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-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

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.

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

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)

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 5)

For the fifth set of images in this assignment, I chose to shoot at the Barbican estate in London. I find the complex an interesting place due to it being a great example of 1970s Brutalist design and still seemingly functioning – at odds with the rejection of Brutalism by contemporary society. It is controversial for many Londoners due to its ugly aesthetic and association with 1970s urban planning. However it is the organisation of the complex and its varied use which makes it an engaging space. I therefore set out to attempt to capture the Barbican’s contemporary functions again using my Rolleiflex camera for the sake of continuity with the other sets of this assignment. I decided to use Fuji Provia slide film in order to obtain as clear scans as possible and also because I thought the muted tones of Provia would be more suitable than more saturated colours of a negative film. I was tempted to use black and white film, but I decided upon colour in order to capture accurately how it is seen by visitors and residents. In hindsight I think I should have used faster colour negative film as the Provia resulted in a lot of blocked shadows and blown highlights.

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I shot a lot of images at the Barbican so deciding upon three or four was difficult. The image above shows the harshness of the concrete structure contrasting with the natural colour of the flower beds laid out by the residents. The image gives a strong sense of an overpowering urban environment, but perhaps in defiance of this the residents seek to create their own space on the balconies of their flats.

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It is easy to imagine that growing flowers in an environment dominated by concrete gives residents a sense of ownership over the space. I shot the above image looking down onto an underground car park beneath the estate. I did not expect to see signs of residence when looking down upon three subterranean levels of concrete.

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Despite the signs of residence and community on the estate, there were points where I was reminded of its location within a busy part of London. The above image shows part of the complex which is given over to offices and the performing arts centre. The bike path was busy and full of commuters whilst I was walking around, travelling between the estate’s offices, flats and nearby tube station.

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The final shot shows an architects’ office with people busy at work. This demonstrates one of the estate’s contemporary uses alongside its original function as a residence for working class Londoners. It’s success as a space seems to be rooted in its continued occupancy by a community of residents who value the flats they reside in, its use as a performing arts centre (one of the largest in Europe) and its occupancy by private firms such as the architects’ office. This set therefore accurately shows the complex’s various functions and how the estate continues to successfully function despite the controversy and divided opinion over its aesthetic and design.

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 5)

Assignment three: Buildings in use (Set 2)

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

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

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

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Assignment three: Buildings in use (Set 2)

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 1)

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

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

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

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 1)