Book reviews, Inspiration, Landscape

Missing Buildings

Hessel Street, E1

Our real times were spent out of school. I spurned authority, all the boys did. We used the derelict bombed houses as our hideaway places. They were the arenas for our obnoxious behaviour. We would buy a pennyworth of chips for our lunch, ram them into a dry roll and take it into a derelict house, climbing right to the top where we would sit and discuss things, as if we were in some kind of parliament.’

Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour

Borough High Street, SE1

An overall sense of loss pervades the work of brother and sister Beth and Thom Atkinson in their new book, Missing Buildings which, as the name suggests, is a typological study of the bombed-out spaces left in London from the second world war.

This impression is reinforced by the lonely streets, the unpeopled pavements and flat, empty skies. It’s as if the air raid sirens never stopped. As if the living have sought shelter below ground alongside the dead and other archaeological remains. An eerie calm pervades throughout.

As metaphors for memory – both collective and individual – and the cumulative effect of time, these traces of buildings act as a cypher to contemplation; not only about the legacy of war, but also the cycles of social and political change that shape a modern city. Much as weather is photography’s unintended subject, so the changing socio-economic landscape of London permeates Missing Buildings, asking us to look again, and question how far we’ve come.

The outlines of these spectral structures are sometimes hard to see. One might assume that the locating process took weeks of walking and looking. The reality, it seems, is less arduous, and opens a subtle element of ambiguity in the project. Thom describes how most sites are marked on official war record maps, but some aren’t. These ‘unknowables’ are nevertheless taken to be bomb sites, both by the photographers and by passing locals, who engage the pair, curious about the project.

The public recounting of war stories adds a sense of certainty to these unverified facts, and intriguingly, Beth and Thom conspire in this story-telling with photographic ‘evidence’ – enhancing and repeating the fiction. In other words, this is not an exhaustive – or reliable – compendium of sites, but a foray into the urban past, a process of awakening and patient revelation using photography as the key to unlocking a deeper, psychological connection with places imbued with myth.

Copeland Road, Peckham

These places are remarkably, disconcertingly familiar. The urban syntax of regeneration, gentrification and disenfranchisement pervade. The side of one building – in graphic coincidence – is rendered ‘transparent’ by talented graffiti artists, showing the private décor of a fictional family, complete with ground floor pub and upstairs cat. An embarassed looking washing machine, surprised by its very public display, peeks apologetically out from a small shed onto a damp carwash courtyard. And a surrealist masterpiece – a giant monochrome rat – eyeballs the lens of Thom and Beth’s camera. Both unblinking.

Hackney Road, E2 #1

This process of walking and looking unifies the project and connects the photographers to their subject as vulnerable pedestrians, at risk from speeding car or vindictive pigeon. We learn – in the insightful afterword by David Chandler – that their grandfather was an ARP warden, based in Balham during the Blitz, whose job it was to ‘map bomb impacts in the area.’ Beth and Thom continue in this tradition – walking, observing and recording – much as their grandfather had done 75 years earlier. They have created a fitting and timely memorial to their grandfather and to the bomb site victims.

Goulton Road, Lower Clapton

In a picture from Goulton Road, Lower Clapton, a large billboard for a business directory proclaims ‘Knowledge is king.’ Next to it the ghostly, pointing, pock-marked apparition of what appears to be Lord Kitchener hovers above a sign which says ‘Cars wanted for cash.’ The memories of war, if we dare to look carefully, are everywhere.

Buy the book here.

Aftermath, Environment, Stories

The Story of the Stuck Man

Groaning from outside my window is not in itself particularly unusual. This spot where the road meets the park is a place where all life mixes – the perimeter fence being a kind of shoreline between the suburban and the communal. Railings mark a displaced tide where the unexpected, from time to time, gets washed up. As I mute the women’s ‘slope style’ from Sochi, morbid moans settle on a disembodied space near the gates.

The Story of the Stuck Man (1 of 3)

I peer through the blinds onto the sickly sodium lit road and clock my neighbour – the one opposite with the enviable motor-home – in studious activity beside the park railings. Next to him is the dark dangling shape of a man – the source of the pained expletives; a shadow in contorted misery begging to be released.

