Cities on the Edge: Sandy Volz

Introduction

As part of the “Cities on the Edge” exhibition, designed to contrast various European port cities with Liverpool, Bremen based photographer Sandy Volz was tasked with contributing a set of images. In two cities struggling from declining commercial spheres and hard economic times, Volz chose to focus on photographing the interiors of pubs. Both Bremen and Liverpool have a long tradition of pub culture and so Volz contrasted the interior design of various establishments in both cities.

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The set is a 20 image series that utilises the 35mm aspect ratio with a portrait orientation. Shot in colour with what looks like a standard focal length, Volz focuses the attention of the camera onto the design of the space and the wall decorations. Volz states in the artist statement that the “individual aspects of these pubs’ interior styles are analysed as social and cultural signifiers” (Volz, 2008). In other words Volz reduces the elements of the frame to symbolic devices for the viewer to read  – for instance the viewer could take the Beatles memorabilia as a cultural “signifier” that gives away the pub’s location. Likewise the German flags decorating the walls of the establishment are an obvious sign of location.

Another interesting aspect the photographer touches on is the idea of the pub as “places where the private and public spheres overlap” (Volz, 2008). The interior design of the pubs appears to blend the conventional design of public spaces to that of a private home – mixing the domestic with the commercial. Each pub appears to be well used, the furniture old and worn out in places, the decorations and design also somewhat dated (for 2008). The viewer could perhaps take this as a sign of the economic hardships faced by the respective cities, and perhaps hints at the age and demographic of the ownership in each place.

Conclusions

Similar to Taptik’s series examined in the previous post, the sense of uniformity is a key aspect to Volz’s set. The choice of subject is also very interesting, especially the aspects of the pub the photographer chose to focus on. Volz’s decision to not include human subjects in the frame perhaps gives the viewer a better understanding of the social, cultural and economic context of the establishments.

This is certainly a creative approach that prompts the viewer to question and deduce where each establishment is located. Indeed it is hard to guess the location of some especially those lacking wall decorations. Perhaps the photographer aimed to diffuse the national boundaries that separate the two cities, and to reveal the common heritage and traditions of the communities within Bremen and Liverpool.

When researching and defining the parameters for the assignment five brief, it would be useful to consider the nature of the locations I will be photographing carefully. It would also be helpful to examine what each element brings to the frame, what they could signify to the viewer and how they might be interpreted. Volz successfully analysed each scene and chose to include elements that indicated aspects such as cultural and economic contexts. This in concert with the uniformity of the presentation creates a striking set of images that are somewhat different but no less powerful than others from the “Cities on the Edge” exhibit.

See the full 20 image set on Sandy Volz’s website:

http://www.sandyvolz.com/pages/work/1/2/

Cities on the Edge: Sandy Volz

Cities on the Edge: Ali Taptik

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Introduction

The “Cities on the Edge” series was commissioned by Liverpool Culture Company on the theme of people and place in Liverpool. A group of photographers based in European port cities including Istanbul, Marseilles and Bremen were tasked to produce a set of images that explored connections between these environments. The exhibition was curated by the British photographer John Davies, whose contribution to the exhibit and prior work I will be exploring in a subsequent post. This post will focus on the work of Istanbul based photographer, Ali Taptik, whose contribution to the exhibit caught my attention immediately.

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Taptik’s commissioned work for the exhibit is a series of striking portraits taken in the host city Liverpool and in Taptik’s home city Istanbul. My initial impression of the set is how the photographer utilises a wide angle and deep depth of field to capture the surrounding environment of his subjects. From this choice of technique it is palpable Taptik intends to show the viewer the relationship between the subject and their surroundings.

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Taptik alternates between showing us glimpses of life in Liverpool and Istanbul, and his photos tell us something of the circumstances in which his subjects live. The photos of Liverpool show us ageing, decrepit terraces while in Istanbul we see a variety of environments with clear signs of decay and poverty. In all the images the subjects occupy the centre of the frame, and other elements within the frame hint at a narrative concerning their relationship with the environment they inhabit. The image from Istanbul above shows us a boy in dirty clothes with a herd of sheep behind him. From this the viewer could ask questions about the circumstances of the boy – is he looking after the sheep? What are they doing in the middle of a built up area?

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Likewise with the above image from Liverpool, Taptik positions his subject in the centre of the frame and other elements (the dog, the road, the physical appearance of the subject) help to create a visual narrative. Also apparent with this image and with others in the set is Taptik’s post processing. There is a latent vignette placed in the corners of the frame which helps to divert the viewer’s attention to the subject. This suggests that while Taptik wishes to show the surrounding environments his subjects inhabit, he does not wish us to be distracted by these surroundings. It is the relationship between the subject and their environments Taptik intends for us to focus on.

