8 days in Iceland, summer 2017… Snaefelsnes peninsula, Reykjanes, Reykjavik area
8 days in Iceland, summer 2017… Snaefelsnes peninsula, Reykjanes, Reykjavik area
For the final assignment of the course, I decided to investigate one of London’s rapidly changing council estates. I photographed a variety of areas, including estates in Poplar, Ladbroke Grove and Elephant and Castle. My inclination to shoot on these estates – particularly those built in the brutalist/modernist style common during the 1960s – stems from an interest in the historical and social context within which they were constructed, and also from the fact that many (if not all) are on the verge of significant regeneration or demolition. With today’s housing crisis in London and the reluctance of local authorities and the national government to take action against the vast property investment that continues to make home ownership and renting unaffordable, examining the history and ideas behind these huge mid twentieth century estates is, in my view, taking on greater and greater relevance.
Photographing these estates can at times be a sad experience, particularly those that show signs of significant neglect, vandalism and petty crime. However the ideas behind their design were certainly benign – clean, modern and affordable housing for people living in the overcrowded slums of inner London. At some point however, the urban planners appeared to forget they were designing housing for people, and soon many of these estates (despite their acclaimed architectural design) became synonymous with dystopian visions of urban collapse, alienation and crime. What went wrong and what caused this reputation? Was it the design of these estates that doomed many of them?
Initially I considered attempting to knit together images from a variety of estates, however with a 8-12 image brief in mind I decided to focus on one estate. I selected the Thamesmead area in southeast London for a number of reasons. Firstly it forms one of the most extensive estates in the Greater London area, and is therefore one of the best examples of 1960s modernist architecture. Secondly, it is somewhat different in it’s use of water (lakes and canals) and other landscape features. The Greater London Council architect Robert Rigg was inspired by housing complexes in Sweden that believed in the idea that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and crime, particularly among younger residents. Thirdly the area is known for it’s use of elevated walkways and raised ‘streets’ so that most of the residences on the estate occupy the first floor and above. The reason for this was the flooding of the area during the 1953 North Sea flood, and so resulted in quite a uniform design feature.
I researched the area and photographed a number of locations, and was immediately struck by how the design of the structure, particularly the elevated walkways and facades impacted the public space on the estate. I therefore formulated a ‘client’ brief based on this research:
A local borough council are seeking the services of a photographer to investigate the impact of architectural design on the public space in a council estate. They are currently assessing the 1960s designed council housing in Thamesmead, hoping to take this evaluation into account when the local councillors meet to propose a regeneration plan for the area. The councillors are particularly interested in the photographer finding evidence of both positive and negative design characteristics, and to show the impact of these on public space. Whilst the expectation is that the focus of the brief will be on the local architecture and urban space, the photographer may produce other findings deemed relevant for the councillors to consider when formulating a future proposal for the Thamesmead area.
Once I had settled on an idea and written the brief, I found it much easier to approach the assignment. As I walked around the Thamesmead area I was able to plan the photos effectively by referring back to the brief. During my research on the estate, I discovered that one of the first complaints by residents after moving in was rain penetration problems inside a number of the residences. Already this proved the inadequacy of concrete for large scale housing, but its flaws became even more pronounced over time. Concrete is prone to moss and lichen growth and cracks easily, and this is something very noticeable upon the estate’s material facade. Another frequent criticism was the dimly lit walkways and inadequate drainage rendering many of the residences inaccessible. In light of this research, I settled on shooting a particular stretch of one of the elevated ‘streets’ on a day of wet weather. I had considered producing a series of black and white images, but I opted for colour images to present a more objective set of images that departed from the standard portrayal of these estates by photographers. As with my previous assignment on Brixton, I chose to use my digital camera to allow for a quicker review and reflection on the images produced. The final 12 images are arranged in order below.
