If you live in Hackney, you’ve seen them: otherworldly figures in black hats and coats, flowing beards and sidelocks, perhaps with an incongruous Coke can or mobile phone in hand.
They are the Hassidim, the Orthodox Jews of North-East London.
Even to other London Jews, they’re something of a mystery. This is a thoroughly self-contained community with its own schools, shops, and housing estates.
So Andrew Aitchison’s new exhibition and accompanying book constitute something of a coup. When he moved to Stamford Hill, Aitchison (originally from very un-Semitic Wiltshire) was inspired to begin a personal photography project, documenting the lives of his Orthodox Jewish neighbours.
Over five years, he gained the trust of the community through a combination of persistence and respect. The result of this trust is an exhibition of ten canvas-printed photographs offering a rare insight into the rituals and habits of Orthodox Jewish life.
Many are visually striking: ‘New Sefer Torah’, a sea of black coats and hats punctuated by pale, watchful faces, and ‘Pidyon Haben’, a richly-coloured close-up of a baby being draped in gleaming, intricate gold jewellery.
While Aitchison places his own work squarely in the documentary tradition, many of these photographs appear highly stylised. The face of the young boy learning the Torah in ‘Upsherin ’ is illuminated in surrounding blackness; this may be an accidental effect, but nevertheless its light and composition is reminiscent of classical painting.
Almost all these photographs are of men; only one picture has any women in it. Aitchison explains that this is partly due to the difficulty of photographing women, and also because of his wish to respect the community’s desire for privacy.
If there’s a criticism of this exhibition, it’s that there’s no particular ethos behind it; Aitchison simply wanted to document these rarely-shown scenes.
However, the photographs are fascinating in their own right and the exhibition is worth visiting, if only to glimpse a world very nearby, but somehow very far removed.
‘Orthodox Jewish Life’ is at Madame Lillie’s Gallery, 10 Cazenove Road N16 6BD until Sunday 6 December.
Opening hours Friday – Sunday 12-6pm. To view by appointment: 07990695363.