Category Archives: Research

Côte de Jenkin Road

Last time I wrote about Sheffield was when I started using my sound recorder for the first time, following the River Don and through the deserted streets of Attercliffe. At the time I hadn’t developed the film I took on that trip, and have been looking for a way to write about it since then, that didn’t simple involve uploading the images.

The last month has seen some of my favourite sports on the television, the Hockey World Cup, and the Cricket Test match, however my favourite sport at this time of year for the shear spectacle of the level of endurance is the Tour de France. Every year, for a two-week period the house is alive with words like peleton and Maillot Jaune (all of which my 23 month old daughter is now picking up). However, this year for the first time in a while the Tour set of from the UK, and the second stage culminated in Sheffield.

When I sat down to watch the final section of stage two, I had no idea of the route through the city. So I was suddenly surprised to see a building with sign saying Bronx on it.

Bronx, 208 Saville Street East
Bronx, 208 Saville Street East

I had been past this building on my first sound walk around the city. The building is a former pub  named the Norfolk Arms, after the Norfolk Steel works that stood behind it until the late 80s.

Norfolk Arms, 208 Saville Street East
Norfolk Arms, 208 Saville Street East

In it’s prime the Norfolk works covered a 15 acre site

Norfolk Steel Works
Norfolk Steel Works
The Atlas and Norfolk Steel Works, Sheffield, 1947
The Atlas and Norfolk Steel Works, Sheffield, 1947

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Russian Targeting map 1980s
Russian Targeting map 1980s
 A Christmas reverie 3. Atlas works. This is 1987 and shows the demolition of the massive Atlas Works. Adrian Wynn

A Christmas reverie 3. Atlas works. This is 1987 and shows the demolition of the massive Atlas Works. Adrian Wynn
Site of Norfolk Steel works 1993
Site of Norfolk Steel works 1993

Very little remains of the Norfolk works now, except for the entrance way to one of the former melting works.

The gateway of Thomas Firth and Sons Ltd., Seimens Melting Shop of Norfolk Works
The gateway of Thomas Firth and Sons Ltd., Seimens Melting Shop of Norfolk Works

and the former site medical centre, that was explored by the urbex group 28dayslater in 2010.

A couple of weeks back, whilst visiting Megatron, AEM told us about this undergound place he had visited, sadly we ran out of time on this occasion. After looking through his photo’s I was intrigued, and decided this ‘a must see’.

There isn’t much info kicking around about this place, however I did hear that it was linked to Firth Browns Steelworks. This place is truly a hidden gem, and now sadly buried below a car park with no obvious signs of what lies beneath.

Just a small place, but an early insight into a long demolished factory. It’s difficult to work this place out, whether it was above ground, or covered over with earth by design, or covered over post demolition. It’s not strictly ‘underground’ in that it wasn’t dug out of the earth. We’ve since been told that there may be more to find in the vicinity, hopefully the locals will get out there and find it… “there was a canteen beside it, an ambulance station (he thinks the entry on the roadside is bricked up) and, believe it or not, a rifle range”. You never know.
an amalgamation of posts from, Underground medical centre – Sheffield – 28dayslater (2010)

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I had always assumed from the shape and name of the building and it’s position that it was now a dodgy nightclub, when I did some research to find an image; I was surprised to discover it’s real use. Their website describes it as Yorkshire’s only gay and bisexual sauna.

Coming from a conservative background, and as someone whose gay friends are not to my knowledge into this niche aspect of the lifestyle, I didn’t even know these places existed. I was even more surprised that it was situated within this (post)industrial/edgeland environment. At this point I didn’t know about Attercliffe’s reputation, while it has many adult shops, I hadn’t been aware of it’s gay and underground club scene. I assume though that it is partly due to its position far enough out of the city centre to avoid grief on a Friday and Saturday, from any local hotheads. A legacy to when the gay community wasn’t as welcome in society as they now are.

As the peloton rolled past the Bronx, next up on the left hand side was a Costa Coffee, situated within a disused Victorian building, that I had gone into, soaking wet in my scruffy hiking gear, and with a huge camera bag and heavy Manfrotto tripod. I suddenly realised as the camera bike carried on that we were about to go past a  nondescript black gate set in a stonewall. ‘That’s the gate I jumped’, I exclaimed to my wife and daughter, ‘look on the right hand side, that’s the main cop shop for the area, I can’t believe no one saw me nip over the wall’.

I had spotted the area on the other side of the wall, during my first walk down the river, but from the opposite bank. From that spot I could see the elaborate graffiti under the railway bridge, and from this I knew that the site had to be accessible on some level.

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When I got back to Norfolk I checked it out on the OS map I bought at Meadowhall. It showed the weir and a short tributary running off the main stretch of the Don. You could clearly see the railway bridge and a small pocket of white space either side of the bridge and water, divided off from the main road by a boundary.

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A quick check on Google street view confirmed that there was access to at least one side of the bridge. At this point I agreed with myself that it worth a visit with a film camera the next time I was in Sheffield.