* All images shot on Sony A7 with 28-70mm zoom lens – using variable apertures from F3.5-F8 with ISO set to approx. 400-1600
Overall I feel the final set of images fulfils the brief and actually reveals more than expected by the ‘client’. It highlights poor design characteristics such as using concrete as a building material (evidence of moss growth and cracks in many of the images), flooded and poorly lit walkways, and also reveals how high walls block out views of the outside. The impact of these features on the public space in the images is dramatic. The viewer feels a sense of enclosure, almost as if the estate is a fortress against the outside world, and the absence of plant life or colour upon the facade does little to alleviate the barren concrete and two-tone world of the walkway. The images are effective in creating this impression of being blocked off from nature, as there are hints of trees overlooking the concrete walls and glimpses of the outside world are obstructed by barbed wire. Even upon the walkway there is little that makes the space inviting – the ‘no ball games’ signs, the barbed wire, the concrete walls and the flooded walkway deter rather than encourage the residents to use the space. Even so, there is evidence of a community. The images that show painted walls are a welcome relief from the dark, two-tone walkway. This demonstrates how even a simple splash of colour can alter a space and make it appear more inviting. It is also a sign of the individual and that within the cold, barren atmosphere of the walkway a community can still exist.
There were a number of difficulties encountered whilst I was carrying out the brief. One of the main difficulties was planning for the day of the shoot – once I had found the walkway I wanted to shoot I had to wait for a rainy day, and so waited some time (unexpectedly for England) for a weekend with bad weather forecast. Therefore shooting the assignment was perhaps not done as quick as it would have needed to be in a real life professional scenario. Another difficulty not unanticipated was the length of time it took to travel to the location. Whilst it did not impact me too much, I did realise in a professional context this would be quite impactful on the process.
I also allowed myself a period of reflection before selecting the final shots for submission. Taking the advice of my tutor, I shot mainly landscape oriented shots and I observed this made the final set feel more focused. I also decided to get some of the images printed (see previous blog posts in Assignment Five folder) and stuck them on my wall for a few days. This allowed me to see the images ‘together’ rather than individually on the computer screen, leading me to select shots with a similar style of composition – a decision I felt helped produce a more coherent final 12. I chose to include the shots of the painted wall towards the end of the set to introduce variety and to challenge the viewer’s perception of the location. Whilst the length of time I took for the process was unrealistic for a professional context, I felt I got to practice the stages of a professional assignment. The period of reflection was an especially important part of the process, and a stage I will employ in the future when discerning the final images to submit for an assignment.
‘The groundwork conducted by artists such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in teh 1960s and 1970s to establish colour photography over black and white as the main vehicle for contemporary photographic expression is very important.’
‘It was not until the 1970s that art photographers who used vibrant colour – which until then had been the preserve of commercial and vernacular photography – found a modest degree of support, and not until the 1990s that colour became the staple of photographic practice.’
‘William Eggleston began to create colour photographs in the mid 1960s, shifting in the late 1960s to colour transparency film, the kind that is used domestically and commercially for photographing family holidays, advertising and magazine imagery.’
‘The magic of these photographs was their compositional intrigue and sensitive transformation of a slight subject or observation into a compelling visual form.’
‘At that time, Eggleston’s adoption of the colour range of commonplace photography was still considered to be outside the established realms of fine art photography.’
‘But in 1976, a selection of photographers he created between 1969 and 1971 was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first solo show of a photographer working predominantly in colour.’
‘… the show was an early and timely indicator of the force that Eggleston’s alternative approach would have.’
‘In 2002, the Los Alamos Project was published as a book and as a series of portfolios of dye-transfer colour prints.’
‘The original concept for the project was grand by any standards: two thousand images, taken during road trips between 1966 and 1974 and then printed without captions or commentary in a series of twenty volumes (see Figure 1).’
Figure 1: Lost Alamos, 1966-1974, William Eggleston
‘The Project was inspired by a journey Eggleston had made with his friend the curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005), who had pointed out the gates of the Los Alamos laboratories near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the site where the atomic bomb had been developed …’
‘The timing of the publication of the Los Alamos Project, almost thirty years after it was photographed, reflects the continual growth in the appreciation of art photography’s history.’
‘Stephen shore received critical notice for his photography at a precociously young age.’
