Category Archives: Film and Video

Et In Arcadia Ego, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)

Following on from my earlier post, several of Jason Orton’s images remind me of articles I have read in the last few years regarding the Essex coastline.

Owen Hatherley describes the journey down the Thames estuary as

following the path described by Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , the riverside journey taken by the Romans to the blasted, uncivilised, inhospitable edges of the known world. It can still feel like that.

It has been the topic for a recent Jonathon Meades program The Joy of Essex (2013).

Shaped by its closeness to London, Meades points out that this is where 19th-century do-gooders attempted to reform London’s outcasts with manual labour and fresh air, from brewing magnate Frederick Charrington’s Temperance Colony on Osea Island to the Christian socialist programmes run by Salvation Army founder William Booth.

Meades also discovers a land which abounds in all strains of architecture, from the modernist village created by paternalistic shoe giant Thomas Bata to Oliver Hill’s masterplan to re-imagine Frinton-on-Sea and the bizarre but prescient work of Arthur Mackmurdo, whose exceptionally odd buildings were conceived in the full blown language of the 1930s some fifty years earlier.

In a visually impressive and typically idiosyncratic programme, Meades provides a historical and architectural tour of a county that challenges everything you thought you knew and offers so much you didn’t.
Taken from BBC4’s synopsis to The Joy of Essex (2013)

The Thames estuary has always been an area of non-conformity, with the many temperance farms of Victorian reformists and the post war plotlands movement.

The result of a specific set of circumstances, Plotlands were a peculiarly English phenomena, tied in large part to the desire to own a piece of land, no matter how small. The agricultural decline of the 1870s, brought on in part by increased imports from British colonies, resulted in farms becoming bankrupt and their land being sold off cheaply in small plots by developers. Farmers in marginal areas that had vulnerable sea-side locations or where the soil was not very fertile, such as the clay soils of Essex, were worst hit. With an increase in holidaying, buying a small plot of land to build a holiday home or set up a small holding became a popular and cheap option for Londoners wanting to escape the cramped conditions of the city.

These self-built, self-reliant settlements were often without basic services such as water and sanitation, with the owners having to petition councils, and to sometimes contribute financially towards their provision, which lead to a strong sense of community. Due to the relaxed planning regulations, the Plotlands took on a character of their own, some converted boats and railway carriages, whilst others built summerhouses; anything from discarded bits of mahogany joinery to sections of garden trellis were used. Over time people from these settlements were relocated to new towns or the areas upgraded so that they have slowly become part of the encroaching suburbia.

The strange hinterland of Essex’s haphazard and unplanned coastal communities has also been the subject for a series of national newspaper articles after Jaywick was named the most deprived in England. The Guardian’s article is a reasonably even handed piece of light ethnography, while the Daily Mail decided to run a series of grey overcast photographs of a rubbish strewn Jaywick (just in case you didn’t know what deprivation looked like).

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One of my concerns, working on a body of research about interstitial sites and communities is that it will be read as a project on deprivation. We have all become very literate in looking at deadpan photos of the landscape and linking them to negative connotations. It is a topic that the British Journal of Photography explored in it’s musing and opinion section Intelligence.

I have included the article in full below, all text and image are copyright of Philip Wolmuth:

The Guardian newspaper recently illustrated a story on the ‘north-south divide’ with a picture of a child running down a Manchester back alley in the rain. The caption read “A child playing in Manchester. A charity says 1.6 million UK children live in poverty”. The alley does look typically northern, but nothing in the picture suggests deprivation, other than an echo, for photo buffs with a long memory, of a Bert Hardy photo of the Gorbals taken in 1948.

There is nothing wrong with the Guardian photo itself, just with how it has been used. The iconography of poverty too often makes use of stereotypes, and in this case the caption relies on ‘up north and wet’ to convey the intended meaning.

What does poverty look like when the sun is shining? According to the latest Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Jaywick Sands (below), close to the Essex resort of Clacton-on-Sea, is the most deprived ward in the UK. But despite the boarded-up shops and broken pavements, under a blue August sky, it doesn’t really look the part.

