Shadows of Doubt:
A psycho-geographical journey through Hitchcock’s East End childhood.
Photography by David George and Spencer Rowell. Curated by Dr. Nicholas Haeffner. Presented in conjunction with the London Metropolitan University’s East End Photographic Archive.
Introduction by Michael Upton
The work in Shadows of Doubt relates to the East End of the film director Alfred Hitchcock’s London childhood. It uses images of the built environment as a starting point for an exploration of relationships between physical place, memory, psychological development and aesthetic sensibility. This exhibition is a work in progress for a larger show in November and December of this year.
The photographers have each approached the project with one rule- David George has photographed exterior places. Spencer Rowell has focused on interior spaces. This expedient division is consistent with their broader practice and interests; David in the sublime psycho-geographic essence of nocturnal places, Spencer in relationships between photography, psychoanalysis and childhood memory. Yet with Hitchcock as a common catalyst this has resulted in work which shares a sense of fear, apprehension, suspense and mystery appropriate to the director’s vision and public persona.
Alfred Hitchcock was so effective in creating a version of his childhood based on a handful of anecdotes which suited his promotional ends, that it is easy to forget that he spent sixteen years in the east end of London. Hitchcock’s biographers have portrayed these years in varying ways to support their interpretations of the director and his texts. Donald Spoto’s lonely ‘Fred’ dwelt in dark and oppressive rooms above a shop, while ‘Alfie’s’ world in Patrick McGilligan’s version was brightened somewhat by seaside trips to Cliftonville and family get-togethers in Putney. Many of the actual places which constituted Hitchcock’s childhood realm have vanished. A Jet garage occupies the site of the greengrocers shop at 517 Leytonstone High Road where Hitchcock was born; the Green Man pub which the family frequented is now an O'Neills; the Police Station where his ‘wrongly accused’ motif was inspired is fast becoming commercial premises and much of Limehouse has been raized and regenerated.
Given the scarcity of reliable factual and physical evidence these subjective images, (consciously or subconsciously mediated through Hitchcock’s texts), his biographical legend, and the artists’ own visions and experiences arguably offer as truthful a representation of Hitchcock’s childhood as any objective documentary account.
Spencer Rowell on Shadows of Doubt
Did Hitchcock offer us an insight into his internal world through his films?
Were they a way of showing us his own internal conflicts, of creating a life’s work of scripted realisations of his early life experiences?
‘You must know’ Hitchcock is reported in saying, ‘that when I'm making a movie, the story isn't important to me. What's important is how I tell the story.’ Psychodynamic analytical theory would have us believe that the telling of any story, within a certain frame, is indeed, an insight into early life experiences.
Hitchcock was raised as a strict Catholic and within an authoritarian matriarchal family, the influential males in his life where either priests or policemen. His preoccupation with guilt may have been further developed by his evangelisation and education, from 1908 onwards, at St. Ignatius College, Stamford Hill, London (pictured), where it is said, that the Jesuit fathers dispensed corporal punishment with pious rigor. In the words of Hitchcock, ‘It wasn't done casually, you know. It was rather like the execution of a sentence . . . You spent the whole day waiting for the sentence to be carried out.’
There is a sense that there is a search for spiritual redemption in his work; most of his films display some sense of sin, guilt, atonement and redemption, perhaps this is a response to his Catholic sensibilities.
This interim project looks at my curiosity of how it may have been for him as a child, a highly subjective and contemporary view of his earliest influences, an understanding of how, psychologically, Hitchcock’s ability to respond to these complex and emotional influences, may have surfaced as sublimation and humour, two mature defense mechanisms, where socially unacceptable impulses or idealisations may have been consciously transformed through work; a way of diversion, of modification into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity.
Were these defenses really concealing a deeper trauma in order to avoid any unpleasant consequences of confronting inner conflicts?
Of course, we will never know. Hitchcock’s most able talent was to create illusions, this ability to create suspense and of us questioning his (and our) motives, is what he did best.
David George on Shadows of Doubt
Educators and psychologists have long known that childhood environment informs adult behaviour so it is pertinent to argue that the same environment would mould personal aesthetic and artistic sensibilities. Look at George Shaw’s paintings done in Airfix paint palette of the mundane and melancholic housing estates of his childhood or Ridley Scott’s nightmarish opening shots in “Bladerunner” of a city of the future, squarely based on the night time industrial landscapes on the mouth of the River Tees where Scott grew up, to see evidence of childhood geography feeding into adult creativity.
The idea of the “Shadows of Doubt” project was to try to photographically capture Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood East End as one of the elements that shaped his filmmaking. This was not an easy task as most of the information about Hitchcock’s childhood is at best sketchy, and at worst unreliable. This is coupled with the relentless way London has been knocked down or blitzed and rebuilt in the intervening 100 years destroying large areas of London relevant to his early years.
I decided the best way to revisit Hitchcock’s childhood London was to walk the areas I knew he inhabited (Wapping, Wanstead Flats, Whipps Cross, Limehouse and Leyton) and photograph elements of these urban landscapes that I understood were contemporary and therefore familiar to him, places that he would still recognise if he were alive today.
The resulting photographs are hopefully a small vignette of the psycho-topographical backdrop to Alfred Hitchcock’s formative years in London’s East End.