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-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.

 

 

Assignment 5: People and place on assignment

A Note on ‘Deadpan’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

References

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

 

A Note on ‘Deadpan’

John Davies ‘The British Landscape 1979-2009’

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

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

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

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

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

See full series on John Davies’ website.

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

 

Photo and material Copyright © John Davies 1976 – 2010

John Davies ‘The British Landscape 1979-2009’

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

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.

Johndaviesliverpool

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

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

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

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

Cities on the Edge: John Davies

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)