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With some exceptions, it is difficult for a single image to capture either the experience, or the causes, of poverty in a developed western economy. We don’t have tin-roofed shanty towns (although Brooklands Estate in Jaywick, originally built as a low-cost beach-side holiday resort, comes close). Even the poorest child has shoes. The statistics tell us that a low income tends to result in obesity rather than emaciation.

Decaying infrastructure, as in Jaywick, signifies something is wrong, but not how it impacts on people’s lives, or how it got that way. No-one is suggesting that those living north of Watford Gap are particularly feckless. The poverty of the ‘north-south divide’ is clearly systemic, its causes macro-economic and political, usually complex, and often longstanding. Many parts of northern England have never recovered from the rapid de-industrialisation of the 1980s. The tens of thousands of jobs lost in coal and steel have not been replaced. How do you show something that isn’t there?

The exceptions – instances where a single photograph does unambiguously capture something of the feel of poverty – are also problematic. Obvious examples are the images of rough sleepers used in fund-raising publicity by charities for the homeless. Family breakdown, mental illness and drug misuse are the most common reasons people end up on the street. But the focus on individual stories, however tragic, which such images encourage, diverts attention away from the failures, also systemic, that underlie them: inadequate care homes, mental health facilities and housing provision.

The current economic crisis is often compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the UK, that era is still remembered through the faded black and white images of the Jarrow Crusade, flat-capped dole queues, and downcast men standing idle on street corners. Poverty doesn’t look like that any more. Colour makes a big difference. The girl in the Guardian photograph is wearing a bright red coat. It looks new. In black and white it would have shown up as a miserable dark blob.

More importantly, the communities that grew up around the now closed pits, steelworks and other heavy industrial sites have largely fragmented. The ethos of solidarity that they embodied, and that underpinned the birth of the Welfare State, has been displaced by the individualism of the neo-liberal years. Although the causes of poverty and unemployment remain systemic, they are no longer experienced collectively. How can you convey the bigger picture with photographs of individuals? It can be done, but it needs more than one picture, the right words, and some history.

In the USA, the Depression years were famously documented in depth by the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration. The body of work they produced, of derelict farms, dust-blown fields, bankrupt share-cropper families, soup kitchens and the rest, managed to show that bigger picture, in a way that gave a context to photographs of individuals. It is impossible to look at Dorothea Lange’s well-known ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph, for instance, without having in the back of one’s mind images, by Walker Evans and others, of the destitution she was fleeing.

All that is a long way from sun-blessed Essex. Not only is the experience of poverty in 21st century Britain more fragmented, it is also mitigated by the existence of the Welfare State, whatever its inadequacies. In Jaywick a high proportion of residents are dependent on state benefits or pensions, but they are not typical. Most people whose income falls below the poverty threshold in the UK are in work. The National Minimum Wage is currently £6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and over; the minimum for apprentices is £2.60; the National Living Wage (outside London) is £7.60. None of these rates are affected by the weather. People ‘up north’ aren’t poor because it rains a lot. And down south, even if it looks less gritty, poverty doesn’t go away when the sun shines. It’s a complicated story, and newspapers need to find better ways of telling it.
This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the British Journal of Photography.

I really don’t think newspapers are capable of this level of photo journalism, it is too complicated to be dealt with in a few double page spreads. Issues of this kind can only be dealt with by long form journalism on the gallery wall or on the pages of a photographic book. The real problem will always be finding a way to output this kind of work to the widest audience possible. Arts council cuts mean that galleries are less likely to run work that is a harder sell.

The documentary film, Jaywick Escapes (2012), better dealt with the story of Jaywick Sands, it is British producer / director Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope’s third documentary film, following Bata-ville: we are not afraid of the future (2005) and Living with the Tudors (2008). The film follows the lives of three Jaywick newcomers, drifters whose reasons to escape here are revealed across a year. At its heart is Nick, a reformed wide boy. Recently widowed, he fulfils a long-held dream of moving to Jaywick, throwing himself into a new life. But before long, and as they have for the town itself, things seem to go very wrong.

