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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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

Assignment Five Research: Thamesmead

Following on from my recent research in Poplar, I have been shooting in the Thamesmead area of south east London. The area is notable for hosting a vast 1960s housing estate – broken up into ‘sub-estates’ – built in the modernist/cubist style popular amongst architects and urban planners of the era (particularly those who worked for the Greater London Council). The estate is in diverging states of disrepair and upkeep, many of the properties are now privately owned and some parts have been demolished to make way for a long-term regeneration plan.

My shots are focused on the elevated ‘streets’ that dominate the estate. My original intention with the images was to focus on the facades of the housing, the textures, geometric shapes, the colours, and also the inevitable signs of decay. As I walked through the labyrinth of the ‘street’ and looked for these elements, I began to notice the shortcomings of the design. In many places it felt very dark despite it being the middle of the afternoon, there was flooding everywhere after heavy rain, and there were very few communal areas such as gardens, benches or even an area that felt welcoming or inviting.

As well as showing the material facade of the building, my images also show how a space can be poorly designed. The estate is essential a series of empty spaces, there is no impression of community from an outsider’s perspective. The space does not seem to have been designed with the intention of cultivating a community. It is inviting to theorise why the planners selected this design for such a massive estate, and if I decide to proceed with this idea and image set for my final submission I shall be providing more context to the political and social forces that created the Thamesmead estate.

Nevertheless, what is interesting is that there are still signs of individualisation within the ‘streets’, and that even within a design that appears to reject the idea of community, residents can provide a more welcoming space simply by painting a wall or by placing a few plants outside the front door. I will continue reflecting on these images whilst waiting for my film scans to return from the lab.

ThamesmeadDigital

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Assignment Five Research: Thamesmead

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)

RobinHoodGardens67aRobinHoodGardens67cRobinHoodGardens67dRobinHoodGardens67eRobinHoodGardens67fRobinHoodGardens67gRobinHoodGardens67hRobinHoodGardens67iRobinHoodGardens67jRobinHoodGardens67kRobinHoodGardens67l

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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RHGPanF10

 

Assignment five research: Poplar

Assignment Four: Reflection

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.

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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:

  • continue with the observational ‘flaneur’ approach
  • consider printing images (even cheap inkjet prints) when considering what to include in a final set
  • make the brief for the final assignment fit the images, not the other way around
  • consider using a tripod when composing landscapes
  • refine composition and think carefully about how the elements fit together within the frame

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.

Assignment Four: Reflection

Part Four Research: Brixton (2)

Introduction

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.

Brixton2-2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Brixton2-10

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.

Brixton2-11

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.

Brixton2-12

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.

Conclusions

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:

  • Pop Brixton
  • Electric Avenue
  • The Arches
  • Brixton Village
  • Loughborough Park (and the Guinness Trust)

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.

Part Four Research: Brixton (2)