Having submitted and concluded the People and Place course, my tutor encouraged me to undertake a self-initiated project in the immediate period after completion. I undertook research and became interested in the Battersea / Nine Elms area of London, an area undergoing a rapid transformation in the recent burst of ‘regeneration’ hitting the former industrial wastelands of Inner London.
After shooting the area in a few times, I decided to focus on the idea of facade and what the material facades photographed tell us about the change the area is going through. These range from images of the screens developers put up to conceal construction sites, to the new frontages of recently completed luxury flats and the interiors of construction sites. I find the screens put up to conceal the construction sites perhaps the most interesting images in the set below – these temporary frontages symbolise the change the area is going through.
These are ideas that I will continue to explore as I envisage this as a long-term project to allow time for the area to change and develop.
(all images shot with Pentax 67 + 55mm F4 on Kodak Portra / Ektar)
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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/
‘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).’
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).’
Figure 2: West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, 1974 (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)…’
‘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.’
‘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 …’
Following on from my recent research in Poplar, I have been shooting in the Thamesmead area of south east London. The area is notable for hosting a vast 1960s housing estate – broken up into ‘sub-estates’ – built in the modernist/cubist style popular amongst architects and urban planners of the era (particularly those who worked for the Greater London Council). The estate is in diverging states of disrepair and upkeep, many of the properties are now privately owned and some parts have been demolished to make way for a long-term regeneration plan.
My shots are focused on the elevated ‘streets’ that dominate the estate. My original intention with the images was to focus on the facades of the housing, the textures, geometric shapes, the colours, and also the inevitable signs of decay. As I walked through the labyrinth of the ‘street’ and looked for these elements, I began to notice the shortcomings of the design. In many places it felt very dark despite it being the middle of the afternoon, there was flooding everywhere after heavy rain, and there were very few communal areas such as gardens, benches or even an area that felt welcoming or inviting.
As well as showing the material facade of the building, my images also show how a space can be poorly designed. The estate is essential a series of empty spaces, there is no impression of community from an outsider’s perspective. The space does not seem to have been designed with the intention of cultivating a community. It is inviting to theorise why the planners selected this design for such a massive estate, and if I decide to proceed with this idea and image set for my final submission I shall be providing more context to the political and social forces that created the Thamesmead estate.
Nevertheless, what is interesting is that there are still signs of individualisation within the ‘streets’, and that even within a design that appears to reject the idea of community, residents can provide a more welcoming space simply by painting a wall or by placing a few plants outside the front door. I will continue reflecting on these images whilst waiting for my film scans to return from the lab.
Case Study 1: Art, design, politics – Soviet Constructivism and the Bauhaus
‘For the constructivists, photography was a popular form which, through its usage in posters, magazines and publishing, could be at the forefront of taking new ideas to the people.’
‘Emphasising art’s post-Revolutionary responsibilities, Rodchenko stated that he was fed up with ‘belly button’ shots, by which he meant photographs composed conventionally shot from waist level through cameras with their viewfinder on top.’ (see below Figure 1)
‘He argued for full exploration of the geometry of the image which would, literally and metaphorically, engineer a new angle of vision.’
Figure 1: Rodchenko sequence
The integration of art and design
‘The bauhaus was a clear response to the destruction and dereliction witnessed during the First World War… Like Soviet Constructivism, the Bauhaus was multi-disciplinary, although architecture came to be the central concern.’
‘Bauhaus theorists emphasised the relation between form and function, and stressed what they saw as a potential unity of art, design and the everyday.’
‘Frankfurt School theorist, Walter Benjamin, expressed impatience with such experimentation, accusing the ‘new objectivity’ photographers of the Bauhaus of making the world artistic rather than making Art mundane.’
‘For Benjamin, emphasis on form detracted from the democratic characteristics of photography which, in his view, should be a comprehensible means of communication for everyone. He opposed formalism and abstraction because, he argued, experimentation in visual languages tends to be exclusive, and therefore elitist.’
A new instrument of vision
‘Laszlo and Lucia Moholy-Nagy were perhaps the best-known photographers associated with the Bauhaus. They stressed ways in which use of light, mechanical reproduction and the possibility of sensitive printing expressed the machine aesthetic of the Modern Age.’
‘In parallel with the Soviet emphasis upon photo-eye as the modern method of communication, Moholy-Nagy emphasised the relation between the mechanical nature of the camera, form, the use of light and visual perception, arguing that photography enhances sight in relation to time and space.’
‘Like Benjamin, their writings opposed the reification of the individual artist. Unlike Benjamin, they stressed the compositional qualities of the image, viewing this as central to the means of expression.’
Modern photography, the gallery and the archive
‘From about 1905 (towards the end of Pictorialism) photography had little visibility in the art gallery. The work of British photographers – such as Bill Brandt and George Rodgers, whom we now celebrate – was not made initially for gallery exhibition, nor was it necessarily widely known.’
