Assignment five research: Poplar

As part of my research for the final assignment, I have been taking my camera around areas of London and taking the observational approach I adopted for Brixton in the previous assignment. I have opted to research around Poplar in the East End, Elephant and Castle, Ladbroke Grove and areas in the City. These areas all contain modernist housing estates, the majority built in the post-war period in order to house those made homeless from bombing.

What is interesting about these estates are the ideas of community they represent, ideas that drove the 1960s urban planners to completely reimagine British cities. Prestige projects such as the Golden Lane estate in the City divide opinion but are popular enough to have listed status. The less refined architecture of inner city estates, such as Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, are derided and often dismissed as ‘sink estates’.

What is unclear is why these places began to be perceived as harsh places of social collapse. One idea that I have been interested in pursuing is reimagining these places through a set of images that examine an estate in London (or a number of estates). I am not sure if I will be focusing on one estate, although it would perhaps provide more focus to the project if I focused on a single estate and its surrounding area. Linking back to my research on ‘deadpan’ and the ‘new topographics’ (see previous posts), I would like to present detached, observational images of these areas/estates that are an appraisal of their meaning to the people who inhabit them, and also to some degree the wider city. What my images may show is at this stage not completely determined and hinges in part on what I may observe, but the images of Poplar (see below) hopefully give some idea of what the final set may look like.

So far I have shot at Robin Hood Gardens and the Balfron estate in Poplar, the Golden Lane Estate in the City, and also at Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove. I have both colour and monochrome images, which I will subsequently edit and post in sets when completed. I also plan to have a look at the Brunswick centre near Russell Square and perhaps if I have time have a walk around the Thamesmead area, so I will be adding further sets over the next 2-3 weeks. I also have some images shot in Elephant and Castle, particularly around the regeneration project going on at Elephant Park and the Goldfinger designed modernist housing on the roundabout.

The set below has been shot over a period of 1-2 months in Poplar at Balfron tower and Robin Hood Gardens. The former is listed and the latter has been earmarked for demolition. It has been interesting to walk around Poplar as it is a very diverse area culturally and in terms of its architecture, however I feel including both estates in a set and focusing on the area as a whole lacks focus. I have therefore focused more on the Robin Hood Gardens estate (see next post) and have decided it is better to focus on a smaller area for a series of 12 images.

The images have potential, and the square format and Ilford film certainly convey a sense of the architectural facade and general grittiness of the area. My main doubt though is how much the images reveal to the viewer of the people who live in Poplar? Are they architecture photos? This is something to bare in mind when shooting and cutting the photos into a set.

(Technique: TLR camera and Ilford PanF film, mostly shot at 1/125 – 1/500 from F/3.5 – F/8)

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Assignment five research: Poplar

A Note on ‘Deadpan’

As a follow up to the previous post on the ‘New Topographics’, my reading has led me to explore the ideas of ‘deadpan’ in photography. Although this is a term thrown around quite loosely for a wide variety of work, I would like to focus on certain artists who have attracted the moniker.

In her book ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Charlotte Cotton focuses on ‘deadpan’ and examines a fascinating series of images. One immediate reaction of the viewer is to perceive an emotional detachment on the part of the photographers – it is as if they want to convey to their audience an objective reality, devoid of the photographer’s personal interpretation. Cotton maintains that ‘the adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective’ (Cotton, P.81). In other words, interpreting the subjects and understanding meaning is left to the audience and ‘our sense of what the photographers’ emotions might be is not the obvious guide to understanding the meaning of the images’ (Cotton, P.81).

Perhaps one of the more interesting facts Cotton touches on is what the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic has done for photography within the art world. It can perhaps be traced back to the emergence of the Bernd Becher as an artist and those that studied under his tutelage:

‘The “deadpan aesthetic” we see today is often characterised as “Germanic”. This moniker refers not only to the nationality of many of the key figures but also to the fact that a significant number were educated, under the tutelage of Bernd Becher, at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany.’ (Cotton, P.82)

This school was the catalyst that broke photography education and learning away from the emphasis on it as a vocational and professional pursuit – for example with photojournalism or commercial photography – to that of ‘artistically led pictures’. The Bechers’ collaborative series of black and white photos of German industrial architecture, obsessive in its formalism and rigorous in its approach, employed large format cameras and plate negatives on which were captured industrial buildings such as cooling towers (see below).

becherstowersBernd and Hilla Becher; study of concrete cooling towers; 1972

 

Each of the towers ‘… is photographed from the same perspective, notes on each are taken, and a typology is systematically created.’ (Cotton, P.83) The Bechers photographed the industrial landscapes of Germany and Europe at a time when it was disappearing as societies of western Europe shifted to a post-industrial world.

The influence of the Bechers’ work can be seen on their students as well, particularly with that of Andreas Gursky. He works on a large scale, using large format cameras for maximum clarity and digital post-production to refine, and exhibits hard-hitting prints that are often up to 2 metres high and 5 metres wide. What is quite unique about Gursky however is that he often creates images that are not ‘primarily contingent on being viewed as part of a series’ (Cotton, P.83). He works more like a painter than a photographer, refining a single work rather than hingeing on a set of images. His signature high vantage points leaving the viewer feeling remote from the subjects (see below), typical of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’.

