Assignment 5: People and place on assignment

For the final assignment of the course, I decided to investigate one of London’s rapidly changing council estates. I photographed a variety of areas, including estates in Poplar, Ladbroke Grove and Elephant and Castle. My inclination to shoot on these estates – particularly those built in the brutalist/modernist style common during the 1960s – stems from an interest in the historical and social context within which they were constructed, and also from the fact that many (if not all) are on the verge of significant regeneration or demolition. With today’s housing crisis in London and the reluctance of local authorities and the national government to take action against the vast property investment that continues to make home ownership and renting unaffordable, examining the history and ideas behind these huge mid twentieth century estates is, in my view, taking on greater and greater relevance.

Photographing these estates can at times be a sad experience, particularly those that show signs of significant neglect, vandalism and petty crime. However the ideas behind their design were certainly benign – clean, modern and affordable housing for people living in the overcrowded slums of inner London. At some point however, the urban planners appeared to forget they were designing housing for people, and soon many of these estates (despite their acclaimed architectural design) became synonymous with dystopian visions of urban collapse, alienation and crime. What went wrong and what caused this reputation? Was it the design of these estates that doomed many of them?

Initially I considered attempting to knit together images from a variety of estates, however with a 8-12 image brief in mind I decided to focus on one estate. I selected the Thamesmead area in southeast London for a number of reasons. Firstly it forms one of the most extensive estates in the Greater London area, and is therefore one of the best examples of 1960s modernist architecture. Secondly, it is somewhat different in it’s use of water (lakes and canals) and other landscape features. The Greater London Council architect Robert Rigg was inspired by housing complexes in Sweden that believed in the idea that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and crime, particularly among younger residents. Thirdly the area is known for it’s use of elevated walkways and raised ‘streets’ so that most of the residences on the estate occupy the first floor and above. The reason for this was the flooding of the area during the 1953 North Sea flood, and so resulted in quite a uniform design feature.

I researched the area and photographed a number of locations, and was immediately struck by how the design of the structure, particularly the elevated walkways and facades impacted the public space on the estate. I therefore formulated a ‘client’ brief based on this research:

A local borough council are seeking the services of a photographer to investigate the impact of architectural design on the public space in a council estate. They are currently assessing the 1960s designed council housing in Thamesmead, hoping to take this evaluation into account when the local councillors meet to propose a regeneration plan for the area. The councillors are particularly interested in the photographer finding evidence of both positive and negative design characteristics, and to show the impact of these on public space. Whilst the expectation is that the focus of the brief will be on the local architecture and urban space, the photographer may produce other findings deemed relevant for the councillors to consider when formulating a future proposal for the Thamesmead area.

Once I had settled on an idea and written the brief, I found it much easier to approach the assignment. As I walked around the Thamesmead area I was able to plan the photos effectively by referring back to the brief. During my research on the estate, I discovered that one of the first complaints by residents after moving in was rain penetration problems inside a number of the residences. Already this proved the inadequacy of concrete for large scale housing, but its flaws became even more pronounced over time. Concrete is prone to moss and lichen growth and cracks easily, and this is something very noticeable upon the estate’s material facade. Another frequent criticism was the dimly lit walkways and inadequate drainage rendering many of the residences inaccessible. In light of this research, I settled on shooting a particular stretch of one of the elevated ‘streets’ on a day of wet weather. I had considered producing a series of black and white images, but I opted for colour images to present a more objective set of images that departed from the standard portrayal of these estates by photographers. As with my previous assignment on Brixton, I chose to use my digital camera to allow for a quicker review and reflection on the images produced. The final 12 images are arranged in order below.

