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.

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-2

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-3

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-4

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-7

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-5

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-6

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-12

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-9

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-10

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-11

 

 

ThamesmeadDigitalFinal-8

 

* 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.

Prints-3

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

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.

Barbican-3 Barbican1

Barbican-5 Barbican-7Barbican-2  Barbican-6

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.

ConeyIsland-2 ConeyIsland-3 ConeyIsland-4 ConeyIsland

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.

Merrywalks-2

Merrywalks-3

Merrywalks

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.

stroudmills-2 stroudmills-3 stroudmills-4 stroudmills

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 2)

Mill3

For the second set of images for Assignment three, I selected an old mill complex in Gloucestershire. I was drawn to this location by the juxtaposition of two functions, the old function of the building as a mill and its new function as a modern office space. I chose to shoot with colour negative film on my Rolleiflex to retain continuity with the rest of the assignment and also for the natural colour reproduction of Kodak Portra.

Mill1

The above two images show the building in its previous function during the early 20th century as a mill. The Stroud area around the Severn-Thames canal was well known for its mills and the textile industry, and this heritage is apparent thanks to the preservation and gentrification of the old industrial area around the canal. The mill pond above, and the old Victorian railway arches which fly over the mill complex show the old function of the building as a thriving industrial centre in the area. The complex no doubt employed hundreds of people from the surrounding district, mainly working class and possibly quite poor.

Mill4

The final two images attempt to show the building in its contemporary function. The image below shows half of the building’s use as a bike hire shop. The image above provides a neat juxtaposition between the modern sports car and the the complex’s old function. The sports car hints at the demographic working in the mill (now converted to offices) and this contrasts tellingly between the demographic of the building’s workers when it was used as a mill.

Mill2

Assignment three: Buildings in use (Set 2)

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 1)

BritishLibrary1Provisional

The first space I chose to focus on for assignment three was the British Library building in London. The library was built in the early 1970s and from the outside looks a fairly unremarkable architectural product of that era. I chose to use my digital camera with a 28-70mm zoom lens to retain some versatility towards shooting the space. I was also apprehensive about not having enough available light to shoot with so wanted a high ISO performing camera.

BritishLibrary2Provisional

The first photo above demonstrates a clear function – that the interior is set up primarily as a workspace. There are books and reference collections but upon entering the building the most striking feature is the organisation of the space into areas for work. There are alcoves and desks which are well lit for study, and the open area in the foyer is very well lit by natural light. When photographing the main foyer, I set out to show how the use of natural light, the floor tiling and the white walls give it a fresh and open feel – an inviting area to study in. All the images aim to show people using the space in the function it was designed for.

BritishLibrary3Provisional

The final image above looks into the building from a different vantage point. The camera looks away from the natural light of the main foyer and into the interior. This space has a very different feel, for example the alcoves and desks are artificially lit. Despite the absence of natural light, the artificial lighting is pleasant and ideally suited for study. The desks are positioned away from the main walkways to minimise distraction for those at study. This set shows both sides of the interior of the library and successfully shows how the space is organised into a functioning workspace.

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 1)

Exercise: The User’s Viewpoint (Part 1: Train commuter)

Fromthetrain1

For this exercise I selected two closely related locations but with different functions. As I worked on this exercise I made the conscious decision to split the exercise into two separate posts. This first part is from the point of view of a commuter on a train leaving central London. I attempted to capture the user’s view as much as possible and from a few different angles to demonstrate the function of the space. I was inspired by Tom Wood’s 20 year series on bus commuters during the 1980s and 1990s (see my last blog post), and I attempted to employ some of his creative approaches towards composition and choice of subject. I was also aware that I was not going to be able to touch on the same social commentary as he did.

Fromthetrain2

Of course we know that a commuter sat on a train is likely to be sat down and they are unlikely to be standing up much. When they are not sleeping or engaged in some over distraction they are going to be looking out the window. It is these views I was most concerned with when selecting my subjects.

Fromthetrain3

The first three images I chose to present are from the window of the moving carriage as it was approaching a station. I pre-selected the settings (a fast shutter speed, small aperture and high ISO to compensate) and allowed the autofocus to focus for me. Finding subjects was a lot to do with luck and waiting for the right moment, things you need to have when shooting on any street, but on a moving train the decision to shoot has to be made much faster. The results were somewhat inconsistent, but I felt I captured some interesting moments on the station platform. Some of my subjects were in clear anticipation of boarding the train while others were too deep in conversation to notice. Most importantly it is fairly apparent to the viewer that the images are shot through glass and possibly from a moving vehicle as the subjects are not sharp and appear to be moving. The location is clearly a station as well. These shots therefore hint at the function of the space the user is sitting in, and how they passively interact with the space around them.

Fromthetrain4

For the next two images I opted for a slightly different composition. This time the train had stopped and passengers had alighted. This is apparent from the fact that they appear to be walking away from the train and are carrying bags, suggesting they have finished using the space. From these shots the viewer could assume the space is some kind of public transport (due to the suitcases and bags). In terms of framing, I chose to focus on the subjects’ limbs and bags to help better convey the functionality of the space and I left in some of the window frame to help the viewer.

Fromthetrain5

The image below was also chosen to better convey the space. The viewer can see upright seats and a man leaning forward in the row in front of the user. From this it could also be deduced as the type of space you would find on public transport, hinted at from the design of the seats and close proximity of the layout.

Fromthetrain6

The final three images in the set focus back on the exterior landscape. I noticed in Tom Wood’s “Bus Odyssey” series that he not only focused on the interior of the space but also the exterior landscape. In the first few images I had focused on the exterior, but for the final three images I chose to focus on non-human elements. We can see (in order) a lamp post with a sign on, telephone wires and a pylon. Each of the elements is vignetted – I created this effect by using the seat in front and the window frame. I felt this is a view typical to someone travelling in a moving vehicle, particularly on a train or bus. The elements also appear slightly blurred and are also things you would often see whilst travelling in the countryside.

Fromthetrain7

Fromthetrain8

Fromthetrain9

This set of images was an attempt to practice a variety of approaches that I had decided upon in my research prior to the exercise. Rather than attempting to present a linear narrative they are ordered in such a way to show my different approaches in fulfilment of the brief. I enjoyed researching and shooting for the exercise, and I was pleased with the creativity evident in the results.

Exercise: The User’s Viewpoint (Part 1: Train commuter)