Assignment Five Research: Robin Hood Gardens

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)

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Assignment Five Research: Robin Hood Gardens

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

A Note on ‘Deadpan’

As a follow up to the previous post on the ‘New Topographics’, my reading has led me to explore the ideas of ‘deadpan’ in photography. Although this is a term thrown around quite loosely for a wide variety of work, I would like to focus on certain artists who have attracted the moniker.

In her book ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Charlotte Cotton focuses on ‘deadpan’ and examines a fascinating series of images. One immediate reaction of the viewer is to perceive an emotional detachment on the part of the photographers – it is as if they want to convey to their audience an objective reality, devoid of the photographer’s personal interpretation. Cotton maintains that ‘the adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective’ (Cotton, P.81). In other words, interpreting the subjects and understanding meaning is left to the audience and ‘our sense of what the photographers’ emotions might be is not the obvious guide to understanding the meaning of the images’ (Cotton, P.81).

Perhaps one of the more interesting facts Cotton touches on is what the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic has done for photography within the art world. It can perhaps be traced back to the emergence of the Bernd Becher as an artist and those that studied under his tutelage:

‘The “deadpan aesthetic” we see today is often characterised as “Germanic”. This moniker refers not only to the nationality of many of the key figures but also to the fact that a significant number were educated, under the tutelage of Bernd Becher, at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany.’ (Cotton, P.82)

This school was the catalyst that broke photography education and learning away from the emphasis on it as a vocational and professional pursuit – for example with photojournalism or commercial photography – to that of ‘artistically led pictures’. The Bechers’ collaborative series of black and white photos of German industrial architecture, obsessive in its formalism and rigorous in its approach, employed large format cameras and plate negatives on which were captured industrial buildings such as cooling towers (see below).

becherstowersBernd and Hilla Becher; study of concrete cooling towers; 1972

 

Each of the towers ‘… is photographed from the same perspective, notes on each are taken, and a typology is systematically created.’ (Cotton, P.83) The Bechers photographed the industrial landscapes of Germany and Europe at a time when it was disappearing as societies of western Europe shifted to a post-industrial world.

The influence of the Bechers’ work can be seen on their students as well, particularly with that of Andreas Gursky. He works on a large scale, using large format cameras for maximum clarity and digital post-production to refine, and exhibits hard-hitting prints that are often up to 2 metres high and 5 metres wide. What is quite unique about Gursky however is that he often creates images that are not ‘primarily contingent on being viewed as part of a series’ (Cotton, P.83). He works more like a painter than a photographer, refining a single work rather than hingeing on a set of images. His signature high vantage points leaving the viewer feeling remote from the subjects (see below), typical of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’.

Gursky stockAndreas Gursky; Chicago, Board of Trade II; 1999 

 

In the same vain as Gurksy and the Bechers, Ed Burtynsky’s work focuses on the man-made landscape. His 12-year work on the topography of oil, perhaps best evidenced by the image below of the Californian oilfield. Cotton makes an intriguing observation concerning Burtynsky’s work:

‘While social, political, and ecological issues are embedded into his subjects, they are visualised as objective evidence of the consequences of contemporary life.’ (Cotton, P.86)

Cotton highlights that the underpinning principle of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ is that the photographer is relaying information impartially, despite what the viewer may interpret about the artist’s intention.

burtynskyEdward Burtynsky; Oil Fields #13, Taft, California; USA 2002 © Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy of Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

 

Consequently the deadpan photographer brings personal politics into play by selecting the subject matter and ‘anticipating the viewer’s reaction to it” (Cotton, P.86) rather than through any explicit political statement through style or text.

The deadpan aesthetic is a huge field and there are a lot of artists with a wide range of subject matter. However looking at these three photographers work – quite similar in subject matter – has been fruitful in terms of informing my understanding of the ideas behind deadpan and the context artists such as Andreas Gursky learned their craft in.