Gursky stockAndreas Gursky; Chicago, Board of Trade II; 1999 

 

In the same vain as Gurksy and the Bechers, Ed Burtynsky’s work focuses on the man-made landscape. His 12-year work on the topography of oil, perhaps best evidenced by the image below of the Californian oilfield. Cotton makes an intriguing observation concerning Burtynsky’s work:

‘While social, political, and ecological issues are embedded into his subjects, they are visualised as objective evidence of the consequences of contemporary life.’ (Cotton, P.86)

Cotton highlights that the underpinning principle of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ is that the photographer is relaying information impartially, despite what the viewer may interpret about the artist’s intention.

burtynskyEdward Burtynsky; Oil Fields #13, Taft, California; USA 2002 © Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy of Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

 

Consequently the deadpan photographer brings personal politics into play by selecting the subject matter and ‘anticipating the viewer’s reaction to it” (Cotton, P.86) rather than through any explicit political statement through style or text.

The deadpan aesthetic is a huge field and there are a lot of artists with a wide range of subject matter. However looking at these three photographers work – quite similar in subject matter – has been fruitful in terms of informing my understanding of the ideas behind deadpan and the context artists such as Andreas Gursky learned their craft in.

 

References

Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson 2004

 

A Note on ‘Deadpan’

‘New Topographics’

In 1975 an important exhibition called ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ appeared. In retrospective art criticism, this exhibition is ascribed as initiating a turning point in the history of photography, particularly as it was in some ways the antithesis of traditional portrayals of landscape. Photographers Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke were commissioned to reimagine ‘the genres of topographical and architectural photography with the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry’. (Cotton, P.83). In some ways the most significant aspect of the exhibition was that these social and political agents were for the first time considered on the art gallery wall. Within this context ‘what at the time were seen as individual styles” were abandoned in favour of a detached objective style, somewhat similar in style to John Davies (see previous post) but greater in their rejection of the idealised interpretation of landscape.

At the time the exhibition was not well received by an audience that was used to the traditional landscape photography of the time. The exhibition presented 168 black and white prints of suburbia, industrial warehouses, city centres, wastelands and even seemingly banal car parks. I have selected a couple of photographs (see below) by Frank Gohlke and Lewis Baltz that are good examples of the artists presenting the aesthetic beauty of the banal, whilst revealing interesting narratives below the strict formalism in each photo. While the ‘New Topographics’ was disparaged at the time, it was crucial in opening up new opportunities for later artists. A good example of this Catherine Opie who published series called ‘Masterplan’ and ‘Mini-malls’, the inspiration for which she attributes back to the original 1975 exhibition while crafting her own interpretation of the suburbanised landscape. An example of her work is posted below as is an interesting video I came across online in which she talks about the representation of the ‘Man-Altered Landscape’ in photography.

 

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Frank Gohlke; Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas; 1975; Gelatin silver print, 1996; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

 

LewisBaltzLewis Baltz; The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Element No. 5; California, 1977

 

catherineopieminimallsCatherine Opie; Untitled #2 from ‘Mini Mall’ series; Iris Print, 1997

 

The link to the interview with Catherine Opie can be found here.

 

The ‘New Topographics’ was certainly a revolutionary exhibit at the time, and it’s influence on practising artist up to the present day is clear to see. The idea of finding beauty in the banal and challenging the audience to look closely for historical narrative is something that will inform research for the final assignment. Depth and experimenting with formalised composition is something that I will be challenging myself to practice in an observational approach.

 

References: 

Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom 2004; New edition 

Catherine Opie; Catherine Opie on New Topographics; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 2009; Youtube video

 

‘New Topographics’

John Davies ‘The British Landscape 1979-2009’

This post will continue my examination of Davies’ work, particularly honing in on his long-term series ‘The British Landscape’, shot over a period of 30 years starting in the late 1970s.

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Davies’ series shows the topography of the British Isles as a dynamic landscape in a constant state of change. His images range from conventional – but masterful in execution – images of the Lake District and Isle of Skye, to panoramas of the post-industrial landscape in the north of England. The above shot of the Stockport viaduct (built 1839) is somewhat typical of the series in showing the diverse layers of the landscape in this area of the canal. The reflections in the water show widely diverging architecture, the columns of the viaduct, the linear building of the 1970s tower block and the shadows of the Victorian warehouses on either bank.

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The images divulge a sense of calm amid the changing post-industrial landscapes, perhaps best exemplified by the photograph above of the bowling greens. The choice to work in black and white also lends the series a sense of permanence, in conflict with the signs of inevitable change on view.

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Perhaps the signature image in the series is the one shown above of the Agecroft Power Station in Salford. The viewer can discern a football pitch below the towering chimneys of the power station, and on the pitch humans are reduced to mere specks. This shows something of manmade scale and the human figure, and how a landscape can be shaped by human endeavour – in this image by both leisure and the need for energy. Despite the narratives that his images convey to the viewer, Davies retains a deadpan detachment in his images in a style that is reminiscent of the ‘New Topographics’. Davies states that he is not interested in ‘providing vehicles for escape but in delivering a highly crafted detailed image conveying a sense of reality’ (Davies, 2011).

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What is also interesting about the series is Davies’ signature composition from elevated positions, an approach he applies to both cityscapes (as above of New Street Station) and the rural-industrial landscape. What is interesting about the images is how they show landscapes that are neither wholly urban or rural, and are tainted by the signs of change that are inevitable in a post-industrial society.

See full series on John Davies’ website.

http://www.johndavies.uk.com/

 

Photo and material Copyright © John Davies 1976 – 2010

John Davies ‘The British Landscape 1979-2009’