‘… in 1971, he co-curated an exhibition of photographic ephemera (such as postcards, family snaps, magazine pages) .. In the same year he photographed the main buildings and sites of public interest in a small town in Texas called Amarillo.’
‘His subtle observations on the town’s generic qualities were made apparent when the photographs were printed as ordinary postcards (see Figure 2 and 3).’
Figure 2: West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, 1974 (Stephen Shore)
Figure 3: Plains Boulevard, Amarillo, Texas, 1975 (Stephen Shore)
‘Shore did not sell many of the 5,600 cards he had printed; so, instead, he put them in postcard racks in all the places he visited…’
‘His involvement with and interest in pop art, and a fascination with and simulation of photography’s everyday styles and functions, influenced Shore’s coming to colour photography…’
‘In 1972, he exhibited 220 photographs, made with a 35mm Instamatic camera and shown in grids, of day-to-day events and ordinary objects cropped and casually depicted (see Figures 2 and 3)…’
‘Like Eggleston’s The Los Alamos Project, Shore’s early exploration of colour photography as a vehicle for artistic ideas was not commonly known or accessible until relatively recently, when it was published in a book called American Surfaces (1999)…’
‘One of the most important influences on contemporary art photographers is the work of the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher.’
‘Their austere grids of black-and-white photographs of architectural structures such as gas tanks, water towers and blast furnaces (see Figure 2), taken since the late 1950s, may appear to stand in contrast with the sensibilities of Eggleston and Shore, but there is an important connection.’
Figure 2: Coolting Tower, Waltrop Mine, Ruhr, Bern and Hilla Becher 1967
‘Like them, the Bechers have been instrumental in rephrasing vernacular photography into highly considered artistic strategies, in part as a way of investing art photography with visual and mental connections to history and the everyday.’
‘Their photographs serve a double function: they are unromantic documents of historic structures, while their unpretentiousness and systematic recording of architecture sits within the use of taxonomies in conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s.’
‘The Bechers have also played an important role as teachers at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. Among their students were such leading practitioners as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand and Candida Hofer …’
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)
As a follow up to the previous post on the ‘New Topographics’, my reading has led me to explore the ideas of ‘deadpan’ in photography. Although this is a term thrown around quite loosely for a wide variety of work, I would like to focus on certain artists who have attracted the moniker.
In her book ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Charlotte Cotton focuses on ‘deadpan’ and examines a fascinating series of images. One immediate reaction of the viewer is to perceive an emotional detachment on the part of the photographers – it is as if they want to convey to their audience an objective reality, devoid of the photographer’s personal interpretation. Cotton maintains that ‘the adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective’ (Cotton, P.81). In other words, interpreting the subjects and understanding meaning is left to the audience and ‘our sense of what the photographers’ emotions might be is not the obvious guide to understanding the meaning of the images’ (Cotton, P.81).
Perhaps one of the more interesting facts Cotton touches on is what the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic has done for photography within the art world. It can perhaps be traced back to the emergence of the Bernd Becher as an artist and those that studied under his tutelage:
‘The “deadpan aesthetic” we see today is often characterised as “Germanic”. This moniker refers not only to the nationality of many of the key figures but also to the fact that a significant number were educated, under the tutelage of Bernd Becher, at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany.’ (Cotton, P.82)
This school was the catalyst that broke photography education and learning away from the emphasis on it as a vocational and professional pursuit – for example with photojournalism or commercial photography – to that of ‘artistically led pictures’. The Bechers’ collaborative series of black and white photos of German industrial architecture, obsessive in its formalism and rigorous in its approach, employed large format cameras and plate negatives on which were captured industrial buildings such as cooling towers (see below).
Bernd and Hilla Becher; study of concrete cooling towers; 1972
Each of the towers ‘… is photographed from the same perspective, notes on each are taken, and a typology is systematically created.’ (Cotton, P.83) The Bechers photographed the industrial landscapes of Germany and Europe at a time when it was disappearing as societies of western Europe shifted to a post-industrial world.
