Interview: Hoxton Mini Press
From the series I’ve Lived In East London For 86 1/2 Years, by Martin Usborne
It all began a few years ago when photographer Martin Usborne saw 86 1/2 year old Joseph Markovich wandering the streets of Hoxton Square. Appearing strangely out of place among the masses of East London’s youth, Usborne was compelled to take Markovich’s photograph. What started as a simple request to snap a quick portrait, ended with an entire photography book dedicated to the native East Londoner and an unexpected lasting friendship between the two. After numerous interviews and years spent cultivating a friendship, Usborne self-published I’ve Lived In East London For 86 1/2 Years, a book encompassing the story of a man who was born just beside the Old Street round-a-bout and lived an entire lifetime in East London. Only leaving the area once in his life to visit the seaside with his mother, Markovich is an eclectic character who loves Nicolas Cage, took five sugars in his tea and would have married a six foot two Hispanic woman but had bad chest catarrh and never had a girlfriend. His story is one of a man who truly witnessed the ever-changing East End through generations of growth and transformation. Once considered the most impoverished corner of the city, today’s East London has never been more vibrant and eccentric. And Usborne’s series of photographs highlight the fascinating juxtaposition of an 86 1/2 year old man living in a world of cafes, hipsters, large graffiti murals and the flourishing eccentricities which make the backdrop of the East End. All the while, Markovich offers his humorous and heart-warming viewpoints on everything from religion, to the future and Jennifer Lopez.
After having great success self-publishing 86 1/2 years, Usborne decided to dive into the world of independent print with Hoxton Mini Press. Founded in 2013 by Usborne and his wife Ann Waldvogl, the publishing company has been creating collectible books exclusively about London’s east end boroughs ever since. Growing up in North London, Usborne moved to Hackney 13 years ago and was quickly compelled to capture the diversity and creativity of the area that immediately felt like home. Embracing the idea of niche and bespoke print, Usborne and Waldvogl have a passion for East London that allows them to continuously search out and create their art-style books that showcase all aspects of the East End.
Following Usborne’s first book in the East London photo series was photographer Madeline Waller’s East London Swimmer’s, featuring the swimmers of Hackney’s London Fields attempting to brave the winter snow and head outdoors despite the freezing conditions. Intrigued by the alternative identity that people seem to assume when stepping into a swimming pool, Waller began documenting winter swimmers at London Fields lido in Hackney. She quickly realized portraits of each person in their swimming costume were more telling of their distinctive personalities than when they appeared in portraits fully clothed. From being caught in a Thailand tsunami, to having the determination to hold one’s breath until almost hallucinating, wanting to reconnect with nature and having a deep fear of sharks – Waller set out to explore the personal motivations behind each winter-weather swimmer.
Zed Nelson’s A Portrait of Hackney was published in early 2014 as the third book in the East London photo series. A documentary photographer who’s spent most of his life living in Hackney, Nelson’s portraiture gives tremendous insight into the clashing identities, cultural confusions, beauty and strangeness that all co-exist in London’s East End. Hackney is ever-changing, currently experiencing immense growth that is creating a rapidly changing social landscape. While still perceived as an inner-city borough full of crime, poverty and housing estates, it’s also home to creative businesses, entrepreneurs, restaurants and an overwhelming influx of young, creative residents. Scenes of hipsters in Olympic Park, next to a tragic drive-by shooting followed by drinks on the canal are the portraits and landscapes which make up the all-telling pages of Nelson’s book. Through his lens, Nelson has truly shown the peculiarities and juxtapositions that are simply part of every day life in the East End. His constant inspiration comes from daily occurrences in and around Hackney, an area with violence, beauty, wildlife, concrete wastelands, poverty and affluence all mixed together and vying for space. This social diversity is exactly what creates the tattered, fractured, liveliness of Nelson’s photography and his accurate portrayal of the place he calls home.
When reading such publications from Hoxton Mini Press, it quickly becomes evident that not many places can compare to the uniqueness and diversity found in Hackney. The East End is a place so full of untold stories and photographs waiting to be taken, and Hoxton Mini Press is successfully representing this fascinating corner of London. With many upcoming projects in the works, they’re set to release photographer Dougie Wallace’s Shoreditch Nightlife this autumn, as well as Vintage Glamour in London’s East End by Boris Bennett and A Field Guide To East London Wildlife. Establishing themselves as independent publishers, Usborne and Waldvogl are embracing all that the East End has to offer — an area that’s ever-changing, vibrant and so very alive.