Late Twentieth-century perspectives
“The American and European Avant-grade art movements of the 1960s emphasised idea and process over the conventions of painting and sculpture. The war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement in America, the development of feminist politics and theory, and the student protests of 1968, were reflected in works that were challenging to the status quo, to ideas about the artist as apolitical and working alone, and to art institutions.’ (Comment and Commitment: Art and Society 1975-1990, Tate Gallery, London 1995)
Conceptual art and the photographic
‘Photography in the 1960s was centrally implicated in the expansion of the mass media, including fashion shots, album covers for long playing records, photojournalism..’
‘First, pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Richard Hamilton started to use the photographic in order to reference and comment on lifestyles and consumerism.’
‘To echo Roland Barthes, many elements within their pictures were deja-lu (‘already read’).’
‘Raymond Williams has suggested that in the 1960s the two dimensions of the modern, radical aesthetics and technological change, came together in the pictures of artists whose work engaged with the revolution in mass culture..’
‘Modernist theory had focussed on the medium. By contrast, Conceptual Art stressed ideas. Artists were concerned to draw attention to the manner or vocabulary of expression…’
‘Indeed, in a number of instances artists placed a statement about an art object in the gallery, thereby focusing attention on the idea, rather than the object (which might never have been actually made).’
‘Conceptual Art, especially in its more critical or political forms, constituted a challenge to the Art establishment…’
‘In conceptual photography the characteristics of the medium could be used as a part of the means of expression of an idea.’
‘Thus, for instance, Keith Arnatt’s sequence of digging himself into a hole in the ground (see Figure 2) is obviously, at one level, a metaphoric reference to the well-known phrase. But the documentary idiom secures a sense that this event literally did take place through demonstrating the sequence of moments in time.’
‘The humour of the piece of work emanates from the realism attributed to photography. One way of testing the implication of choice of specific medium, and therefore the implied comment on the nature of the medium, is to imagine what interpretational shift might occur if the sequence had been, say, painted.’
‘Conceptualism challenged the dominance of abstract Formalism.’
‘It was not that it denied the significance of form. Rather, form was brought into play differently with a view to social, political, metaphysical, or simply humorous, comment.’
‘However, as photography became accepted within Conceptual Art, so attention came to be paid to photographs (pictorialist, formalist and documentary) and to photography history. In effect, Conceptual Art offered a bridge into the gallery.’
‘This era featured other challenges which, although incorporating some of the aesthetic characteristics of formalism, took for their starting point ideas which were anchored socially (rather than aesthetically).’
‘For instance, the “new topographics” photographers, including Lewis Baltz and Bernd and Hilla Becher, explored the act of looking through the detailed mapping of industrial edifices or locations.’
‘Similar images are blocked next to one another, thereby bringing into question the degree of detailed discrimination involved in day-to-day perceptions.’
‘… the new topographics, in charting the industrial landscape, implied a social and environmental questioning which did not figure in American Formalism.’
Following on from the black and white set of Poplar that I shared in the previous post, I opted to focus on the Robin Hood Gardens council estate.
The estate was designed in the late 1960s by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The design, similar to the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, was founded on the concept of ‘streets in the sky’. However there were serious shortcomings on the design as the architects had to compromise on a lot of aspects. Residents would often complain about structural failings such as the persistent breakdown of the lifts and that the ‘streets’ encouraged criminal activity.
Attempts by campaigners and architects – who value the estate’s architecture as a prime example of 1960s British brutalism – to get the building listed have failed repeatedly, and so the estate has long been earmarked for demolition. My photos represent possibly some of the last taken on the estate (by an outsider), and there is a detectable sense of anticipation when walking around the estate. It is tempting to frame the photos primarily against the backdrop of the failure and subsequent demolition of Robin Hood Gardens. It could perhaps be taken as a microcosm for the failure of the ideas of the 1960s planners who sought to reshape the British urban landscape.
What I found more interesting and something that you could only observe by being at the estate, is that there is still community that clings on. It is easy to forget about the people who live there when caught up in the furore of listing applications, regeneration plans and demolition rumours. My photos show the minor arts of daily life still occurring against the backdrop of a 1960s designed council estate that now sits half empty and almost completely abandoned by the local authority.
I think these photos contain more of a focus than the previous series taken around Poplar – which was a general look at the area rather than narrowing down to a theme or idea. Also I feel these photos show much more about the people who live there (they contain people for one thing) but also show signs of normal, everyday life, despite the reputation and high level murmurings that surround the estate. I may therefore revisit RHG a couple more times (shot with a 6×7 camera, 55mm lens and colour film) to shoot with this theme/idea in mind. I like the control and limitations of 6×7 film with the wide 55mm – the slow considered approach to this area feels appropriate. Most of the images feel well composed in the landscape format although some could do with some tweaking and/or returning to shoot.
(Technique: Pentax 6×7 with 55mm lens and Kodak Portra 400 / Fuji Pro 400h mostly shot at 1/125-1/250th at F/4-F/8)