It’s no secret that the high street is in crisis. Recent high profile victims include Jamie’s Italian and Thomas Cook, while Pizza Express is also at risk of folding (leading to a spate of calzone gags on Twitter) and almost 2,500 independent businesses shut up shop in 2018.
Of all the high street’s endangered species, the humble launderette is one of the most under threat. The first self-service, coin-operated launderette in Britain opened in Queensway, London in 1949, and by the 70s they had become a regular feature across the country. But they have seen a sad decline in numbers ever since, with less than 3,000 estimated to be left in existence.
Growing up in the 70s, launderettes were a regular feature of Joshua Blackburn’s childhood. The London-based photographer often looks for beauty in unexpected places in his work, and his latest project has seen him visit every remaining launderette in the capital in order to immortalise their unique charms. As the painstakingly put together photo series gets a physical home in the form of a new book from Hoxton Mini Press, Blackburn discusses bringing his passion project to life.
Creative Review: Where does your fascination with launderettes stem from?
Joshua Blackburn: I’ve always loved launderettes. We pass them daily, but for many they go unnoticed – and yet they’ve always drawn me in. Aesthetically, socially and culturally, the launderette is a unique institution. They’re analogue in an age of digital, slow in an age of fast. But above all, for a photographer they’re very beguiling, full of colour, texture and geometry. There’s also a sense of nostalgia that’s hard to resist.
CR: What has the process of documenting all of the launderettes in London been like?
JB: When I started I was very haphazard. If I went to a friend’s house or dropped my son at football, I’d look for nearby launderettes to visit. Later, I became much more methodical. I used Google Maps and online telephone directories to create a map of London’s launderettes, then I would set aside time to focus on individual postcodes and boroughs. I won’t deny that halfway through the project I was starting to doubt my sanity. Driving from north west London to the outer reaches of Croydon, Enfield and Ealing to photograph launderettes isn’t normal, and by launderette number 350 it was definitely feeling like a marathon. But the project only made sense if I went to every launderette in London, so I had to truck on.
CR: Have you noticed any recurring themes in terms of their design?
JB: London launderettes can be divided into a few distinct types: the traditional launderettes, unchanged for 30 or 40 years; community launderettes, full of people and chatter; minimal launderettes, unstaffed and undecorated; and Launderette 2.0, with modern machines and wifi. Taken as a whole though, every launderette is different and that’s what I love about them. They are a reflection of their neighbourhood, their history and their owners. This individuality, particularly given the homogeneity of London’s high streets, is what makes them so interesting. They each have a story to tell.
CR: Do you have any personal favourites?
JB: I certainly have favourites but for very different reasons. Maypine Launderette in South Wimbledon and Colliers Wood Launderette are both extraordinary time capsules. My heart skipped a beat when I first saw their colourful enamelled machines and signage, unchanged from the 70s. Barbican Launderette is also definitely up there for similar reasons; it’s the iconic London launderette embedded in the Barbican community. Places like Deep Clean Launderette in Walthamstow and Wow Launderette in Croydon were the most fun [to photograph]; happy places where staff and customers were gossiping and laughing. Launderette Hayes in Yeading was also heart warming. They had a stray cat who had made its home there, and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
CR: What do you hope people will take away from the photo series?
JB: I wanted to capture images that were honest, warm and human. Not every launderette is in good condition, but I never wanted to show a place looking bad, or to mock in any way. London’s launderettes are wonderful, unique institutions and I wanted my photographs to tell their story in all their richness and diversity, neither romanticising nor patronising. I was also conscious that such an exhaustive documentary might prove to be of historical interest in the future, so I wanted the photographs to reflect an integrity and truthfulness that I feel is important to such a project.