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

Part 3 Reflections

Having completed assignment three and had some time for reflection, I thought it useful to write up some conclusions I had from the process and provide some more background for the choice of locations and technique. In addition, this reflection should also reveal the rationale behind the final images I chose for the submission. I have included images I chose to omit to help illustrate some of the thoughts and conclusions I had about the final submission.

*Note that all of the images below were omitted from the final submission and should not be considered as part of assignment three

Ironically I found the most challenging part of the assignment photographing the most mundane locations, i.e. the shopping centre and library interior. Whilst working through the exercises and projects, I had set on a couple of locations for the assignment with quite obvious functions – a fairground and housing estate. What was interesting with the housing estate (Barbican set) was that as I got to know the location better, I began to see more uses and functions. I was also very taken in by its form and architectural design and found myself focusing too much on these aspects rather than the functional aspect of the space. Gradually I became aware that this was pulling my focus away from the assignment brief. The four images I selected showed various uses of the space, whereas those I decided to omit were either too similar to the ones I had selected, or were overly focused on form. A selection of those I decided to leave out are posted below.

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One image I might have included was the park and the person walking across it. It shows part of the residential space of the estate but demonstrates a slightly differing function – a leisure space. This is something that could have been included in a larger project or series, but I decided that it was too similar to the residential uses I had shown in the other images. Also I thought it was perhaps a bit wayward of the assignment brief and was not focused enough on ‘building’ or the idea of a structure. However the idea of a leisure space is something that I found interesting and is an idea that I will come back to later.

The images of the Coney Island fairground I chose to omit were not particularly focused on the idea of a building in use. The ones I had chosen to include were rather a loose interpretation of the brief as well, but close enough to demonstrate a functional structure (for instance the ticket office. Again exploring this location again or one that I would have access to near to where I live would be an idea worth pursuing, perhaps fitting into the idea of a leisure/recreational space. A selection of images I chose to omit for the Coney Island location are below.

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I felt the images of the outdoor cinema and the people on the benches were too loose an interpretation of the brief. I chose to select one image of the ferris wheel, the two I chose to omit were perhaps again too vague but I did enjoy the rather abstract capture of the roller coaster on the left. It would be interesting to see if it could fit into a larger project or more varied series of images focusing on a leisure/recreational space. Experimenting with visual narrative and finding “visual punctuation” in a series of images is something touched upon by Maria Short in ‘Context and Narrative’:

“It can be possible to achieve a certain pace in the series by using a particular size or shape of image at a key point in the sequence, either as a recurring theme or a one-off.” (Short, 2011, P.106)

Experimenting with narrative and presentation of images is something that I will be researching and attempting to do, certainly for the part four assignment and perhaps in a retrospective presentation of the images I made for the part three assignment. It would have been interesting to present the images I made for assignment three in a less uniform way, for example increasing the prominence of one image by increasing its size or messing with its aspect ratio. Observing the presentation of work by other photographers and how this can change visual narrative is something that I will come back to and research later.

My initial approach to photographing the shopping centre in Stroud can be seen in the images I chose to omit. I had the problem of shooting the complex’s obvious function when I first approached it and the resulting images were somewhat flat and uninteresting. It was after I had walked around the entire complex and saw how it fit into the Stroud town centre that I saw a function besides the obvious use as a shopping centre. The omitted images below show this function whereas those I chose to submit in the finished set demonstrate more creativity and a more interesting visual narrative.

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A takeaway point from this location (and that I considered immediately) is that it is always important to research and consider your location before approaching it. My intention when shooting Merrywalks was somewhat arbitrary, as I was thinking about its obvious function as a place to shop in. After walking around and considering its place within the town centre as a meeting point for young people, I approached the location in a more creative manner and I think the images I chose to submit possess a more engaging narrative for the observer.

This point was also very relevant with my approach to photographing the mills. It was only after I had shot a few frames and had considered how I could create a visual narrative for the audience that I approached the location in a different, more creative way. As I was shooting I found a potential narrative in juxtaposing the modern with the old. I saw the sports car parked under the Victorian railway bridge with the mill in the background, and saw the opportunity to contrast the modern office function with the traditional function of the mill as an industrial workspace. The images I omitted from the submission are presented below, and are devoid of any social/visual narrative I think is present in the set I submitted. Similar to my initial approach in photographing Merrywalks, the first frames I took at the mill are quite straightforward and only really show the original function of the buildings.

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To conclude, I feel I approached this assignment in a much more thoughtful and creative way compared to assignment two. I was quite pleased with the submitted images for each of the five locations and I came away with some very useful learning experiences and ideas for future research. Although I have talked about these in the above text, I have bullet pointed the ideas below for ease of future reference.

