Joseph Markovitch: The original face of Hoxton Square
Joe Markovitch lived in east London for 86 and a half years. Leah Donaldson talks to Martin Usborne, who has documented his friendship with Joe in pictures
It was by sheer chance that photographer Martin Usborne met Joseph Markovitch.
“I saw him standing in Hoxton Square when I was in my studio,” says Martin. “I went down and took a picture of him thinking it would be good for my portfolio. Gradually I realised that he was much more interesting and worth having more than a single portrait of.
“I went to speak to him, and we started chatting. I would see him appear again in the square, and every time I did, I’d run down from my studio to see him. It went from there. Over about six or seven years, we became quite close friends.”
And so what began as a brief interaction developed into a longstanding friendship. Joseph became the subject and co-author of Martin’s book I’ve Lived in London for 86½ Years.
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Martin’s beautiful photography captures Joe in various locations around east London, documenting his unique presence in an area of the city that has changed so rapidly in the past twenty years.
“He was so at odds with all the other trendy youth in the area – me wanting to be one of them. I went and took a picture of him, but he wasn’t at odds really, we were at odds with him – he was the original face of the area.”
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Featuring playful and often touching quotes from Joseph on a variety of topics from Jennifer Lopez to globalisation, the book offers a fascinating insight on the world from the eyes of someone who only left London once, for a trip to the seaside with his mum.
Joseph’s openness to the changes he witnessed in Hoxton and the surrounding areas is refreshing: “When I was young, everyone was a cockney… It was like looking at the same face all the time. Now it’s all mixed up. I like it.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book memorialising an unlikely friendship became a local cult classic, and the foundation of Martin’s own publishing company, Hoxton Mini Press, that he started with his wife, Ann.
Nearly four years after the book’s initial publication, the designers from Clubhouse Studios approached Martin with the idea of creating an interactive website to accompany the book.
Clubhouse Studios have created a touching online experience. The website invites you to immerse yourself in the dual narratives of subject and photographer. Prompting you to shut your eyes whilst listening to Joseph’s narrative on a subject of your choice, the site uses eye-tracking-technology, and knows when you re-open them, subsequently presenting you with a photo from the book, alongside narration from Martin recounting his memories of Joe.
Sadly by the time the Studio had approached Martin, Joseph had passed away.
“We couldn’t record Joseph because he’s no longer with us,” says Martin. “We had to record a different voice, which is always a challenge.”
Despite this, Clubhouse Studios have created an intriguing experiment in digital design.
“It’s a new type of interaction that I haven’t seen done before, so hats off to them,” says Martin. “I don’t think it replaces the books. That’s why we make books, because we believe in the physical object, but I do think it provides an interesting alternative.”
Whilst it may not be able to replicate the experience of photography in print, the website presents an innovative experience that offers the viewer an intimate way of engaging with the work.
“There needs to be a lot more exploration into the way we consume photography online, rather than just clicking through panels,” says Martin. “I think what Clubhouse have done is a really interesting experiment in that realm. Hopefully, as the power of the Internet increases, we will find even more means of interacting with photography in a very different way.”
I’ve Lived In East London For 85½ Years by Martin Usborne is published by Hoxton Mini Press, £12.95.
Creating a life online: ‘There’s no reason digital design shouldn’t be as carefully crafted as print’
Will Orrock is one of the managing partners at Clubhouse Studios, the creators of the interactive website 86½ Years, inspired by Martin’s Usborne’s book.
“We got a copy of I’ve Lived in East London for 85 ½ Years and thought it was incredibly compelling,” says Will.
“It’s such a touching story in an area that’s changed so much over the years.”
The project, which is completely self-funded by Clubhouse Studios, is an attempt to explore the possibilities of using digital design to transform methods of storytelling online.
“I think it is obvious that if you look back at the history of print design, there’s always been a strong element of craft involved,” says Will.
“In digital design, if you go back and look at a website from 10 years ago, it almost hurts your eyes! We’ve always had the opinion that there’s no reason why it can’t be as aesthetically crafted.”
Tremendous amounts of thought has been put into every detail of the website, from the background noises being recorded in the locations that Martin took the photos of Joe, to the use of east London stand-up pianos to create the soundtrack.
“Martin was really brilliant in trusting us to do justice to what he spent so much time creating in the book.
“He was willing to let us loose a little bit, and let us think freely, but we always saw him as the expert on the book and its content.”
Since its launch, the website has gained a series of rave reviews. Already winning two digital design awards, and receiving a string of praise on social media, the project is striking a chord with people from across the world.
“We’re pretty amazed by it. It’s not often you put out something as a digital agency and the response is so humbling.”
Perhaps the most important reaction, though, is that of the book’s author, the man who knew Joe so well.
“Martin said it brought him to tears the first time he watched the final thing,” says Will. “To me, that’s a job well done.”
To experience the website for yourself, visit 86andahalfyears.com and plug in your headphones for the best results.