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-2

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-3

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-4

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-7

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-5

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-6

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-12

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-9

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-10

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-11

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-8

 

* All images shot on Sony A7 with 28-70mm zoom lens – using variable apertures from F3.5-F8 with ISO set to approx. 400-1600 

 

Overall I feel the final set of images fulfils the brief and actually reveals more than expected by the ‘client’. It highlights poor design characteristics such as using concrete as a building material (evidence of moss growth and cracks in many of the images), flooded and poorly lit walkways, and also reveals how high walls block out views of the outside. The impact of these features on the public space in the images is dramatic. The viewer feels a sense of enclosure, almost as if the estate is a fortress against the outside world, and the absence of plant life or colour upon the facade does little to alleviate the barren concrete and two-tone world of the walkway. The images are effective in creating this impression of being blocked off from nature, as there are hints of trees overlooking the concrete walls and glimpses of the outside world are obstructed by barbed wire. Even upon the walkway there is little that makes the space inviting – the ‘no ball games’ signs, the barbed wire, the concrete walls and the flooded walkway deter rather than encourage the residents to use the space. Even so, there is evidence of a community. The images that show painted walls are a welcome relief from the dark, two-tone walkway. This demonstrates how even a simple splash of colour can alter a space and make it appear more inviting. It is also a sign of the individual and that within the cold, barren atmosphere of the walkway a community can still exist.

There were a number of difficulties encountered whilst I was carrying out the brief. One of the main difficulties was planning for the day of the shoot – once I had found the walkway I wanted to shoot I had to wait for a rainy day, and so waited some time (unexpectedly for England) for a weekend with bad weather forecast. Therefore shooting the assignment was perhaps not done as quick as it would have needed to be in a real life professional scenario. Another difficulty not unanticipated was the length of time it took to travel to the location. Whilst it did not impact me too much, I did realise in a professional context this would be quite impactful on the process.

I also allowed myself a period of reflection before selecting the final shots for submission. Taking the advice of my tutor, I shot mainly landscape oriented shots and I observed this made the final set feel more focused. I also decided to get some of the images printed (see previous blog posts in Assignment Five folder) and stuck them on my wall for a few days. This allowed me to see the images ‘together’ rather than individually on the computer screen, leading me to select shots with a similar style of composition – a decision I felt helped produce a more coherent final 12. I chose to include the shots of the painted wall towards the end of the set to introduce variety and to challenge the viewer’s perception of the location. Whilst the length of time I took for the process was unrealistic for a professional context, I felt I got to practice the stages of a professional assignment. The period of reflection was an especially important part of the process, and a stage I will employ in the future when discerning the final images to submit for an assignment.

 

 

Assignment 5: People and place on assignment

Assignment Five Research: Reviewing the set

With the final submission date (27th May) looming, I took my tutor’s advice and decided to get some cheap(ish) prints of the images I was considering for submission. In the event I found a very affordable giclee printer here in London, so I thought why not and went for some prints on some very nice A5 ‘platinum etching’ paper. The images in question were the Thamesmead set posted in the previous post on the blog, a set of 16 shot on one of the elevated ‘streets’ common to the design of the estates in the area.

Having the images printed is certainly beneficial, particularly in seeing how the images work together (see below) and how I will present them in terms of order, sizing, and aspect ratio. I have already noticed things in some of the images that I haven’t noticed on the computer screen, and I may go back and rework some of the editing. While I will be spending the next couple of weeks reviewing the images and may get some more images printed, the final selection is already starting to take place and I have already cut some images. At this stage I can be 100% sure all the images will be presented in the normal 35mm aspect ratio in the landscape format. I do like how the images shot at a 45 degree angle lend a consistent feel to the set and I may keep this theme in mind when I do make the final selection.

Prints

I also feel the introduction of a wider colour palette toward the end of the set is effective (see the image on the bottom right above), however I am not 100% happy with these images and may return to Thamesmead one more time. These images could be reworked slightly to bring out the colours or to tighten up the composition. It will be worth editing on Lightroom before I make the decision to return to the location.

Prints-3

Above is a provisional selection for the final 12 images, however there are some changes to be made with certain images and I am not 100% happy with 5-6 at least.

If you are interested in some cheap and beautiful giclee prints and you are in the UK, try Zheeklay printing: http://www.zheeklayprinting.co.uk/

Assignment Five Research: Reviewing the set

Notes from ‘the photograph as contemporary art’

(P.12-15)

‘The groundwork conducted by artists such as William  Eggleston and Stephen Shore in teh 1960s and 1970s to establish colour photography over black and white as the main vehicle for contemporary photographic expression is very important.’

