Chris Dorley-Brown’s Composite Photos Find Poetry in the Mundane

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Chris Dorley-Brown, 'Castlewood Road and Rockwood Road, 11:41 am - 12:24 pm, 20th June, 2014.' (Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery)

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to compare the impact of digital technology on contemporary image-making to the revolution wrought by silver-nitrate photography in the mid-19thcentury. Both technological advances fundamentally altered how people created and consumed images—even how people (artists included) came to see the world.

Photography pushed painting out of its role as a recorder of experience into a more creative and subjective direction: abstraction. Likewise, our daily production and consumption of the billions of photographs taken every day, and shared immediately, worldwide, via the internet, has fundamentally altered the conception of who is and who is not a photographer or artist. In the age of selfies and cellphone digital cameras, we all are; just push the shutter and then click "share." Facebook and Instagram do the rest.

Chris Dorley-Brown complicates the immediacy of the point, shoot and share experience in large color photos of the unprepossessing street corners of Hackney. This East End London borough is the artist’s hometown, and, incidentally, birthplace and home to a motley crew of eminences, including Edmond Halley, the astronomer, and Joseph Priestley, the chemist; the writers Daniel Defoe, William Hazlitt and Harold Pinter; Michael Caine and Alfred Hitchcock; the artist Rachel Whiteread; the musicians Gary Brooker and Sid Vicious; and the criminals Dick Turpin and Reginald and Ronnie Kray. In an ongoing project worthy of a Victorian gentleman naturalist-scientist, the artist has created a photographic archive of Hackney since 1984.

Chris Dorley-Brown, 'Sandringham Road, Kingsland High Street, 10:42 am - 11:37 am, 15th June, 2009.'
Chris Dorley-Brown, 'Sandringham Road, Kingsland High Street, 10:42 am - 11:37 am, 15th June, 2009.' (Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery)

But in The Corners the artist’s current exhibition at San Francisco's Robert Koch Gallery, it’s not documentary work, precisely. Dorley-Brown combines several artistic traditions in order to render his street-scene slices of life with a kind of monumental realism (reminiscent of Dutch paintings of timeless daily life) and a distinctly contemporary point of view. The latter is shaped by the documentary street photography tradition of life caught in passing, on the run, and captured precisely at Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”—the right place at the right time.

Dorley-Brown sets up his DSLR on a tripod, capturing the scene before him in a diffuse light with minimal shadows or glare. Then he waits, like a patient nature photographer in a camouflaged blind. He uses a telephoto lens and multiple exposures (I surmise) to catch his unsuspecting prey, and shoots for up to an hour, recording the time intervals (easily recovered from the camera’s EXIF data) in the photographs’ titles.


When the individual figure studies are placed into the landscapes, with the careful attention to lighting and perspective of Renaissance painters, the illusion is extraordinary, and we are given, in effect, an extended “decisive moment” with actors unaware of each other, creating an enigmatic narrative—or, rather, allowing viewers to create an enigmatic narrative, given our interpretive propensities. Like the temporarily immobilized photographer played by James Stewart in Hitchcock’s masterful Rear Window, we become observers and interpreters of the drama unfolding around us. That the drama has been staged by Dorley-Brown from images deriving from an hour’s surveillance is unimportant; he is as much taken and mystified by the chance encounters he discovers as we are.

Chris Dorley-Brown, 'Graham Road and Dalston Lane, 10:58 am - 11:42 am, 12th June, 2009.'
Chris Dorley-Brown, 'Graham Road and Dalston Lane, 10:58 am - 11:42 am, 12th June, 2009.' (Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery)

The six photographs in The Corners were taken between 2009 and 2017. Each vignette tells its own story about a corner as a meeting place of both people and roads. In the photo of Sandringham Road, we see a women’s clothing store and a movie theater. In the foreground, a woman bends over to tie her shoe as a faceless man strides by. A tall man nearby appears to gaze upwards, although the camera has caught him blinking. Across the street, beneath the movie marquee (showing Looking for Eric) a woman in a headscarf woman checks traffic before stepping into the roadway.

In Graham Road and Dalston Lane also from 2009, a young woman in a miniskirt walks across the street, peering into her cell phone. She's observed by a couple of men waiting beside a red-brick hospital building that could have come from Vermeer’s Delft. In Castlewood Road and Rockwood Road, from 2014, three groups converge at an intersection with a yellow-brick building being demolished in the background. Behind a green fence: two women with strollers, one accompanied by a toddler, and a black-suited, top-hatted, bearded man of Lincoln-esque of Hasidic mien.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by times, certain twilights and certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.” Chris Dorley-Brown’s editorialized documentation of Hackney reveals the magic and mystery of mundane, hackneyed, miraculous reality.

'The Corners' is on view at Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco through March 2, 2019. Details here.