The influence of the Bechers’ work can be seen on their students as well, particularly with that of Andreas Gursky. He works on a large scale, using large format cameras for maximum clarity and digital post-production to refine, and exhibits hard-hitting prints that are often up to 2 metres high and 5 metres wide. What is quite unique about Gursky however is that he often creates images that are not ‘primarily contingent on being viewed as part of a series’ (Cotton, P.83). He works more like a painter than a photographer, refining a single work rather than hingeing on a set of images. His signature high vantage points leaving the viewer feeling remote from the subjects (see below), typical of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’.
Andreas Gursky; Chicago, Board of Trade II; 1999
In the same vain as Gurksy and the Bechers, Ed Burtynsky’s work focuses on the man-made landscape. His 12-year work on the topography of oil, perhaps best evidenced by the image below of the Californian oilfield. Cotton makes an intriguing observation concerning Burtynsky’s work:
‘While social, political, and ecological issues are embedded into his subjects, they are visualised as objective evidence of the consequences of contemporary life.’ (Cotton, P.86)
Cotton highlights that the underpinning principle of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ is that the photographer is relaying information impartially, despite what the viewer may interpret about the artist’s intention.
Edward Burtynsky; Oil Fields #13, Taft, California; USA 2002 © Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy of Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Consequently the deadpan photographer brings personal politics into play by selecting the subject matter and ‘anticipating the viewer’s reaction to it” (Cotton, P.86) rather than through any explicit political statement through style or text.
The deadpan aesthetic is a huge field and there are a lot of artists with a wide range of subject matter. However looking at these three photographers work – quite similar in subject matter – has been fruitful in terms of informing my understanding of the ideas behind deadpan and the context artists such as Andreas Gursky learned their craft in.
Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson 2004
In 1975 an important exhibition called ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ appeared. In retrospective art criticism, this exhibition is ascribed as initiating a turning point in the history of photography, particularly as it was in some ways the antithesis of traditional portrayals of landscape. Photographers Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke were commissioned to reimagine ‘the genres of topographical and architectural photography with the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry’. (Cotton, P.83). In some ways the most significant aspect of the exhibition was that these social and political agents were for the first time considered on the art gallery wall. Within this context ‘what at the time were seen as individual styles” were abandoned in favour of a detached objective style, somewhat similar in style to John Davies (see previous post) but greater in their rejection of the idealised interpretation of landscape.
At the time the exhibition was not well received by an audience that was used to the traditional landscape photography of the time. The exhibition presented 168 black and white prints of suburbia, industrial warehouses, city centres, wastelands and even seemingly banal car parks. I have selected a couple of photographs (see below) by Frank Gohlke and Lewis Baltz that are good examples of the artists presenting the aesthetic beauty of the banal, whilst revealing interesting narratives below the strict formalism in each photo. While the ‘New Topographics’ was disparaged at the time, it was crucial in opening up new opportunities for later artists. A good example of this Catherine Opie who published series called ‘Masterplan’ and ‘Mini-malls’, the inspiration for which she attributes back to the original 1975 exhibition while crafting her own interpretation of the suburbanised landscape. An example of her work is posted below as is an interesting video I came across online in which she talks about the representation of the ‘Man-Altered Landscape’ in photography.
Frank Gohlke; Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas; 1975; Gelatin silver print, 1996; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Lewis Baltz; The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Element No. 5; California, 1977
Catherine Opie; Untitled #2 from ‘Mini Mall’ series; Iris Print, 1997
The link to the interview with Catherine Opie can be found here.
The ‘New Topographics’ was certainly a revolutionary exhibit at the time, and it’s influence on practising artist up to the present day is clear to see. The idea of finding beauty in the banal and challenging the audience to look closely for historical narrative is something that will inform research for the final assignment. Depth and experimenting with formalised composition is something that I will be challenging myself to practice in an observational approach.
Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom 2004; New edition
Catherine Opie; Catherine Opie on New Topographics; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 2009; Youtube video
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Photo and material Copyright © John Davies 1976 – 2010