 

References

Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson 2004

 

A Note on ‘Deadpan’

John Davies ‘The British Landscape 1979-2009’

This post will continue my examination of Davies’ work, particularly honing in on his long-term series ‘The British Landscape’, shot over a period of 30 years starting in the late 1970s.

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Davies’ series shows the topography of the British Isles as a dynamic landscape in a constant state of change. His images range from conventional – but masterful in execution – images of the Lake District and Isle of Skye, to panoramas of the post-industrial landscape in the north of England. The above shot of the Stockport viaduct (built 1839) is somewhat typical of the series in showing the diverse layers of the landscape in this area of the canal. The reflections in the water show widely diverging architecture, the columns of the viaduct, the linear building of the 1970s tower block and the shadows of the Victorian warehouses on either bank.

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The images divulge a sense of calm amid the changing post-industrial landscapes, perhaps best exemplified by the photograph above of the bowling greens. The choice to work in black and white also lends the series a sense of permanence, in conflict with the signs of inevitable change on view.

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Perhaps the signature image in the series is the one shown above of the Agecroft Power Station in Salford. The viewer can discern a football pitch below the towering chimneys of the power station, and on the pitch humans are reduced to mere specks. This shows something of manmade scale and the human figure, and how a landscape can be shaped by human endeavour – in this image by both leisure and the need for energy. Despite the narratives that his images convey to the viewer, Davies retains a deadpan detachment in his images in a style that is reminiscent of the ‘New Topographics’. Davies states that he is not interested in ‘providing vehicles for escape but in delivering a highly crafted detailed image conveying a sense of reality’ (Davies, 2011).

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What is also interesting about the series is Davies’ signature composition from elevated positions, an approach he applies to both cityscapes (as above of New Street Station) and the rural-industrial landscape. What is interesting about the images is how they show landscapes that are neither wholly urban or rural, and are tainted by the signs of change that are inevitable in a post-industrial society.

See full series on John Davies’ website.

http://www.johndavies.uk.com/

 

Photo and material Copyright © John Davies 1976 – 2010

John Davies ‘The British Landscape 1979-2009’

Cities on the Edge: John Davies

I have recently become interested in the work of John Davies, which sparked my research into the Cities on the Edge exhibition. Davies curated the exhibit and his own contribution to the exhibition is worth some discussion along with my own reflections as I embark on the research for the final assignment.

Davies’ style is recognisable and quite unique in its approach to capturing the urban landscape. His long term project ‘The British Landscape’ aims to show the upheavals Britain has undergone from a highly industrialised society to a post industrial society. The project focuses on the industrial heartlands of the country. His way of portraying these landscapes is subtle and understated, he states that he aims to “avoid imposing my own view of urban change” (Davies, 2012) and his visual style is distinguished by its almost panoramic views of the British landscape.

Frustratingly I found it quite difficult to source any images Davies contributed to the exhibition (I did not resort to finding a copy of the book). I did find one image of what I am assuming is Ropewalks in Liverpool, one of the areas Davies chose to document. The photo is somewhat typical of Davies’ style, especially in terms of finding a high vantage point to give the viewer a sense of the layout of the urban landscape. This choice of composition is important in giving the viewer a different way of looking at a public area, and one that most people would not get to see. Whilst this works very well with Davies’ images of very well known areas of Britain (New Street Station, Edgware Road, Elephant and Castle etc.) it is perhaps not as integral to this particular image. Even so it is important in understanding the context of the exhibit and many of those who would viewed it (in Liverpool) would perhaps be familiar with the Ropewalks area. Giving us these unusual and ‘birds eye’ style vantage points allow us to consider urban landscapes we are familiar with in a different way.

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The image itself is useful in showing the viewer how an urban landscape can change. We can see evidence of industrial and economic decline in the form of the run down warehouses in the background and the gutted Victorian house. The builder (?) in the florescent jacket and the development on the left hand side could perhaps be considered as agents of change. The typical working class pub on the right hand side is evidence of how some aspects of a city can be constant and show how some social mores are maintained through the generations, even in the face of industrial decline and social upheaval.

