  A Clockwork Orange, Octopussy, Rambo, Beverly Hills Cop and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It’s all a long, long way from  the now lost world that Berkoff grew up in. Happily when he was just 11-years-old  and kicking around the streets of Stepney someone gave him a camera. It sparked a lifelong interest in photography and a few years later when he acquired an enlarger and learnt how to print his own pictures, he was ready to go.

Armed with a second-hand Rolleiflex, Berkoff started photographing the people and places of the old East End – the markets, the street sellers, the potpourri of cultures brought to the area by immigrants.

By the 60s and 70s it became all too apparent that the bagel-sellers, chicken-slaughterers and other colourful characters that were the life and soul of East End London were slowly but surely disappearing. Berkoff’s photographs captured the last gasp of an era.  “I felt I had to record it before it vanished forever,” he says.

Happily the pictures – now so historically important – have survived and have just been publishing in the book  East End Photographs. There is also an exhibition of his prints which is currently showing at Lucy Bell Fine Art in East Sussex.

You can see ‘Steven Berkoff – East End Photographs’ at Lucy Bell Fine Art, St Leonards-on-Sea, until 21 Feb 2013. For book sales: www.lucy-bell.com

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