48 Hours on Clapham High Street




‘It’s just a high street!’

So exclaimed Maurice Dorfman in response to my request to describe Clapham High Street in just three words.  And he should know: he has been trading on the high street for fifty-eight years, my entire lifetime!

At one level Maurice is, of course, correct.  It is much like all the high streets across the UK, a traditional part of everyday British life with all the features we’d expect to find: a post office, a library, chemists, banks, charity shops, hairdressers, pubs, and familiar chains such as Sainsbury’s, Smiths, Superdrug, Boots, Oddbins and McDonald’s.

But as I have immersed myself in this project I have discovered an unusual street where some very different worlds are seeking to co-exist.

There is the world of the resilient independent traders who have successfully navigated the profound changes impacting British high streets over several decades: 10 have been on Clapham High Street for over 30 years, an incredible achievement.  Many of these were astute in buying their freeholds all those years ago, thereby protecting themselves from at least one of the two formidable economic challenges that operators, big and small, on the high street now face: sharply escalating rates and rents.

There is the sedate world of a typical weekday morning, and the very quiet nights of the first few days of the week, especially in the northern half of the street.

And then there is the world of the booming nightlife that bursts into frenetic activity every weekend, attracting the young from all over London well into the early hours of the morning, including to the legendary ‘Infernos’.  Food, beverage and entertainment premises make up 48 of the 123 premises on the street, inevitably influencing its face and feel, both during the day and night.

It is this co-existence of a typical daytime high street with an enormous night-time entertainment industry that makes Clapham High Street so distinctive.  Whilst the weekend nightlife, and some of its inevitable consequences, polarizes local opinion it is a major contributor to the health and vibrancy of the street, creating almost 800 jobs and contributing to a vacancy rate that is well below the UK average.

And finally there is the multitude and diversity of the individuals who use and work on the High Street, bringing it to life and making it their own.

It has been such an unexpected pleasure to observe and to experience the many contrasts of the street, its diversity, and the emotions it precipitates.  Beauty and ugliness; chaos and tranquility; success and failure; content and discontent; youth and age; love; compassion; tenderness; resilience; and humour have all played out in front of my lens.

But most rewarding has been the pleasure of getting to know some of the street’s many characters, and hearing their wonderful stories.

In part to accentuate some of these different worlds, I chose to adopt an unusual photographic approach.  I constrained myself to the south side of the High Street during daytime hours (5am - 5pm), working only in colour, and constrained myself to the north side of the street at night (5pm - 5am), working only in black and white.  I also limited myself to a total of 48 hours shooting time, although I spent many pleasurable days on the street, experiencing its ebbs and flows and getting to know its rhythms and occupants.  You can be the judge of whether this approach has added richness to the story.

Welcome to Clapham High Street!