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.

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Cities on the Edge: John Davies

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

Cities on the Edge: Ali Taptik

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Introduction

The “Cities on the Edge” series was commissioned by Liverpool Culture Company on the theme of people and place in Liverpool. A group of photographers based in European port cities including Istanbul, Marseilles and Bremen were tasked to produce a set of images that explored connections between these environments. The exhibition was curated by the British photographer John Davies, whose contribution to the exhibit and prior work I will be exploring in a subsequent post. This post will focus on the work of Istanbul based photographer, Ali Taptik, whose contribution to the exhibit caught my attention immediately.

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Taptik’s commissioned work for the exhibit is a series of striking portraits taken in the host city Liverpool and in Taptik’s home city Istanbul. My initial impression of the set is how the photographer utilises a wide angle and deep depth of field to capture the surrounding environment of his subjects. From this choice of technique it is palpable Taptik intends to show the viewer the relationship between the subject and their surroundings.

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Taptik alternates between showing us glimpses of life in Liverpool and Istanbul, and his photos tell us something of the circumstances in which his subjects live. The photos of Liverpool show us ageing, decrepit terraces while in Istanbul we see a variety of environments with clear signs of decay and poverty. In all the images the subjects occupy the centre of the frame, and other elements within the frame hint at a narrative concerning their relationship with the environment they inhabit. The image from Istanbul above shows us a boy in dirty clothes with a herd of sheep behind him. From this the viewer could ask questions about the circumstances of the boy – is he looking after the sheep? What are they doing in the middle of a built up area?

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Likewise with the above image from Liverpool, Taptik positions his subject in the centre of the frame and other elements (the dog, the road, the physical appearance of the subject) help to create a visual narrative. Also apparent with this image and with others in the set is Taptik’s post processing. There is a latent vignette placed in the corners of the frame which helps to divert the viewer’s attention to the subject. This suggests that while Taptik wishes to show the surrounding environments his subjects inhabit, he does not wish us to be distracted by these surroundings. It is the relationship between the subject and their environments Taptik intends for us to focus on.

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I selected the image above as it stands out somewhat in terms of composition and environment. The subject is off centre and positioned in front of a collection of chairs dumped on the street. Again an interesting narrative is suggested by the elements Taptik chose to incorporate in the frame – the viewer again asks questions about the subject’s relationship with the surroundings.

Conclusions

Taptik’s series is a powerful set of photos of people and their surroundings in Istanbul and Liverpool. I think the photographer is successful in showing a connection between the environments he captures in the two cities. In both locations we see urban decay and industrial decline evident in the environments of his subjects. There is a suggestion that the subjects don’t quite fit their environment, particular the shot of the boy with the sheep, and also the girl on the street full of decrepit and boarded up houses. This is the connection perhaps – that in both cities, Liverpool and Istanbul, people exist who struggle to fit in and have become somewhat marginalised by the decline and deprivation of the environments they inhabit.

One point to takeaway from this set is how Taptik employs a consistent visual style – his subjects appear dead centre in the frame (for the most part), the depth of field shows all the detail surrounding the subjects, and the colour and aspect ratio also help to nurture this sense of uniformity. Taptik also does not allow the the background to dominate his subjects; his subjects are positioned against background colours that contrast to the colour of their clothes. He reveals small details that do not overshadow the subject, but the details are significant enough to hint at the nature of the subject’s relationship with their surroundings. It is maintaining this balance along with a uniform visual style that has allowed Taptik to create a strong set of environmental portraits.

See the full set on Taptik’s website:

http://www.alitaptik.com/index.php?/commissions/cities-on-the-edge/

Cities on the Edge: Ali Taptik