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I selected the image above as it stands out somewhat in terms of composition and environment. The subject is off centre and positioned in front of a collection of chairs dumped on the street. Again an interesting narrative is suggested by the elements Taptik chose to incorporate in the frame – the viewer again asks questions about the subject’s relationship with the surroundings.

Conclusions

Taptik’s series is a powerful set of photos of people and their surroundings in Istanbul and Liverpool. I think the photographer is successful in showing a connection between the environments he captures in the two cities. In both locations we see urban decay and industrial decline evident in the environments of his subjects. There is a suggestion that the subjects don’t quite fit their environment, particular the shot of the boy with the sheep, and also the girl on the street full of decrepit and boarded up houses. This is the connection perhaps – that in both cities, Liverpool and Istanbul, people exist who struggle to fit in and have become somewhat marginalised by the decline and deprivation of the environments they inhabit.

One point to takeaway from this set is how Taptik employs a consistent visual style – his subjects appear dead centre in the frame (for the most part), the depth of field shows all the detail surrounding the subjects, and the colour and aspect ratio also help to nurture this sense of uniformity. Taptik also does not allow the the background to dominate his subjects; his subjects are positioned against background colours that contrast to the colour of their clothes. He reveals small details that do not overshadow the subject, but the details are significant enough to hint at the nature of the subject’s relationship with their surroundings. It is maintaining this balance along with a uniform visual style that has allowed Taptik to create a strong set of environmental portraits.

See the full set on Taptik’s website:

http://www.alitaptik.com/index.php?/commissions/cities-on-the-edge/

Cities on the Edge: Ali Taptik

Part 5 Research: Cities on the Edge

Cities on the edge

My tutor recently pointed me in the direction of the British photographer, John Davies. I decided to follow up with some research about Davies looking at his website and portfolio. It was during this research that I came across the “Cities on the Edge” (2008) commissioned by the Liverpool Culture Commission. Davies was invited to curate and organise the exhibit by selecting a few photographers from around the world to contribute to the project.

Davies and the host city, Liverpool, asked the contributors to explore the visual, cultural, social and political relationship between their home cities and the host city. Six photographers were invited to exhibit, including Ali Taptik, Sandy Volz and Davies himself. Out of the six contributors, these three photographers produced the images that inspired me the most although each produced very different sets – a result of their contrasting visual styles and subject matter.

Over the coming few days I will be looking at these three photographers’ contributions to the “Cities on the Edge” project, focusing on the commission brief and how each photographer interpreted it. This will be useful in preparation for creating my own client brief, and helping me to decide on what kind of client I will be serving.

Part 5 Research: Cities on the Edge

Assignment Four: A Sense of Place

Introduction

For the following assignment, I selected the Brixton area in south London as my location. I visited the area over a few weeks and shot a variety of subjects, locations, and buildings. Over the period of time I ‘covered’ the area  I found that I gradually developed a narrative and theme to focus on for the assignment brief. As this specified that the images would be pitched to a thoughtful travel publication, I looked for a strong visual narrative through the final images I would be making my selection from.

From the first walk around the area with my camera, I noticed immediately the juxtaposition between the old, independent businesses around the area, particularly underneath the railway arches on Atlantic Road and the markets on Electric Avenue, and the new forces of regeneration in the form of Network Rail’s apparent intent to refurbish the arches. However my subsequent walks around the area revealed a more complex narrative, and with my final selection I set out to show a greater insight into the area beyond the obvious tensions created by the regeneration initiatives. Also in keeping with the brief, I tried to incorporate a variety of images that showed the various techniques in camera handling, observation and reaction explored in the module so far.

The initial selection 

I made an initial selection of 12 images from around the 50-100 frames I shot in Brixton over a period of 4-5 weeks. I thought this initial 12 best captured the narrative I was trying to convey. All images were shot with my Sony digital camera and a 28-70mm zoom lens. I found this gear choice gave me a simple but flexible approach, and is notably the first time I have used digital for an assignment on this course. The approach I chose – walking around the location a few times over a period of weeks – meant that using film would have delayed the completion of the assignment considerably, and also have interfered with the momentum I gained from each visit to the area. Whilst I find the film process useful and sometimes preferable to the instant gratification of digital, I felt that seeing the images immediately once I had arrived at home allowed me to appraise what I had captured that day, and to make notes on possible themes and narratives to focus on during my next visit.