From the series A Portrait of Hackney, by Zed Nelson
Hoxton Mini Press came to life in 2013. What’s the story behind the independent publishing company? How did it all start?
Martin: I worked as a photographer, and I was working on my project about Joseph Markovich which came to be our first book, I’ve Lived In East London for 86 1/2 Years. We started with that about six years ago and I was initially doing it as a personal project. I decided to publish it, simply because I like books! I ended up doing a small paper back and put it in local shops; it sold out very quickly so I thought, well maybe it would be possible to start a company with my books about East London. Then it occurred to me that it shouldn’t be just about my work, it should also be about other people’s work, as there are so many creative people in East London. The idea came about to do a series of collectible books about East London, initially illustrated and photographic. We’re really doing more photographic at the moment since we have more connections to the photography world, but we plan on doing illustrated books as well. The inspiration is to create a sort of high end feel for the photography books – cloth bound, beautiful appearance and beautiful photography. Then we mix that with a nice price point and a slightly more affordable product as well.
So 86 1/2 years was the first book, and then Ann and I decided to set up Hoxton Mini Press as a more formal business to make these books. We’ve since created two other books under the same East London photo series. One is called East London Swimmers and the other is A Portrait of Hackney. We’ll also be bringing out another one in October and then another three hopefully in the next year!
There’s certainly a wealth of talented creatives in the East End — photographers, writers, designers and so on. How do you find the people you work with?
Ann: It’s a mixed process, really. The first couple of books that we’ve published so far have been with projects or photographers that we sought out. We contacted them, told them about Hoxton Mini Press and expressed our interest in creating a book with them. For example, Zed Nelson’s book A Portrait of Hackney which we published in May was actually completed a few years ago. We approached Zed for that one, but the two books coming up this Autumn, the photographers had approached us. We get quite a lot of submissions from people who write in with ideas and then we are always looking out for photographers, projects and ideas that really interest us.
For the books you personally photograph, such as I’ve Lived In London For 86 1/2 Years, what is the process behind the portraiture? What is your method for seeking out the people you find and photograph?
Well for Joseph, his story was really an interesting and unique one. I bumped into him in Hoxton Square one day and thought he looked so out of place. He was this old man living in an area of London that was being transformed on a daily basis by gentrification. I initially wanted to take his portrait and thought perhaps he could give great insight into the area, but he actually was such a strong and unusual character that he ended up wanting to tell me more about his chest complaints, the fact he never got married, his history with women and how he never married, and his affinity for German cinema. What I was hoping for in his historical accounts of the area would have ended up being really quite dry; instead, he had all of these crazy tales about why computers were going to blow up the world and the fact that Johnny Depp’s mother was half Cherokee Indian. He’s what made the book feel so personal. We actually ended up becoming friends and we spent six years together hanging out quite a lot. It was as much friendship as it was a photography project and I think that comes across in the book.
From the series I’ve Lived In East London For 86 1/2 Years, by Martin Usborne
The humanistic aspect of the books is what makes them so special, as they’re each very personal and raw. What is it about East London that makes it the perfect backdrop for telling such stories?
Martin: I think you’re exactly right and that’s really the point of this series we call the East London photo stories. We do want to sort of emphasize and give insight into personal narratives; we like personal histories. I think East London has an incredibly diverse population. It feels like it’s constantly evolving, where as areas of West London are perhaps a little more wealthy and established, so they easily become more static. There’s a lot of juxtaposition in the area, which is what we often focus on – you’ve got the rich and the poor, the new and the old. There’s tension, there are paradoxes; you see a trendy coffee shop right next to an old bag shop and that makes the area very, very alive.
So the process is also similar with Waller’s East London Swimmer’s and Nelson’s A Portrait of Hackney, I assume? Each book in the series seems to really encompass a true sense of East London.