‘It was not until the 1970s that art photographers who used vibrant colour – which until then had been the preserve of commercial and vernacular photography – found a modest degree of support, and not until the 1990s that colour became the staple of photographic practice.’

‘William Eggleston began to create colour photographs in the mid 1960s, shifting in the late 1960s to colour transparency film, the kind that is used domestically and commercially for photographing family holidays, advertising and magazine imagery.’

‘The magic of these photographs was their compositional intrigue and sensitive transformation of a slight subject or observation into a compelling visual form.’

‘At that time, Eggleston’s adoption of the colour range of commonplace photography was still considered to be outside the established realms of fine art photography.’

‘But in 1976, a selection of photographers he created between 1969 and 1971 was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first solo show of a photographer working predominantly in colour.’

‘… the show was an early and timely indicator of the force that Eggleston’s alternative approach would have.’

‘In 2002, the Los Alamos Project was published as a book and as a series of portfolios of dye-transfer colour prints.’

‘The original concept for the project was grand by any standards: two thousand images, taken during road trips between 1966 and 1974 and then printed without captions or commentary in a series of twenty volumes (see Figure 1).’

 

los alamos

Figure 1: Lost Alamos, 1966-1974, William Eggleston

‘The Project was inspired by a journey Eggleston had made with his friend the curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005), who had pointed out the gates of the Los Alamos laboratories near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the site where the atomic bomb had been developed …’

‘The timing of the publication of the Los Alamos Project, almost thirty years after it was photographed, reflects the continual growth in the appreciation of art photography’s history.’

‘Stephen shore received critical notice for his photography at a precociously young age.’

‘… in 1971, he co-curated an exhibition of photographic ephemera (such as postcards, family snaps, magazine pages) .. In the same year he photographed the main buildings and sites of public interest in a small town in Texas called Amarillo.’

‘His subtle observations on the town’s generic qualities were made apparent when the photographs were printed as ordinary postcards (see Figure 2 and 3).’

 

shore

Figure 2: West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, 1974 (Stephen Shore) 

 

Shore2

Figure 3: Plains Boulevard, Amarillo, Texas, 1975 (Stephen Shore) 

 

‘Shore did not sell many of the 5,600 cards he had printed; so, instead, he put them in postcard racks in all the places he visited…’

‘His involvement with and interest in pop art, and a fascination with and simulation of photography’s everyday styles and functions, influenced Shore’s coming to colour photography…’

‘In 1972, he exhibited 220 photographs, made with a 35mm Instamatic camera and shown in grids, of day-to-day events and ordinary objects cropped and casually depicted (see Figures 2 and 3)…’

‘Like Eggleston’s The Los Alamos Project, Shore’s early exploration of colour photography as a vehicle for artistic ideas was not commonly known or accessible until relatively recently, when it was published in a book called American Surfaces (1999)…’ 

(P.16-17)

‘One of the most important influences on contemporary art photographers is the work of the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher.’

‘Their austere grids of black-and-white photographs of architectural structures such as gas tanks, water towers and blast furnaces (see Figure 2), taken since the late 1950s, may appear to stand in contrast with the sensibilities of Eggleston and Shore, but there is an important connection.’

 

Schafers

Figure 2: Coolting Tower, Waltrop Mine, Ruhr, Bern and Hilla Becher 1967

 

‘Like them, the Bechers have been instrumental in rephrasing vernacular photography into highly considered artistic strategies, in part as a way of investing art photography with visual and mental connections to history and the everyday.’

‘Their photographs serve a double function: they are unromantic documents of historic structures, while their unpretentiousness and systematic recording of architecture sits within the use of taxonomies in conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s.’

‘The Bechers have also played an important role as teachers at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. Among their students were such leading practitioners as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand and Candida Hofer …’

 

Notes from ‘the photograph as contemporary art’