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Nation Builders, BBC 4

This is going to be a short post, but I wanted to draw attention to a recent season of programs on BBC4, going by the title Nation Builders. For the last couple of weeks the BBC has been running documentaries about post War British building, including a program on Ian Nairn. Cassian Harrison, Editor for BBC Four, says:

Architecture remains one of Britain’s most influential exports, and yet it’s left us with a landscape that some think has been ravaged with carbuncles and concrete. This season will be a fascinating opportunity for BBC Four to explore the work of some of our most renowned architects in a unique season of programmes which explores the history and inspiration behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings, but also celebrates some of architecture’s less graceful creations.

The Man Who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn, is an hour long documentary comprised of talking head interviews by the usual Nairn suspects such as, Jonathon Glancey, Jonathon Meade, Gillian Darley and David McKie, and Owen Hatherley . However it also includes interviews with his former colleagues at the AR, Observer and Times, along with his BBC TV director.

As well as the interviews it also contain plenty of archive clips from his various BBC series. To me these are the far more interesting aspects as much of the interview material is readily available to anyone who has read anything about Nairn’s work. Unfortunately Nairn’s TV output has only been shown in full one time since his death and as the 16mm of the shows still exist, I suggest it it either time the BBC repeated them, or the BFI put them out, either as a retrospective or as a DVD. Some of them do exist on YouTube if you search.

The program is still available on IPlayer for a short period of time, and acts as an excellent starting point into exploring Nairn’s work

As part of the season the also showed a new two part Jonathon Meades Documentary, Bunkers Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry

Unite D'Habitation
Unite D’Habitation

described by the BBC as a;

Two-part documentary in which Jonathan Meades makes the case for 20th-century concrete Brutalist architecture in an homage to a style that he sees a brave, bold and bloodyminded. Tracing its precursors to the once-hated Victorian edifices described as Modern Gothic and before that to the unapologetic baroque visions created by John Vanbrugh, as well as the martial architecture of World War II, Meades celebrates the emergence of the Brutalist spirit in his usual provocative and incisive style. Never pulling his punches, Meades praises a moment in architecture he considers sublime and decries its detractors.

Jonathan Meades delivers a unique and distinctive essay on the story of brutalist architecture across Europe. Meades asserts that modernist buildings, often maligned, are instead monuments to optimism and grandeur. The film draws on extraordinary buildings from all over Europe in a lavish, and sometimes surreal, visual collage.

Like all of Meades documentaries it will keep you on your toes as he throws scatter-shot references at you. The down side to this is his programs often feel like an exclusive club, if you haven’t widely read on the subjects of architecture, art and social history you can often be left behind. It may take several viewings to get everything he is saying. However as his programs are now on BBC4, it suggests that you haven’t found them by accident and are already interested in the subject. The program contains some incredible shots of architecture and his prose is always tinged with more than a little humor.

Meades published an excellent article in the Guardian as a sister piece to the program,
The incredible hulks: Jonathan Meades’ A-Z of brutalism (2014)

I really would recommend that you view these programs on the IPlayer before they are deleted (BBC sort out you online archive, 4OD manages to keep it’s programs accessible). To accompany the season there is also a collection of archive programs curated by Janet Street Porter available at Post-War Architecture.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? A Sense of Place in Contemporary Televison

This is not the post that I originally intended to write today, but found myself reaching for a my IPad to tweet an image from the title sequence to the new HBO drama True Detective (2013-), written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the superb Sin Nombre (2009).

Before I go into more detail, some back-story would be useful. While studying for a my BA at Falmouth a new small art bookshop opened up for a short period, in one of the back streets well away from the main shopping area. While browsing I came across a stack of magazines and picked up Aperture 162, at first too look at the interview with Sally Mann’s daughter, Jessie and her experiences with growing up as a muse for her mothers work.

As I continued to flick through the pages I came across an image that stopped me dead in my tracks entitled Abandoned Trailer Home by the photography Richard Misrach, taken from his series then titled Cancer Alley.

Abandoned Trailer Home (1998)
Abandoned Trailer Home (1998)

Moments like this are very rare and the only thing that had this level of impact on my up until this point was the first time I saw Thomas Struth’s work at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was stuck by the scale and detail they contained. This was the first time I had come across Misrach’s work, and it would help inform my interests and projects from that point on.

Misrach’s images have been a huge influence on me over the years, be it informing the subject matter of my work The Smell of Bitumen,

The Smell of Bitumen, Grain (2007)
The Smell of Bitumen, Grain (2007)

The Smell of Bitumen, Fawley (2007
The Smell of Bitumen, Fawley (2007

or psychogeography in his series Desert Cantos.