Martin: We certainly try! We have three books so far in the photography series — the old man was book one, the swimmers book was second, and Zed’s A Portrait of Hackney was third. So you can see there’s a pattern emerging. Eventually, we’ll have a whole book shelf of photography books of East London, which are collectibles, all of the same size and similar design. For each book, we also do a limited edition run of 250 with special covers and prints. We really want the books to be something you keep, collect and treasure over time and not something to be thrown away.
Spreads from the series East London Swimmers, by Madeleine Waller
Speaking of future titles, the next book is set to release this Autumn and encompasses nights out in Shoreditch. Can you give some insight into the forthcoming title?
Ann: The book is called Shoreditch Wildlife by photographer Dougie Wallace, which will be released in October. He’s a Scottish photographer that lives in London and he’s quite a character! I think the images showcase that very well. But as a photographer, he has this amazing ability to sort of capture these outrageous moments and scenes that I think a lot of photographers would really be too afraid to take photos of. He gets right in people’s faces and in people’s space at times, he really puts himself into the moment in a way that many other photographers wouldn’t do. I think so far he’s made it out relatively unscathed thankfully! For this book, he took photos of Shoreditch nightlife, and it’s really quite different in look and feel, compared to the other books we’ve published so far. Like we mentioned though, Hoxton Mini Press really wants to focus on all aspects of East London and to showcase the scenes and people of the area. There’s certainly these crazy Shoreditch night life scenes and there’s no sense in denying that. Just as we don’t want to simply focus on the sort of cool, hip things all the time, we also don’t want to leave out something that’s such a large part of the vibrant area. There are sometimes outrageous nights out that are most definitely a part of the area and Dougie is able to really showcase that aspect of East London so well.
What other projects are in the works for this coming year?
Martin: We have a few books coming out this fall. Aside from Dougie Wallace’s Shoreditch book, we have our first large coffee table style book, which is a collection of Jewish wedding photos from the 1930’s. The Jewish community is famously close knit and was also very impoverished during that time. A photographer, Boris Bennett, had a studio on Whitechapel Road; he was infamous in the Jewish community, because he basically made people look famous for a day. Very poor families would come and have their wedding photos taken and he would dress them up as hollywood stars and bring a level of wealth and glamour to their otherwise not so glamorous lives. We were approached by a guy that spent years collecting these vintage photographs, restoring them and tracing the history of each photograph. So it’s a collection of these amazingly glamorous portraits but also quite kitsch because it’s 1930’s East London, though they look like they could have been taken straight out of Hollywood. The book, titled Vintage Glamour, 1930’s East London, will come out this year as well, however not part of the East London series. It’s a slightly more historical series than what we’ve done before.
We’re also bringing out another book called A Field Guide to East London Wild Life, similar to a 19th century field guide of an animal collection, but more like you’ve been dropped into 21st Century urban life. There are garden foxes, illegally imported snakes, and romantic etching that are set in the chaotic East London daily life. It’s sort of twisting the idea of nature in the city.
When you decided on the overall concept of Hoxton Mini Press, what made you choose Hoxton? What is it about East London specifically that makes it such a unique corner of the city to concentrate on?
Martin: We have been living here for some time, so we really know it and love it. We’re aware that it’s very special in the sense that it’s always changing. We’re not from here originally, I’m from North London and Ann’s from America, so very much not from East London! We don’t pretend to be giving some sort of ultimate, definitive account of the area, but Hoxton Mini Press is located here in the middle of East London. We are open to all aspects of the area, really. We don’t want to only concentrate on the young people and the cool stuff — we want to do the historical, as well as the fashionable, as well as the working class. Anything and any people who add an interesting and distinct voice, we’re willing to publish. Also, in terms of the world of books and magazines, there is clearly this sort of movement into the niche and the local. It seemed very fitting to start off with quite a specific area, instead of trying to cover everything, and we believe the creativity and diversity found in Hackney are unmatched and make it such a special place.
A Portrait of Hackney, by Zed Nelson
East London Swimmers, by Madeleine Waller
I’ve Lived In East London For 86 1/2 Years, by Martin Usborne
With thanks to Hoxton Mini Press, we’ve giving away a copy of I’ve Lived In East London For 86 1/2 Years (3rd edition) by Martin Usborne!
Head over to our Facebook page for competition details.
Interview by Sarah Rowland / Published 8 September 2014