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.

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Book reviews, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories, Theory

Stories from the English Countryside

Something like a Nest, by Andy Sewell

“Visible out picture windows, however, are fragments of open sky and long views which obscurely make radiant even what frightens us.”

– Finis Dunaway, Beyond Wilderness

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©Andy Sewell

In his enigmatically titled new book, Something Like a Nest, photographer Andy Sewell engages in a poetic re-framing – both literal and metaphorical – of the English countryside. Employing a subtle and contemplative pictorial style, the book addresses aspects of rural life and living beyond that which is superficially dramatic or stereotypical.

Sewell’s is not a search for his own sanctuary amongst the common detritus of agricultural production and country life, but rather as a collector of small stories, and motifs, which allude in an oblique way, to their own unique narrative vignettes. The overall effect is not to define what the English Countryside is and what happens there necessarily, but to open up possibilities and connections between disparate aspects contained therein.

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©Andy Sewell

The simple act of noticing (as mundane as that sounds), or put another way, of understanding the reason for noticing, plays an important thematic role in the book. The third image, for example, depicts a still life of a jar containing what can only be described as a glutinous mass of frogspawn. Hermetically sealed in their iridescent enclave, the spawn seem safe and secure, like a new type of Kiwi jam from Waitrose, perhaps, with the label carefully peeled to reveal the tempting fruits behind. Yet, on a second look – second thought more appropriately – this is a precarious position for the entrapped embryos. The day could quickly turn from overcast and cool, to harsh and hot, boiling the life out of this primordial preserve.

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©Andy Sewell

Another still life also alludes, more subtly, to containment. This time a carton (cartoon?) of eggs is placed on a cloth-covered table illustrated with kitsch depictions of cockerels and hens. This stylized ‘wipe-clean’ version of nature – resplendent with repetitious, almost robotic looking roosters – cleverly negotiates a dialogue between the natural world and consumerism; between the rural environment and our manipulation of it. In this context, the letter lurking in the background from Tesco.com takes on somewhat Orwellian connotations. The cutlery clamouring in the corner – normally benign utensils clad as they are in sunny yellow – are now made lurid, adding a further tinge of artificiality.

This rubberized ‘cartooncloth’ adds to a sense of a reality somewhat skewed. Or is it perhaps a sense of the awareness of the photographer, somehow heightened? Either way, Sewell seems to celebrate rather than chastise these eccentricities, taking aesthetic pleasure in agricultural geometry and a keen eye for the significance in the minute and the mundane.

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©Andy Sewell

Two years ago I spent some time walking the route of the proposed HS2 rail line between London and Birmingham. Although that area of the Buckinghamshire countryside is designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, the land is visually and ecologically better described as a kind of green desert. Modern farming techniques turn nature into a monoculture fit for little, save for the very specific task of growing crops. In Sewell’s green desert, the washing line draped across the middle of the frame includes a Thomas the Tank Engine towel, playfully illustrating the precariousness of this symbolic rural retreat. In the foreground, a shrunken toy tractor seems the victim of some kind of agro-chemical blunder.

Elsewhere in the book, the colour red and the people who do appear, play an equally emblematic, unifying role, as do the five kitchen windows, resplendently back-lit with jewel-like ornaments and emerald green (radioactive?) washing up liquid. Religion appears as a metaphorical backdrop, and rituals are represented throughout, adding to the sense that repetition and renewal are key features of this unsentimental and complex vision of rural life.

The image on the front of the book reflects this too, showing the desiccated remains of a cornfield, and it is encased, like frequent objects in much of Sewell’s English landscape, in a thin and beautiful veneer of plastic.

Something like a Nest is available to buy via http://www.andysewell.com/

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Aftermath, Book reviews, Environment

Coal not dole

“…their future will be as black as coal itself, and the weekly wage packet will be a giro-handout…”

– Marsha Marshall, Women Against Pit Closures, at the beginning of the strike, 1984

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike. A book by a German photographer, only now published, offers the viewer a rare glimpse inside the upended lives of local families during a hugely divisive period in modern British history.

 

Spud Marshall with grandchild Carla, Rimington Road, Wombwell, 1985

Spud Marshall with grandchild Carla, Rimington Road, Wombwell, 1985

 

Taking inspiration from Robert Frank and his great opus on American culture, Michael Kerstgens, a young photography student at the time, follows his family contacts to South Wales before heading to the hotbeds of social upheaval in the mining towns of South Yorkshire.

The photographer manages to secure remarkable access, particularly through a chance encounter with a man on his first day at the NUM office in Barnsley by the name of Stuart ‘Spud’ Marshall. Trusted by the communities, he now becomes an invisible eye, free to make some astonishingly intense pictures of Union meetings and record insights into pivotal roles played by the Miners’ wives.

 

WAPC activist Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes, South Yorkshire, December, 1984

WAPC activist Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes, South Yorkshire, December, 1984

 

These pictures show the subtle bonds and ties of family that are sometimes difficult to articulate, but are nevertheless integral to stories of private and working lives connected and interwoven in ways which seem both familiar and strangely abstract. The images in places feel like a sooty archeological archive, such is the patina of coal dust covering every surface. The use of monochrome connects the subjects to a strong pictorial lineage, to moral questions of right and wrong and, perhaps more viscerally, to the very elements of the land under their feet.  Adding to this sense of other-worldliness the pictures of NUM meetings, veiled in a tobacco haze, are striking for their visual aesthetic, but are made more profound as historical documents of a very particular time and place.

The solemn tone is given a refreshing and relevant counter-point with the inclusion of some witty party pictures.

 

New Years Eve with neighbours and friends at Wombwell Working Men's Club, Station Road, Wombwell, 1984

New Years Eve with neighbours and friends at Wombwell Working Men’s Club, Station Road, Wombwell, 1984

 

The last quarter of the book brings us up to date with Spud and the town, who both, as Kerstgens puts it, ‘never entirely got over the strike and its aftermath.’

 

Spud Marshall at the Mitchell & Darfield Social Club, Wombwell, 2013

Spud Marshall at the Mitchell & Darfield Social Club, Wombwell, 2013

 

The passage of time has imbued Michael Kerstgens’ important photobook a sense of perspective and confirms feelings of injustice; less about the simple economic facts regarding the (un)sustainability of the pits themselves, and more to do with the void left behind after such enormous and immediate social change.

See more of Kerstgens work and buy the book here. All photos ©Michael Kerstgens

 

The Reunion aired on BBC Radio4 recently brought together five interested parties from the strike, allowing an opportunity to see if thirty years have entrenched or softened views formed at the time.

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