8 days in Iceland, summer 2017… Snaefelsnes peninsula, Reykjanes, Reykjavik area
8 days in Iceland, summer 2017… Snaefelsnes peninsula, Reykjanes, Reykjavik area
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.
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).
Bernd 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’.
Andreas 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.
Edward 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.
Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson 2004
In 1975 an important exhibition called ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ appeared. In retrospective art criticism, this exhibition is ascribed as initiating a turning point in the history of photography, particularly as it was in some ways the antithesis of traditional portrayals of landscape. Photographers Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke were commissioned to reimagine ‘the genres of topographical and architectural photography with the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry’. (Cotton, P.83). In some ways the most significant aspect of the exhibition was that these social and political agents were for the first time considered on the art gallery wall. Within this context ‘what at the time were seen as individual styles” were abandoned in favour of a detached objective style, somewhat similar in style to John Davies (see previous post) but greater in their rejection of the idealised interpretation of landscape.
At the time the exhibition was not well received by an audience that was used to the traditional landscape photography of the time. The exhibition presented 168 black and white prints of suburbia, industrial warehouses, city centres, wastelands and even seemingly banal car parks. I have selected a couple of photographs (see below) by Frank Gohlke and Lewis Baltz that are good examples of the artists presenting the aesthetic beauty of the banal, whilst revealing interesting narratives below the strict formalism in each photo. While the ‘New Topographics’ was disparaged at the time, it was crucial in opening up new opportunities for later artists. A good example of this Catherine Opie who published series called ‘Masterplan’ and ‘Mini-malls’, the inspiration for which she attributes back to the original 1975 exhibition while crafting her own interpretation of the suburbanised landscape. An example of her work is posted below as is an interesting video I came across online in which she talks about the representation of the ‘Man-Altered Landscape’ in photography.
Frank Gohlke; Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas; 1975; Gelatin silver print, 1996; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Lewis Baltz; The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Element No. 5; California, 1977
Catherine Opie; Untitled #2 from ‘Mini Mall’ series; Iris Print, 1997
The link to the interview with Catherine Opie can be found here.
The ‘New Topographics’ was certainly a revolutionary exhibit at the time, and it’s influence on practising artist up to the present day is clear to see. The idea of finding beauty in the banal and challenging the audience to look closely for historical narrative is something that will inform research for the final assignment. Depth and experimenting with formalised composition is something that I will be challenging myself to practice in an observational approach.
Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom 2004; New edition
Catherine Opie; Catherine Opie on New Topographics; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 2009; Youtube video
As part of the post-assignment reflection, I reworked the images I shot for the assignment into a new series. One of the suggestions my tutor made for future assignments is reviewing how images work together in a set, as well as how things like format and aspect ratio can affect this.
I chose the 11 images below as I think they present a set of images that flow better together than the set I submitted. One of my tutor’s points was that the landscape images appear to have stronger compositions – in hindsight, the stronger images do appear to be the landscape shots as they make better use of their elements, and it might have been preferable to submit shots in the same format to maintain uniformity within the set. However it must be said this is not something to be assumed with every set of images, but keeping the same format is worth considering for future projects. See the reworked set of images below.
Looking ahead to the final assignment, one of the underlying points from my tutor’s feedback is to play to my strengths. With that in mind I will most likely be composing with the landscape format, unless I go for square crop images. Also points to takeaway from this and put into the process for the next assignment as I start my research are:
I expect my research for the final assignment to continue for at least the next month or so. I will post the results of my research on here as I go along, along with the results of my research from reading the course books and online materials.
The results of my second photo walk in Brixton. Continuing with the “laneur” approach of the previous walk, I shot to gain a greater visual variety and with more focus on the variety of gentrification in the Brixton area.
The above image was taken in the Brixton arches where a variety of small businesses continue to run. There are proposals to refurbish the arches by network rail, and there are fears from the proprietors that they will be forced to move away. The image itself is a well executed shot, I liked the composition which shows the small retail business behind the man in the foreground, as well as the arches in the background.
The following image shows “Pop Brixton”, which contains restaurants in restored shipping containers. Whilst it is sign of Brixton’s ‘regeneration’, it is different in that it attempts to foster a community feeling by encouraging local tenants to get involved in start-ups. This will be a location that I will return to, perhaps getting some photos of the tenants and the businesses themselves. It could be an interesting point in the narrative perhaps, showing regeneration that tries to be a positive force in the community it serves.
The proceeding three images attempt to employ some of the visual approaches specified by the assignment brief. These demonstrate the ‘single figure small’ approach – keeping the distant figure anonymous and experimenting with balance by placing the figure at different points within the frame. I feel the second images works very well, there is a strong sense of movement conveyed to the viewer by the moving figure. I’m not convinced that any of these add anything to the narrative or the brief I am trying to fulfil. It would be interesting to get a similar vantage point overlooking the arches, the market on Electric Avenue or overlooking a busy part of Brixton.
The next two images attempt to show some more of the arches – perhaps businesses that have been in Brixton for much longer than areas like Pop Brixton or the rejuvenated Brixton Village. The composition is good on both, but is perhaps lacking in visual variety and it is difficult to see where they would fit into the narrative. I will also return to the market next time to document some more of the businesses and local people.
The image above is from within the rejuvenated Brixton Village, once a local fruit and veg market but now hosting a huge array of cafes, restaurants and bars. The epitome of this change I thought was encapsulated by the appearance of the French champagne bar (right opposite one of the fruit and veg sellers still clinging on). I thought a diptych or sequencing this image with the “I miss my Brixton” graffiti photo I shot on the previous post would be an interesting narrative.
Photographing some of the residential areas around the main retail and going out areas has also been an idea. Photographing some of the estates under threat of demolition – for example Loughborough Park where the Guiness Trust Housing Association is located – could be another interesting angle to introduce to the narrative. Contrasting this with recent developments containing less affordable housing could also make for an interesting contrast.
The final image in this set was taken on the Electric Avenue. I haven’t really photographed much around here so I will return again and try out some new angle perhaps focusing on the local businesses. The shot above attempts to convey some of the chaos of the street, whilst also experimenting with balance in the frame. I felt this could have been stronger without the woman encroaching on the left, but otherwise the composition feels safe despite the messy street.
I felt I was more successful in documenting the variety of gentrification going on in Brixton, and I think a couple of further ventures experimenting with composition and visual variety will produce a great workflow to select the final 12 images from. The locations I will return to (and visit for the first time) include:
Shooting this assignment on digital feels like the right choice, considering the approach I have taken to documenting the Brixton area over a few visits rather than one or two. The flexibility of a zoom lens (28-70mm) with a high performing ISO camera is also very convenient. I will stick with the traditional 35mm aspect ratio, and perhaps take full advantage of the ISO flexibility by shooting a few shots of the area at night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.