Whilst this image is a useful one to analyse and compare with other contributors to the exhibit, it is perhaps only a taster. I will try and source the rest of his images and do another post that examines the rest of his commission in the near future, and perhaps also look at Davies’ portfolio in greater depth. However, taking into account my research into the work of Taptik and Volz for the Cities on the Edge exhibit, I have outlined some points to be mindful of as I conduct the visual research for the final assignment:

  • Over the last two assignments, the focus of my photography has shifted heavily towards documenting the urban landscape. I will therefore be looking at how I can channel this focus towards a well-considered commercial or professional brief that examines an aspect of the urban landscape, considering carefully the nature of the client.
  • I will also need to decide whether I will include human subjects in my final images, and what sort of visual style I will be going for. Consulting with my tutor and gauging what the expectations are from the examiner will be vital in my final decision. Considerations about technique can also be factored into this.
  • Finally it is worth noting here some inspirations or ideas I have had concerning the final assignment. I have noted on John Davies’ website commissions (the ‘monographs’) that range from sets about French motorways (‘Autoroute A26’) to sets covering major construction projects (‘Phase 11’). Deciding upon a brief that fits similar parameters could make for an interesting project, however I will need to be mindful of time and logistical constraints.

Examining the Cities on the Edge project has been a worthwhile process and has informed the early stages of my visual research for the final assignment. I will be examining the images I have captured so far in depth and posting them on here as soon as possible, whilst continuing with my research into other artists simultaneously.

Cities on the Edge: John Davies

Exercise: A single figure small

As the brief for this exercise specified, planning to achieve this kind of shot was difficult and I had to wait for the opportunity to appear. Since starting Part Four of the course, I have kept a camera on me more regularly and have taken to working through the exercises in the module simultaneously rather than chronologically. That being said, I did have the opportunity to grab a few shops that utilised the distant figure in the frame. I was particularly pleased with the first example (see below). The figure is distant enough to be anonymous, although the context is clear and there is a clear narrative to the image. The composition is also quite interesting in that the figure is placed off centre and the clear contrast between the white railings in the foreground and the array of greys in the background.

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I concluded the images at the second location (also on a footbridge) are less successful. I aimed for a similar style and angle (black and white + looking through foreground railings) but opted for a slightly different composition.

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Tilting the frame works to some extent by adding a sense of movement to the man walking, introducing some visual tension.

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Whilst compositionally and stylistically the images are interesting, I don’t think they are quite as effective as the first image in fulfilling the brief. Firstly I was perhaps too close to the figure and so the sense of place is lost for the viewer. There is also no clear visual narrative – the viewer is left guessing the nature of the place and how the figure is interacting with it. As an exercise it was interesting to experiment with composition and proximity to the figure, and the conclusions reached from the resulting images are lessons I will take into the upcoming exercises and assignment.

Exercise: A single figure small

A Note on Alexander Gronsky

*This post forms part of my preliminary research for Part Four “People Interacting with Place”.

Linking back to my reflections on my learning experiences from Part Three, I conducted some preliminary research to maintain the momentum gained from assignment three. One of the locations I covered in this assignment to demonstrate the function of buildings in use was a fairground in Coney Island, New York. Although it was a loose interpretation of the assignment brief, I feel I was successful in showing the viewer the function of the space and temporary structures in my images. The use of place for leisure and recreation is a subject that has intrigued me, particularly in light of the brief for the upcoming assignment four.

‘Pastoral’

One photographer I identified as relevant and worthy of discussion is the Russian landscape photographer Alexander Gronsky.

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a) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Pastoral’ (2008-2012) 

Gronsky is a former press photographer who covered events in Russia and the former USSR in the 2000s before moving into advertising and commercial photography for corporations and humanitarian organisations. He has placed more emphasis on personal projects in recent years and conducted a series of exhibitions, published a book and received awards for his work. He is known for his photographs of Russian landscapes, using a Mamiya 6×7 camera with colour film.