  • It is important to research and walk around a location before shooting it and to consider how you would present the location in a series.
  • It is useful to ask yourself if there is any narrative present besides the obvious, and if you could approach photographing a location in a unique way.
  • Consider ways of presenting your final images in a set – are there subjects you could emphasise over others? How could you emphasise this within the set?
  • Could you change aspect ratio, size or bring in other visual aspects to achieve a visual punctuation within the narrative?
  • Taking away ideas such as leisure and recreational spaces, and how people interact with these spaces for my work/research in Part Four.

Having already done some preliminary reading for Part Four, these points are relevant learning experiences and ideas to bare in mind for work/research in Part Four. Although I am aware that the research and execution of assignment four may take a while, I am keen to keep up the momentum gained from Part Three and have already begun research for the next assignment and projects in Part Four.

Part 3 Reflections

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 5)

For the fifth set of images in this assignment, I chose to shoot at the Barbican estate in London. I find the complex an interesting place due to it being a great example of 1970s Brutalist design and still seemingly functioning – at odds with the rejection of Brutalism by contemporary society. It is controversial for many Londoners due to its ugly aesthetic and association with 1970s urban planning. However it is the organisation of the complex and its varied use which makes it an engaging space. I therefore set out to attempt to capture the Barbican’s contemporary functions again using my Rolleiflex camera for the sake of continuity with the other sets of this assignment. I decided to use Fuji Provia slide film in order to obtain as clear scans as possible and also because I thought the muted tones of Provia would be more suitable than more saturated colours of a negative film. I was tempted to use black and white film, but I decided upon colour in order to capture accurately how it is seen by visitors and residents. In hindsight I think I should have used faster colour negative film as the Provia resulted in a lot of blocked shadows and blown highlights.

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I shot a lot of images at the Barbican so deciding upon three or four was difficult. The image above shows the harshness of the concrete structure contrasting with the natural colour of the flower beds laid out by the residents. The image gives a strong sense of an overpowering urban environment, but perhaps in defiance of this the residents seek to create their own space on the balconies of their flats.

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It is easy to imagine that growing flowers in an environment dominated by concrete gives residents a sense of ownership over the space. I shot the above image looking down onto an underground car park beneath the estate. I did not expect to see signs of residence when looking down upon three subterranean levels of concrete.

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Despite the signs of residence and community on the estate, there were points where I was reminded of its location within a busy part of London. The above image shows part of the complex which is given over to offices and the performing arts centre. The bike path was busy and full of commuters whilst I was walking around, travelling between the estate’s offices, flats and nearby tube station.

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The final shot shows an architects’ office with people busy at work. This demonstrates one of the estate’s contemporary uses alongside its original function as a residence for working class Londoners. It’s success as a space seems to be rooted in its continued occupancy by a community of residents who value the flats they reside in, its use as a performing arts centre (one of the largest in Europe) and its occupancy by private firms such as the architects’ office. This set therefore accurately shows the complex’s various functions and how the estate continues to successfully function despite the controversy and divided opinion over its aesthetic and design.

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 5)

Assignment three: buildings in use (set 4)

For the fourth set of images I focused on a fairground in Coney Island whilst on a trip to New York. This location is quite a loose interpretation of ‘building’, being a collection of temporary structures in use and of course mostly outdoors. However I thought it would be an interesting and challenging place to photograph, and could make for some great images. I chose to shoot at night with 120 colour negative film loaded into my Rolleiflex. I thought shooting long exposures would be an engaging approach in showing how the space and structures are used. Colour negative film is very good for long exposures due to its wide latitude and natural colour reproduction. I had to time my shutter speeds carefully to compensate for reciprocity failure, therefore I checked the Kodak Portra 400 reciprocity charts and made a note of the data before going out to shoot.

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The first image shows a busy area of the fairground and some of the temporary structures. The long exposure works well here as the group of people walking past the stall on the left is blurred out enough to remove focus away from the people. Instead the viewer is left to observe the structures in the frame. The bright lights, garish decor and temporary structures show us the nature of the space and its use.

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The second image shows the entrance to the fairground. I chose a slightly faster shutter speed here to capture some of the people in the frame. The structure on the right is quite obviously a ticket office and I thought retaining sharpness in the human subjects would be useful in showing the function of the building.

