This show isn’t a likely subject for me. It’s a photography exhibition, sure, but the photos in it aren’t fine art. Rather, they’re the legacy of the Rio Tape/Slide Newsreel Group, a local voluntary project that ran at the Rio (a cinema in Dalston, East London) from 1982 until 1988. These photos are some of the thousands of slides that were found mouldering in the cinema’s basement recently, and provide a totally fascinating slice of life in a place that’s really familiar to me, at a time that’s just in living memory.
The project produced newsreels about local life and issues, slides with an audio soundtrack, which were then played before the movies at the Rio. (I guess in a world before cinema ads, though that independently-run place still goes lighter on the ads compared to the local Cineworld.)
Only two of the full newsreels survive - neither with any audio - a symbol of how quickly media can fall out of use and be lost. The surviving photos, stripped of authors, stripped of context, have the air of captured moments, familiar but made strange with the passing years. A bus conductor - a figure who I can only just remember from my 80s London childhood - smiles at the camera, slump-shouldered but looked at adoringly by a child in the next seat. Above his head are slightly ripped ads from the GLC, abolished later that decade.
The ramshackle-ness of the project is made clear by its ‘Equipment book’, actually a school exercise book, with stencilled letters on the front cover, ‘please sign out any item “u” borrow’.
Hackney was a desperate place in those days, with 20% unemployment, and a population that had dropped by a third between 1931 and 1981. Then as now, a deeply left wing area, though a vastly less trendy one. Then as now, there was a housing crisis - though back then, the crisis was the queue for council flats, not the difficulties of getting a decent two bed in the borough for under half a million pounds.
The people here have a cool toughness a world away from the tattooed graphic designers and creative directors (and hobbyist art critics) that haunt its streets these days.
I loved the two bespectacled seen-it-all grannies, effortlessly toting palettes of Skol (yuck!), who you definitely wouldn’t see getting a couple of bottles of organic perry up the road at Clapton Craft, as I did after seeing the show. Similarly, it’s unimaginable that Hackney Town Hall would ever be violently occupied
Some of the photos, at their most self conscious, made me roll my privileged eyes. Others are just beautiful - a deliciously formal shot of the local Kingsmead Estate could be an Axel Hütte. And some take me back to my childhood, like one shot of a boy lying on his living room carpet, watching a bulky TV, the air warmed by a gas heater identical to the one in my parents house, on the other side of the city, at the same time.
More, many more, of the pictures are on Instagram at @riocinemaarchive.
Hackney in the 1980s: Photographs from the Tape/Slide Project is at Hackney Museum (London). 29 October 2020 - 14 August 2021