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Scenes From a Surprisingly Stylish Traffic Jam in 1980s London

(All photos: Chris Dorley-Brown

Twenty-eight years ago, photographer Chris Dorley-Brown left his house in Hackney, London, and walked into the city to document the privatization of Rolls-Royce. On his way, on this hot May morning, something else caught his attention: the people sitting in their cars, idling in traffic jams, waiting for a green light.

Shooting on color film, Dorley-Brown’s photographs capture the mood and aesthetic of a very particular place in time. They are an intimate and unexpected peek into the faces and attitudes of Londoners in the late 1980s. 

The photographs, which also document some truly exceptional fashion choices, have now been published in the book, Drivers in the 1980s. Atlas Obscura talked to him about the project, and how it feels to revisit these photographs after nearly 30 years.     

How did this project come about?

I set that day to make some photographs of the Rolls Royce share sell off and along the way as I walked to the city, the people in the traffic jam captured my attention.

We were 12 days away from a general election and the incumbent Conservative government was rampaging through publicly owned companies and creating a new generation of shareholders. Margaret Thatcher won that election, her third and final landslide.

What were you looking for when you started to shoot? 

It’s usually just a feeling or set of attitudes that I want to reflect, something that will respond to the moment and the materials that I am working with. 

I was also interested in the colors of vehicles at that time–very different from today’s blacks and grays–and the way they would respond to the very specific lighting conditions in the City of London’s financial district. The dark alleyways with tall buildings around them are like a foot of a canyon!

If you were to shoot this same project today, what do you think the major differences would be? 

It would be difficult: most cars in UK have air-con now (none did in 1987), so windows would be up and the drivers would be pretty much invisible. Traffic jams do not hold any allure for me nowadays, the colors of vehicles are not interesting and the environment is too hectic for an old geezer.

Did people see you photographing them? How did they react?

I was a pedestrian and moving a lot quicker than the traffic that day. My cameras at that time were both waist level finders, so that put me at the drivers’ level and helped me be a bit more invisible. People are never sure with those viewfinders whether you are looking at them or not, so it gives you some space to work without appearing too obtrusive. But I had to keep moving and dodging the traffic. Most people did not see me, but the ones who did were kind and forgiving, as they had other things on their minds!