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The image above shows a ferris wheel. I chose a much longer shutter speed for this subject as I wanted to capture the flow and movement of the structure. Whilst the resulting image is quite busy with a lot of elements I liked the addition of the family on the left who remained still long enough to appear sharp in the final image. I was quite pleased with the final images and although it was an experimental approach, I thought the results were effective in showing the use of the temporary structures within the fairground.

Assignment three: buildings in use (set 4)

Exercise: Exploring function

For the first exercise of Part 3 of the course, I will be using my images from Danwon High School. I approached this shoot with this module in mind, and this fits into the first exercise brief nicely.

I had previously photographed the interview of two fathers whose children had perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, and this project followed on from the interview. Myself and one more photographer were permitted access to the school to shoot the classrooms of the students who were lost last year. Most of the 2nd Grade perished in the disaster and many of the classrooms sat completely empty of students and teachers for the remainder of the year.

The focus of my images was to be the classroom space itself, the school the students spent so much of their time learning and growing into young adults. An empty school is slightly eerie but knowing why these classrooms stood empty was harrowing and shocking. I aimed to get across the design of the space and how it is intended to be used. I found the functionality of the classroom – empty chairs and desks, unused books, lockers with students names on – takes on a new, special significance when set in the context of the terrible events of last year, and my images convey something of this meaning to the viewer.

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See the project write up here:

william513082a.prosite.com/395493/5935459/gallery/danwon-…

And in Photographers in Korea magazine:

www.madeinkorea.photography/photo-essays/sewol-a-tribute/

Exercise: Exploring function

Assignment 2: A public event

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There has been quite a lengthy gap between shooting the photos for this assignment and writing my reflection – a gap that I hadn’t planned but I’ve been happy with the time for reflection. I shot the “activity” itself two months ago in Korea, and I have been thinking over my choice of subject matter carefully.

Myself and another photographer had been asked to shoot an interview of families of the victims of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in Korea, a tragedy that saw the loss of 300 people including over 200 school children. I shot the interview of two of the fathers of children lost in the disaster, who have been protesting since last year against the government’s handling of the accident and what they see as cover ups by the those at the top. The interview took place in Gwanghwamun square in the centre of Seoul, in close proximity to many government offices and not far from the President’s house.

I went into the shoot with some nerves as I realised the sensitive nature of the event and the fact that I may not have much time to get my shots. I was also aware that I may not have much control therefore I went in aiming to capture shots documenting the interview rather than attempting to intervene and pose the subjects. This was also in line with the requirements for Assignment two, so I looked for the “moments” that told the story and explained the event.

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The interview started off quite tense for all parties, the interviewer was not a Korean speaker and the fathers could not speak English so there was a translator at the ready. I noticed immediately how tired the fathers looked and they both talked quietly and softly in response to the first set of questions. 

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The father above was much more animated and you could clearly see that he spoke for the pair as he was willing to give longer answers and warmed up to the interview much faster than the other.

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The father above was more pensive and reserved and you could see the sense of hopelessness and desperation etched into his face over the state of the protest. It is worth noting that these two men (along with many other families of the victims of the sinking) have been living in the square for the entire time since the sinking. At the time of the interview this was 10 months. They sleep in tents in Gwanghwamun square, wash in subway station toilets, and refuse to give up their vigil until they have received a satisfactory explanation of what happened to their children.

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As the interview wore on, I noticed the other father started to warm up to the questions and gave an extremely vivid and heartfelt account of the day he went to pick up his son’s body and went into the public mortuary to identify him for the police. As he gave this account the translator (see photo above) looked incredibly moved and struggled with the rest of the translation for the questions.

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As the interview wrapped up we thanked the fathers who thanked us in turn and asked for our future support for the Sewol parents’ cause. We walked outside with the fathers who retreated to their tent for some lunch and we melted back into the busy Seoul crowds. The shot above shows a part of Gwanghwamun square, the ribbons tied to the benches are in support of the Sewol parents protest.

Overall it was a difficult event to shoot and I was happy with the final set of images. I shot both digital and film shots, but once again found the frames from the roll I shot on the day better captured the intensely personal moments of the interview. If I was to shoot it again I would approach with perhaps a different aim in mind, focusing not just on straight portraits of the subjects but perhaps aim to capture different gestures, a range of expressions, or focusing on different body parts such as hands or the back of the head. Not being able to control the shoot was a strange scenario for myself as I have had little experience of documenting events and journalistic scenarios such as magazine interviews. Some control over the shoot would have been welcome and I would have liked to set up portraits of the fathers rather than shooting as they talked, but for the shots I did get I was pleased with the consistency, and the fact it showed a few personal moments from a difficult interview.

Assignment 2: A public event