Zed Nelson, Youths in London Fields, Hackney. November 2011.

Zed Nelson, Youths in London Fields, Hackney. November 2011.

The very best photographic works come from simple, heartfelt ideas, executed with intensity, skill and subtlety. A Tale of Two Cities by Zed Nelson is a project – still in progress – that shows all the right signs.

After twenty years of travelling the world building a celebrated career as a documentary photographer, Zed Nelson has turned his attention to the changes taking place at home in Hackney.

As someone who has grown up here, Zed sees the contradictions and disparities between its past and present and wonders, like the rest of us, what it might become in the future.

He says: “The social landscape for an under-privileged teenager growing up in Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs, is a million light-years away from the new urban hipsters who frequent the cool bars and expensive cappuccino café’s springing up in the same streets”.

Through contrasting formalised street portraits of the working poor and gang members with Hackney Hipsters and Fashionistas, Zed draws out some of the contradictions of modern urban living. Is that style prison chic, or just prison? Is the surgical dressing on that man’s nose because he’s been in a fight, or was it rhinoplasty?

The viewer gets well rewarded by a little effort examining the subtleties of the portraits. And if this were just a portrait project the work would stand up well to critical examination, but this is a far more ambitious piece of work.

Using his considerable talents as in image maker Zed melds together the portraits, with well seen reportage, and with quiet, urban and rural landscapes of Hackney that gives the project a sense of far greater scope than might at first be assumed.

That the New York Times chose to feature the work in the run up to the Olympics suggests that maybe we too should be taking this work seriously.

Picking up on a phase used by Anish Kapoor about his work in the Olympic park, the Orbit as, “…a series of discrete events tied together”… Zed says: “I think that sums up my series on Hackney… ‘a series of discreet events tied together’.

“To try and make ‘sense’ of the place seemed futile. Hackney is a socially, ethnically diverse melee. It has violence, beauty, wildlife, concrete wastelands, poverty and affluence jumbled together, vying for space. It is tattered and fractured, but very alive.”

His landscapes often show nature bursting through, irrepressible and energetic: fallen cherries covering the tarmac, or a tree seeded in a wall, growing and forcing the bricks apart. These contrast with the young men in hoodies in the Lea Valley Park and the field of flowers laid outside the take-away shop where an innocent girl was murdered in a drive by shooting.

Through the full range of these pictures there is nothing extraneous in their making. Everything is carefully considered and composed, with an immaculate use of colour, yet somehow Zed seems to leave something unfinished, which allows our imagination to slip in and go to work.

In recent years the boundary between artist and photographer has become blurred. Zed Nelson is very much a professional photographer, but there are many ways of being a photographer: the portraitist, the news hound, the illustrator.

Zed is a special kind of photographer, a rare variety, one who is an original author and an artist; one who collects and collates images what he searches out around him and starts at least to begin to make sense of the world for the rest of us.
Zed Nelson’s A Tale of Two Cities can be viewed at Zed Nelson.

Support us

The coronavirus outbreak meant that the Hackney Citizen was unable to print a monthly newspaper for three months.

We're grateful that we have since been able to resume printing. This would not have been possible without the generosity of our readers, whose donations kept the paper from disappearing completely at a distressing time for residents.

A huge thank you to everyone who gave their time and money to support us through the lockdown, and to those who continue to do so as we slowly recover from the dramatic fall in advertising revenues, on top of the existing challenges threatening the future of local journalism.

A one-off donation or a regular contribution from anyone who can afford it will help our small team keep the newspaper in print and the website running in the coming months and years.

Find out how you can donate.

Thank you for your support, and stay safe.

The Hackney Citizen team