When art-goers see Chris Dorley-Brown’s series of East London street scenes called “The Corners,” they often ask if Dorley-Brown staged the images. How couldn’t they be? In one, a woman bends over in the street to fix her shoe while, just behind her, a hatted man looks up at a building — and behind them, a religiously observant woman stands below a movie marquee that says, “Looking for Eric.” Each element of Dorley-Brown’s photo is odd. Putting them all together is odder still — like a scene from British theater or an opening episode of Black Mirror.
But every part of Dorley-Brown’s “Looking for Eric” photo happened the way it did, without prompting. But they happened separately, over the course of 55 minutes. That’s why Dorley-Brown titled the image, Sandringham Road, Kingsland High Street, 10:42 am – 11:37 am, 15th June, 2009. The single, digital photo amalgamates the series of images that Dorley-Brown took that day on an East London corner, where he stood with a tripod in plain view of everyone who walked into his frame. For more than a decade, Dorley-Brown has taken images this way.
“I was interested in seeing whether I could make a valid documentary picture by not making a picture in just a 60th of a second as was the norm — that I could make samples, as you like, of the scene in front of me and construct a memory or a truth of being there, without it looking too theatrical or ridiculous or too constructed,” says Dorley-Brown, whose images from “The Corners” are on display at San Francisco’s Robert Koch Gallery. “But,” Dorley-Brown adds, “that’s impossible. Because the minute you start doing that, by stretching time or compressing time, you enter a different world, really. I think that’s why a lot of people think I use actors.”
Another image from “The Corners,” Chelmer Road & Glyn Road, 12:47 pm – 13:18 pm, 3rd March 2012, reveals the unscripted, intense nature of Dorley-Brown’s series. In it, an older woman on the sidewalk stares at the photographer with deep suspicion. Dorley-Brown uses a series of regular DSLR cameras, but by setting up his tripod in public, he invites scrutiny. Police have even stopped and questioned his motives. And Dorley-Brown’s response has always been the same: It’s perfectly legal in Britain to take photos in public.
“You develop a series of stock answers, and depending on what mood I’m in, I’ll be polite and accommodating or just tell them to fuck off,” Dorley-Brown tells SF Weekly by Skype from London. “In this day and age, some people think you’re performing some kind of surveillance work, but this is an absurd idea because I wouldn’t be standing on a corner with a big camera on a tripod if I were doing such a thing.”
East London, where Dorley-Brown lives and takes his images, is a historically working-class part of England’s capital. The changes over decades have brought new immigrants, people seeking cheaper rents, and other newcomers, but Dorley-Brown tries to make his images timeless by eliminating as many cars as possible from the scene. He waits for them to go by or chooses spots with few vehicles.
“Nothing dates a picture more than a car,” Dorley-Brown says. “If you look at Stephen Shore’s pictures of the Uncommon Places you see the vehicles from the mid-’70s — and you know exactly where those pictures were taken. You don’t need to look at the date. And I was keen to ‘undate’ my pictures.”
“Chris Dorley-Brown: The Corners,” through March 2 at Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F. Free; 415-421-0122 or kochgallery.com.