I cannot un-see the impaled man. I grab keys and race downstairs before the hall lights have a chance to fully flicker on and cross the road to the man who is stuck like a pig at a banquet. The neighbour is trying to cut through his jeans with paper scissors; perilous, if not for the fact that they are woefully inadequate. A more threatening implement is needed. I find a serrated pair back in the kitchen draw, and try not to impale myself as I charge back outside, leaving strains of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ floating down the corridor.

Back outside, precise incisions are made in the denim around the spike until only gravity and fatigue have him still wedged. His free leg claws back and forth in mid air, but it remains hopelessly short. If the fight left him, he would probably fall back in a heap, maybe with a crump on the head; but then his knee would still be wedged and it might dislocate.

The Story of the Stuck Man (2 of 3)

I do another circuit back up to the flat for a chair then climb over the fence almost getting my foot caught next to his viced knee. The aroma of alcohol oozes from him, like he’s been marinating in ale. I thrust my back and shoulder under his rear end hoping he still has enough control over his bodily functions and inch his stranded leg up towards the respite of the waiting chair.

The Story of the Stuck Man (3 of 3)

‘Aaarrhh. No WAIT. Stop. STOP. Not all the way. I can’t reach it.’

There are some loose bricks nearby, so I build a little step and from these he manages to reach the chair and then we gently prise his limb up, off and down. He staggers as the blood returns.

‘Aargh. Tha…Thank you, boys. I really. I really a…appreciate you helping me. Don’t worry about me now. I’m going the long way round.’

He shuffles into the shadows, oblivious to his ragged state. I wonder about the ethics of photographing a helpless victim pinned to some railings for the sake of an interesting picture, as he disappears into the gloom.

The aftermath will have to do.

Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape

Objects in the Field

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

The field to which the title refers in Sophy Rickett’s new work relates not to earthly subjects, but instead to constellations and the cosmos. However, this is only the starting point, launch pad perhaps, of a journey of appropriation leading to a body of work forged from the remains of one man’s quest for celestial knowledge.

Dr. Roderick Willestrop, a retired research fellow at the University of Cambridge, is the invisible subject of Rickett’s new work, whom she met while on an artist’s residency at the institution. During her search for inspiration and a visual aesthetic to ‘key into’, Rickett began a series of encounters with the man, the results of which can be seen as a terrestrial collision between the two worlds of art and science.

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

In short but intense interviews, Rickett became interested in the academic’s life beyond the rigorous confines of his work. Anecdotes would slip around the edges of sentences describing highly specific technical processes. It was these ‘slippages’, we learn, away from formal narratives, to which the artist was drawn, and wanted to draw out somehow. A potentially rather dry conversation about optics brought back memories of a childhood experience at the opticians, which Rickett has reproduced in a booklet to accompany the exhibition. For the viewer, this booklet places the work within the context of encounters which bridge two worlds.

These personal interactions create an intriguing back story as the artist, acting as investigator, becomes locked in a tussle for the deaccessioning of the scientist’s negatives. Rickett is entranced by the now obsolete processes of recording the night sky through exposures on sheets of black and white film, sometimes with durations of 30 minutes or more, using a special rotating telescope pioneered by Willestrop. These negatives – glimpsed over his shoulder – are, it transpires, deemed useless due to the constant realignment of the planets. However, the act of ‘liberating’ the negatives becomes a delicate process, and forms the framework of an interaction around which the work is made.

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

Willestrop expressed his regret, we are told, not only at the obsolescence of his work, but also in technical inconsistencies, including fingerprints and dust, which had invaded an otherwise faultless astronomical record. Yet these very human traits are referenced, albeit obliquely, in the prints, and speak of the intimacy of both Rickett and Willestrop’s relationship and the scientist’s solitary communion – he made his observations alone throughout his career – with his subject.

This feeling of melancholia is further enhanced with the piece entitled ‘Another idea that came to nothing’. It comprises of very small contact prints of objects used in a ‘Test for a guiding probe.’ As with all the work on show at Camilla Grimaldi, this is titled both by the scientist and the artist, and speaks of a collaboration of sorts.

One left with a much deeper understanding of the process behind the making of a body of work which on the face of it seems as impenetrable as the night sky. The poignancy of this project comes not from looking out into the heavens, into the undisputed aesthetic qualities of the images themselves – but on looking in, through the back of the telescope to the retired scientist and his obsolete archive, who in deference to planetary rhythms, still returns to the University to make his weekly observations.