Images were therefore shot from a variety of focal lengths; however looking at the EXIF data from the RAW files showed that I did not go wider than 35mm, and went up to the maximum 70mm my zoom lens allowed. I did not do much editing in Lightroom beyond the exposure and contrast sliders, but also did some cropping that in some cases affected the composition of the finished images. I also stuck with the traditional 35mm aspect ratio and colour palette to create a more consistent feel to the set, baring in mind that the final set would be published in a magazine. The inevitable overcast days that are typical of England at this time of year were also welcome in helping to create a consistent feel to the images, despite them being captured at various times over October-December 2015.

The first three images below were taken in residential areas of Brixton, and I feel they capture something of the essence of the community’s character. The first shot is of Loughborough Park and the Guinness Trust, which acts as an advocate for the local residents in the estate which is under threat of demolition so the developers can move in. Some development can be discerned in the background behind the Guinness Trust building and the original flats, and shows something of the conflict present in the estate. The green boards on the left hint at the development taking place, and the old man with shopping trolley could perhaps be taken to symbolise the resistance of the local residents to the developers. In terms of composition, the man on the left draws our attention and acts as an initial focal point within the frame. However the green boards, the Guinness Trust building and the new development in the background create a multi-layered image with a strong narrative that I feel sets the tone for the remainder of the series.

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The second image below shows the ‘Pop Brixton’ development. The area is an initiative that uses old shipping containers and aims to encourage local residents to get involved by offering affordable rents or subsidised loans for start up businesses. The containers range from housing street food stands, restaurants, bars, clothing shops, jewellers, bakeries and even a small stage for music and stand up comedy performances. It is undoubtedly a product of the regeneration that has affected the area in recent years, but perhaps shows a more positive side to what such initiatives can do for Brixton. The image itself utilises the “anonymous” figure approach to photographing people in place. The figures entering the development form part of the overall photo which features the shipping containers and a 1960s residential tower block in the background. Along with other images of the set, I noticed that this image display an independence and ingenuity on the part of the community in Brixton – an area that is traditionally a working-class area of London, but has seen vast amount of social upheaval over the years. This theme is something that resonates throughout the set, but is a trait that can also help to explain the local community’s rejection and mistrust of initiatives from outside developers such as Network Rail.

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The next image below is in the same vain as the image of ‘Pop Brixton’, and shows more of the ‘can do’ attitude of the local community that I observed. This is a clearly a communal area, and it is the recycling of materials for a public space that shows the ingenuity of the community that uses it, for instance the mannequins and wooden platforms that surround the space.

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The preceding images below were taken below the railway arches on the Atlantic road. As mentioned the arches are an area of particular conflict in the area due to the stated intention of Network Rail to regenerate the arches and potentially force away the small businesses that have operated out of the shops below the railway.

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The images I chose vary in camera handling, composition and subject focus. They vary from showing the type businesses that reside beneath the arches, for example the wig shop and carpet shop, to showing the people that use the space particularly the delivery man and the two people sitting in conversation in the first and second images respectively. The uniting strand in them is that they show a thriving community that still exists beneath a railway that presumably thousands of people use to commute to central London everyday, probably unaware of what exists beneath.

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The final images that I chose for the initial selection are varied in location.The first in the sequence is of a church on the main road not far from the tube station and opposite the famous music venue, Electric Brixton. I chose to include it as it shows something about the community that still resides in Brixton, and the fact that the church was packed when I visited shows that many of the local residents are still very religious. The final three are shot on the famous Electric Avenue, which resonates with independent markets and butchers, and is always somewhat chaotic and dirty. I thought the image of the two butchers busy on their phones reveals a quiet moment amidst the chaos. The graffiti in the final image above also perhaps tells a story particularly when placed amongst the chosen images of this set. Is the graffiti alluding to something lost in the area? Are the authors talking about an end of an era? It is an interesting photo to finish on certainly within the context of the narrative the images reveal.

The final selection

In keeping with the assignment brief I cut the initial selection of twelve images to a final six. I would have preferred to have kept the final set to the twelve selected above and cutting those to six has been a difficult exercise, particularly as I feel the twelve photo series works so well.

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Cutting the selection of twelve down to six was certainly tricky, especially when covering an area as diverse as Brixton with its vibrant and active community. The final six I felt show the essence of the local community as one of ingenuity (as evidenced by the ‘Pop Brixton’ and Loughborough park images), and of unique use of space (the use of the arches as a public and retail space). The final image ‘I miss my Brixton’ is particularly illustrative – the local residents perhaps face a near constant struggle to adapt in the face of forces of deprivation and regeneration, but the graffiti also shows that many take pride in the character of their community.

