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.

 

 

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* 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.

 

 

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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.

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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

Assignment Five Research: Thamesmead

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.

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Assignment Five Research: Thamesmead

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