A monograph of Sophy Rickett’s earlier work can be bought from Photoworks here. The show at Camilla Grimaldi is on until 21st March 2013.

Inspiration, Photojournalism

A master of the veneer

Marine iguana, Galápagos, Ecuador, 2004:

Marine iguana, Galápagos, Ecuador, 2004:

The word ‘epic’ stands out in the advertising material for Sebastiao Salgado’s latest project – Genesis, now showing at the Natural History Museum in London.  However, this surely has more to do with the vast tracts of the worlds surface through which Salgado flew, drove, floated, tramped and climbed than a more pressing engagement with hidden truths discovered on his eight year quest.

That is not to say there aren’t astonishingly beautiful images here which startle with their characteristic use of dramatic, reverential light and majestic composition.  This is a photographer at the height of his powers, using new – to him – technology (Salgado eschewed film in favour of digital capture for the first time) to produce highly detailed and sumptuous prints.


Two Mursi women, Omo Valley, Ethiopia, 2007

The problem is that these pictures only add to a sense that nature is something wholly apart from ourselves.  In other words, that nature and the indigenous people that live in it – are something to be visited, to be wondered at – gorped at even – until our desires are met and we return, satiated, to the modern world with all its complications and hypocricies.

In his essay,  Sebastiao Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism , Julian Stallabrass brings up an interesting point about the indigenous people depicted in his book – Other Americas.  He highlights the successful way in which Salgado has drawn attention to the communities which have survived and thrived away from the ravages of modern existence.  This critique can be applied to Genesis, where some of the most interesting single images depict specific social groups with strong bonds to each other and their natural environment.  He nevertheless states that ‘it is an unavoidable strength and weakness of such pictures that they exhibit something real but unaided can say little about it, except that it exists; the pictures reify, display, and sell back to their viewers the husk of what they have abandoned.’

After Salgado’s previous project – Workers – Genesis seems to be more colonial travelog than serious photojournalism.  On this point, one cannot help but be drawn back to Salgado’s bruising portrayal of Gold miners in Brazil enduring monumental hardships to fulfill the West’s desire for natural resources.


The Gold Mine, Serra Pelada, Brazil

Ultimately, with this exhibition, Salgado’s reputation will grow as a new audience engages with his work.  In his back catalogue, Salgado has tackled big issues with a style which has ingratiated himself with galleries and the art market.  Much of the hidden rhetoric in his latest work will emerge, and the historical significance of many of the pictures will only increase as indigenous populations are pressured to enter modern life to a greater or lesser extent.  Furthermore, it was heartwarming to read at the end of the exhibition about the farmland which he has replanted in his native Brazil as his way of contributing to the health of the planet.

A shame, then, that there were no pictures of this – probably aesthetically bland – piece of land in his finished work.  In Salgado’s unique vision, his holy light only illuminates the beauty of the surface of things.


Networking hermits


Last night I went to a screening of the film ‘Somewhere to disappear‘ a film by Laure Flammarion and Armaud Uyttenhove.  It’s a fascinating story about the photographer Alec Soth‘s quest to find subjects for his latest project ‘Broken Manual‘.

The strap line for the film summarizes that ‘it’s not about running away, but the desire to run away’, which throws light on the autobiographical nature of Alec Soth’s photographic mission.  He seems to be using his memories of childhood – spent in the woods around his Minnesota home – building dens and playing with imaginary friends – as a personal trope to find people who have taken this desire to a whole new level.

One particularly poignant moment in the film records his meeting with a young man living in a cave in the desert.  Inside this rocky recess lie his belongings – a blanket and a gun, amongst a few other practical essentials.  This man is a true escapee.  Soth describes his departure from the encounter, saying that he forgot to say ‘good-bye’ to the man, and was driving away, when the man appears, runs over to him, and hugs him like an old friend.  Soth says that this intimate moment confirms that even though these individuals seek out a solitary lifestyle, and covet it preciously, there remains a fundamental need to connect with others.

Soth goes on to state the need to be ‘carried’ by his stories, and the directors also describe how each conversation with a stranger leads to an encounter with someone else, who in turn recommends a friend, or a friend of a friend, and so on.  Tellingly, though, even in these apparent extremes of isolation, social networking also plays its part.  Some hermits Facebook each other to see if this odd guy with the huge camera has dropped by…

The irony isn’t lost on the audience, and reinforces the notion that the idea of something is often more appealing than the reality.