One of his series ‘Pastoral” caught my eye immediately (see image above). The series observes Muscovites at leisure around seemingly man-made lakes and industrial wastelands on the edge of Moscow in summer-winter months. What is very striking about the images is how his human subjects make use of a space – neither city nor countryside – not intended for recreational activity. We see people swimming in a river of questionable water quality, people sunbathing among dense entanglements of weeds and thorns, and families playing games next to heaps of sand dug up by industrial diggers. The series has a penchant for the surreal, we glimpse someone shooting an air rifle and someone undressing in some trees. As a kind of backdrop to these leisure activities, which seem to make up the majority of the activity, there is the ever present industrial landscape that overshadows this man-made natural landscape.

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b) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Pastoral’ (2008-2012) 

What this series shows is that recreational activity does not necessarily have to take place in a place intended for leisure. For the Muscovites living on the edge of Moscow, perhaps located a significant distance from the nearest park or unable to afford to travel far, this is the only space they have to make the most of their days off. Although we don’t see the people in his photos up close (often appearing as figures in the distance) we get the impression that the people are enjoying their surroundings. The full set is a long term project that consists of a final 40-50 images and can be found on Gronsky’s website here:

http://alexandergronsky.com/#/portfolio/works/pastoral-2008_2012/26

‘Mountains and Waters’

Linking back to my conclusions from assignment three, another of Gronsky’s projects is also worth looking at. It is interesting to note how he presents his work in the series ‘Mountains and Waters’, a set of images that examines the changing landscapes of China.

Gronskyc) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ (2011) 

What is interesting about the series is the presentation of the works in diptychs, that is two images set beside each other. In the exhibition notes he links the idea behind the series to the word for landscape in Chinese – a compound of two symbols for mountain (山) and water (水). This duality in his presentation is evident in the use of the diptych to exhibit the resulting images. He also links this choice of presentation to Shan Shui painting tradition, where the intention of the artist was not to represent one single place or landscape, but rather to present a ‘metaphor of a human journey through a constant shift between nothingness and form.’ (Gronsky, 2011) It is apparent that although Gronsky presents two images together, there is an element in both that creates a visual narrative (see image above) that unifies and blends the two into something resembling a panoramic landscape photograph (see image below).gronskyd) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ (2011)

While Gronsky was not primarily concerned with leisure or recreational activity in this series, his choice of presentation is something to consider for the future assignments. It is clear that Gronsky thought deeply about his presentation and researched traditional Chinese art and the philosophy behind it. This tradition influenced his choice of presentation, and it works very well in seamlessly contrasting old and new (c) and placing his distant human figures within huge environments that are neither totally man-made nor wholly natural (d). He also cleverly uses the diptych to hint at a story or narrative – has the figure on the boat in (d) become the figure in the smaller boat under the bridge? He also sometimes knits together his panoramas, often loosely as in image (e) as the two images were taken at different times. He is not bothered about disguising this and yet the images feel like they are in perfect harmony.

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e) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ (2011)

What his presentation does is consistently ask questions of the viewer and again, as with the ‘Pastoral’ series, has a penchant for the surreal and the eccentric. The ‘Mountains and Waters’ set is again an extensive series and can be found on Gronsky’s website (follow link below):

http://alexandergronsky.com/#/portfolio/works/mountains-and-waters-2011/3

Reflections

A major point I will consider in future submissions is how my final images are to be presented – should they be presented in the same format? With the same aspect ratio? Should one image be made bigger to emphasise a subject? Could an image work better in a diptych or even in triptych? Or do the images work better in a sequential set?

It is clear that the way in which the photographer presents the final set of images could be considered before even a shot is taken, and in Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ series the presentation was at the heart of the project. Considering whether you would like to present your images sequentially with forms of visual punctuation (such as emphasising one subject over another), or whether you would like to juxtapose your subjects in diptychs can inform the photographer’s approach to a location. This could be described as a very measured approach to photographing a place, and it could be harder to include the spontaneous event or the unexpected. It is certainly an approach I will consider for the upcoming exercises and in my research for assignment four.

A Note on Alexander Gronsky