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

Cities on the Edge: Sandy Volz

Introduction

As part of the “Cities on the Edge” exhibition, designed to contrast various European port cities with Liverpool, Bremen based photographer Sandy Volz was tasked with contributing a set of images. In two cities struggling from declining commercial spheres and hard economic times, Volz chose to focus on photographing the interiors of pubs. Both Bremen and Liverpool have a long tradition of pub culture and so Volz contrasted the interior design of various establishments in both cities.

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The set is a 20 image series that utilises the 35mm aspect ratio with a portrait orientation. Shot in colour with what looks like a standard focal length, Volz focuses the attention of the camera onto the design of the space and the wall decorations. Volz states in the artist statement that the “individual aspects of these pubs’ interior styles are analysed as social and cultural signifiers” (Volz, 2008). In other words Volz reduces the elements of the frame to symbolic devices for the viewer to read  – for instance the viewer could take the Beatles memorabilia as a cultural “signifier” that gives away the pub’s location. Likewise the German flags decorating the walls of the establishment are an obvious sign of location.

Another interesting aspect the photographer touches on is the idea of the pub as “places where the private and public spheres overlap” (Volz, 2008). The interior design of the pubs appears to blend the conventional design of public spaces to that of a private home – mixing the domestic with the commercial. Each pub appears to be well used, the furniture old and worn out in places, the decorations and design also somewhat dated (for 2008). The viewer could perhaps take this as a sign of the economic hardships faced by the respective cities, and perhaps hints at the age and demographic of the ownership in each place.

Conclusions

Similar to Taptik’s series examined in the previous post, the sense of uniformity is a key aspect to Volz’s set. The choice of subject is also very interesting, especially the aspects of the pub the photographer chose to focus on. Volz’s decision to not include human subjects in the frame perhaps gives the viewer a better understanding of the social, cultural and economic context of the establishments.

This is certainly a creative approach that prompts the viewer to question and deduce where each establishment is located. Indeed it is hard to guess the location of some especially those lacking wall decorations. Perhaps the photographer aimed to diffuse the national boundaries that separate the two cities, and to reveal the common heritage and traditions of the communities within Bremen and Liverpool.

When researching and defining the parameters for the assignment five brief, it would be useful to consider the nature of the locations I will be photographing carefully. It would also be helpful to examine what each element brings to the frame, what they could signify to the viewer and how they might be interpreted. Volz successfully analysed each scene and chose to include elements that indicated aspects such as cultural and economic contexts. This in concert with the uniformity of the presentation creates a striking set of images that are somewhat different but no less powerful than others from the “Cities on the Edge” exhibit.

See the full 20 image set on Sandy Volz’s website:

http://www.sandyvolz.com/pages/work/1/2/

Cities on the Edge: Sandy Volz