Looking back: photo book captures Dalston street life in the 1980s

Photographer Andrew Holligan found fresh inspiration when he swapped New York for Hackney

IN THE spring of 1984, I moved to Dalston,” says Andrew Holligan. Up until then, the British photographer had been living in New York, immersed in the glamorous, fast-paced world of fashion photography.

“It was time for a change,” he explains. And a change it proved to be. An old friend offered him a crumbling flat above a bookmaker, just around the corner from Ridley Road Market. Britain was different back then, Holligan explains.

Margaret Thatcher was in power, the miners’ strike had just begun, Rambo and Mr T were the action heroes, while on the street, the anti-apartheid movement was gaining momentum and the BNP had newly formed. Amid all this social upheaval: “Dalston felt like the back of beyond,” he says.

Looking for work in fashion and editorial photography, the young Holligan spent a lot of time staring out of his kitchen window at this unfamiliar world, waiting, he says ‘for the phone to ring and feeling frustrated by lack of work’.

While he waited, he began taking photos of the street life below him. Often he captured ‘this bloke from the Eastern Bloc, tinkering under the bonnet of an old Mini’. Once, startlingly, he looked down to see Prince Philip, on an official visit to the Boys’ Club opposite.

“I grabbed my camera and dashed downstairs, and before he disappeared, I got a shot of him waving to a group of Dalston ladies,” says Holligan. Unbeknown to him, this chance sighting was to change the direction of his work.



He explains: “Royalty might have got me out onto the street, but it was those smirking faces that inspired me.”

And so a photographer more used to capturing glossy images of luxurious perfection, began taking an old 1950s Rolleiflex camera out onto the streets of Dalston, searching for more of the neighbourhood’s irreverent characters.

Forty years later, their faces stare out from the recently published book, ‘Dalston in the 80s’,

Flick through the book’s pages and you will find black-and-white images of old men celebrating a win outside the bookies; little girls clutching Cabbage Patch Kids dolls; and "the one and only Rupie Edwards, whose record stall at the market filled the air with sweet reggae tunes".

These images also capture a society on the cusp of change: crumbling windows are pasted with protest posters, graffiti artlessly scribbled over a canal bridge reads: ‘Act now support the British National Party’. Mosques are pictured alongside turbans, punks and police horses.

Holligan left the cold, damp streets of Dalston for the sunshine of Sydney, Australia in the late 1980s but returned to Hackney before moving out of the borough in 2001.  

His photographs, however, perfectly preserve the neighbourhood in that one historic moment of time.

A place where, he says: “It took just one small step to meet mankind in all its forms.”

'Dalston in the 80s' by Andrew Holligan is priced at £14.95 and can be purchased at Hoxton Minipress.