Don and Barbara, Salton Sea, 1985
Don and Barbara, Salton Sea, 1985

I was therefore very surprised to watch the opening credits of True Detective and come across Misrach’s Cancer Alley images used a series of double exposure moving stills. For more information on the titles

What immediately struck me was how these images of edgeland spaces were being used as a means to discuss the psychological affects on the characters inhabiting the region. They were depicted as being a physical part of the psyche.

True Detective follows a seam of contemporary television that places the landscape, front and centre of the narrative. The affect of the locale on the characters acts as a catalyst for the story, and in many cases the landscape is a much a cast member as the people it shares top billing with.

The Guardian’s review by Sam Wollaston, Could the real star of True Detective be Louisiana? concludes his review with the following;

So it has movie stars and a movie director (Cary Fukunaga, who did Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) to give it a big cinematic look. But the star with no credit is the scenery, mostly sliding slowly by beyond the window of an unmarked police (first syllable stress, PO-lice) car. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I have now, Louisiana captured. Flatlands, massive skies, shacks, plenty of weirdness and bible belt lunacy, the ghosts of lost children. Erath “is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading”, says Cohle. Then there’s the sad whistle of a freight train.

We don’t see that train, but it sounds to me like one of those real slow ones that goes on and on, rolling by. You sit and watch though, transfixed, maybe even after it’s gone, because it’s beautiful. Bit like True Detective.

The last time I remember US show’s having a title sequence of this nature was David Simon’s Treme (2010-13), Which over it’s three series has included the work of a number of stills photographers including Deborah Luster and Will Steacy. Photography inhabiting popular culture, and further blurring the line between traditional photo-journalistic publishing.

along with the often-referenced opening to David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007),

both of which immersed the viewer in the sites and sounds of New Orleans and New Jersey’s Meadowlands. A good title sequence should set out the premise of the programme, and all of these examples clearly state that this is a show about a place and time.

While it is still unusual for place to play an intrinsic part in the story for mainstream American television. It is less uncommon in European television and I would argue that that is greatly down to the popularity of Scandi-Noir, including recent programmes such as The Bridge (2011- Denmark)/ The Tunnel (2013- UK), Wallander (2005-13 Sweden,2008-14 UK) , The Killing (2007-12) and The Returned (2012-). However I would argue that the Scandinavian Noir borrows at times from the US western, so the idea of place as character is not new to American screens and have been recently embraced by films borrowing from the Western, such as Winter’s Bone (2010) and Frozen River (2008).

In the UK, independent cinema has also embraced the landscape, particularly in Fish Tank (2009)

and last years criminally overlooked The Selfish Giant (2013).

It is an idea that is far more common in literature, where the author has the space to create mood and embellish a scene through description of the surroundings. In light of the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I have found myself thinking of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965).

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far Western than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

Holcomb, too, can be seen from great distances. Not that there is much to see—simply an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the center by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad, a haphazard hamlet bounded on the south by a brown stretch of the Arkansas (pronounced “Ar-kansas”) River, on the north by a highway, Route 50, and on the east and west by prairie lands and wheat fields. After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud. At one end of the town stands a stark old stucco structure, the roof of which supports an electric sign—Dance—but the dancing has ceased and the advertisement has been dark for several years. Nearby is another building with an irrelevant sign, this one in flaking gold on a dirty window— HOLCOMB BANK. The bank closed in 1933, and it is one of the town’s two “apartment houses,” the second being a ramshackle mansion known, because a good part of the local school’s faculty lives there, as the Teacherage. But the majority of Holcomb’s homes are one-story frame affairs, with front porches.

It is an opening that perfectly places the reader in a physical location, just like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899);

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

Perhaps the reader is far more willing to let a story evolve, perhaps it has a lot to do with the average attention span of those viewing mainstream programming. I would say that certainly down to the resurgence of the long form TV drama, audience are starting to embrace the idea of evolving narratives and characterisations, long master shots setting the scene.

The thing I find strangest writing this post is the number of flat flood planed landscapes I have described, perhaps after five years the Norfolk landscape has found it’s way in.