Conclusions

Overall I felt the final images I produced for this assignment were successful in capturing what I wanted to convey as the ‘essence’ of Brixton. Although I would liked to have presented the initially selected twelve as the series, the final six still work well together and succeed in presenting something of the area whilst maintaining visual variety. I would have liked more access to areas such as Loughborough Park, perhaps focusing more on the people who reside there and capturing portraits and something of their personal stories. However this assignment was more about capturing the community as a whole, and including the space in the frame was just as important as the people. In fact for some images including human subjects was almost unimportant, for example the ‘Pop Brixton’ images which makes use of the anonymous figures.

Without an end-result in mind, I might have approached photographing Brixton in a much less focused way. In fact the resulting images may have been much more cliche – including perhaps the inevitable ‘street portrait’ – and less focused on conveying a narrative. I may also not have revisited the area over a few weeks and not taken the time to walk around and to get to know the place. I found this approach very useful in forming ideas and finding a narrative to tie a finished set of images together. Having a clearly defined goal when shooting a project is a vital lesson I will takeaway from this assignment, and is certainly something I will prioritise when shooting any future project.

Assignment Four: A Sense of Place

Part Four Research: Brixton (2)

Introduction

The results of my second photo walk in Brixton. Continuing with the “laneur” approach of the previous walk, I shot to gain a greater visual variety and with more focus on the variety of gentrification in the Brixton area.

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The above image was taken in the Brixton arches where a variety of small businesses continue to run. There are proposals to refurbish the arches by network rail, and there are fears from the proprietors that they will be forced to move away. The image itself is a well executed shot, I liked the composition which shows the small retail business behind the man in the foreground, as well as the arches in the background.

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The following image shows “Pop Brixton”, which contains restaurants in restored shipping containers. Whilst it is sign of Brixton’s ‘regeneration’, it is different in that it attempts to foster a community feeling by encouraging local tenants to get involved in start-ups. This will be a location that I will return to, perhaps getting some photos of the tenants and the businesses themselves. It could be an interesting point in the narrative perhaps, showing regeneration that tries to be a positive force in the community it serves.

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The proceeding three images attempt to employ some of the visual approaches specified by the assignment brief. These demonstrate the ‘single figure small’ approach – keeping the distant figure anonymous and experimenting with balance by placing the figure at different points within the frame. I feel the second images works very well, there is a strong sense of movement conveyed to the viewer by the moving figure. I’m not convinced that any of these add anything to the narrative or the brief I am trying to fulfil. It would be interesting to get a similar vantage point overlooking the arches, the market on Electric Avenue or overlooking a busy part of Brixton.

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The next two images attempt to show some more of the arches – perhaps businesses that have been in Brixton for much longer than areas like Pop Brixton or the rejuvenated Brixton Village. The composition is good on both, but is perhaps lacking in visual variety and it is difficult to see where they would fit into the narrative. I will also return to the market next time to document some more of the businesses and local people.

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The image above is from within the rejuvenated Brixton Village, once a local fruit and veg market but now hosting a huge array of cafes, restaurants and bars. The epitome of this change I thought was encapsulated by the appearance of the French champagne bar (right opposite one of the fruit and veg sellers still clinging on). I thought a diptych or sequencing this image with the “I miss my Brixton” graffiti photo I shot on the previous post would be an interesting narrative.

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Photographing some of the residential areas around the main retail and going out areas has also been an idea. Photographing some of the estates under threat of demolition – for example Loughborough Park where the Guiness Trust Housing Association is located – could be another interesting angle to introduce to the narrative. Contrasting this with recent developments containing less affordable housing could also make for an interesting contrast.

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The final image in this set was taken on the Electric Avenue. I haven’t really photographed much around here so I will return again and try out some new angle perhaps focusing on the local businesses. The shot above attempts to convey some of the chaos of the street, whilst also experimenting with balance in the frame. I felt this could have been stronger without the woman encroaching on the left, but otherwise the composition feels safe despite the messy street.

Conclusions

I felt I was more successful in documenting the variety of gentrification going on in Brixton, and I think a couple of further ventures experimenting with composition and visual variety will produce a great workflow to select the final 12 images from. The locations I will return to (and visit for the first time) include:

  • Pop Brixton
  • Electric Avenue
  • The Arches
  • Brixton Village
  • Loughborough Park (and the Guinness Trust)

Shooting this assignment on digital feels like the right choice, considering the approach I have taken to documenting the Brixton area over a few visits rather than one or two. The flexibility of a zoom lens (28-70mm) with a high performing ISO camera is also very convenient. I will stick with the traditional 35mm aspect ratio, and perhaps take full advantage of the ISO flexibility by shooting a few shots of the area at night.

Part Four Research: Brixton (2)