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At a recent symposium on Art and the Edgeland, held at Exeter University during the Easter break, we discussed a couple of points based around access to these sites, the first being the physical access to locations. I started my real photographic career during my third year at Falmouth, working on a body of images based around the disused asylums within the M25 belt.

Cane Hill- from the series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Simon Robinson (2005)
Cane Hill- from the series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Simon Robinson (2005)
Cane Hill- from the series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Simon Robinson (2005)
Cane Hill- from the series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Simon Robinson (2005)

Meeting fellow urbexers you quickly learn that trespass is only a civil offense, and not a crown one. You can be taken to court by the landowner, but not arrested by the police. This is unless it is aggravated trespass, ie you have already been asked to leave and refused, or you are causing or have caused criminal damage while gaining access or once at a location, (please don’t take this as letter of the law, if in doubt look it up on legislation.gov.uk).

So in reality you can choose to hop a fence with limited chance of any legal ramifications, personal safety etc. are all your responsibility to act in an intelligent manner. For more information on urbex, plase read Dr Bradley Garrett’s book Explore Everything: Place-hacking the City (2013), as well as his article in the Times Higher Ed, for when it does go all wrong, Place-hacker Bradley Garrett: research at the edge of the law

The second point we discussed was surrounding the limitations of a traditional map. Thinking about aerial roadways, flyovers, bridges etc. When you look at a map

Site of Folly for a flyover, the road used to be classed as motorway and would have appeared blue on the map.
Site of Folly for a flyover, the road used to be classed as motorway and would have appeared blue on the map.

you can only see the thick blue line of the motorway. It is only by being there, inhabiting the space that you can start to experience what lies beneath the roadway.

The example we looked at was a pop up architectural space in a motorway undercroft. During the summer of 2011, an ugly and unused plot beneath a motorway flyover close to the Olympic Park in east London became home to a temporary cinema and events space built by architecture and design collective, Assemble.

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Folly for a Flyover was a temporary project that demonstrated the potential for a disused motorway undercroft in Hackney Wick to become a new public space for the area. For 9 weeks, this neglected and unwelcoming non-place was transformed into a host space for local residents and visitors alike – attracting over 40,000 visitors in the course of one summer.

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Beneath the massive concrete beams of the flyover a simple bank of seating descended towards the canal that runs along one edge of the site. A core of scaffolding supported the stalls and the adjacent structure, which mimicked the brick buildings of the local borough but was merely a cosmetic frontage for the café and events spaces. Construction was completed in a month by a team of volunteers using locally sourced materials, including wood and clay bricks that were removed and reused locally once the folly’s brief occupation had ended.

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The Folly invested the site with a positive future by re-imagining its past – posing as a building trapped under the motorway. Its roof pushing up between the East and Westbound traffic above, Folly for a Flyover hosted an extensive programme of waterside cinema, performance and play delivered in conjunction with the Create Festival, the Barbican Art Gallery and numerous local organisations and businesses. By day the Folly hosted a cafe, workshops, events and boat trips exploring the surrounding waterways. At night audiences congregated on the building’s steps to watch screenings, from blockbusting animation classics to early cinema accompanied by a live score.

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I could see from the maps and street view images that the site by the River Don was accessible and had photographic potential, but it wasn’t until I jumped the wall that I could actually understand the space.

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Just through the gate a small disused path dog legs to the left, through small trees and shrubs, on the right hand side is a pile of ballast, that has clearly been sitting undisturbed for some time, as the grass and moss has started to recolonize it. Empty bottle and beer cans litter the site. The path carries on for 10 metres before opening up as I get close to the bridge for the first time. The stream that I could see running off the Don is on my left hand side, covered with silver birch, that over hang it slightly. A large clump of bulrushes sit in the water, and as I catch sight of the dark pool under the bridge, as it appears through the trees and rushes, I am startle as a heron takes off, huge and pterodactyl like.

Under The Bridge- Downtown, Simon Robinson (2014)
Under The Bridge- Downtown, Simon Robinson (2014)

Underneath the bridge itself is a slimy pathway, about 1 metre wide, the ground is slick with moss and soft silty mud, the water has a oily metallic sheen in places, and is covered in a milky white scum. The graffiti that I could see from the opposite side of the river is on one of the bridge walls, while on the other is another piece, a black and white tribal figure, with a spear lodge through the tail end of a giant fish. The graffiti is one of many in Sheffield by the local born artist Phlegm.

Hunter Gatherers by Phlegm, Simon robinson (2014)
Hunter Gatherers by Phlegm, Simon Robinson (2014)

The pool itself is formed by a metal flood gate damming the water supply, barrels and tree debris sit half submerged in the shallow liquid, the muddy surface, threatening to suck them in. over the flood gate is a rusty metal walkway to allow access to open and close the gate. I decide to risk crossing it with my heavy bag and tripod. After placing a foot tentatively on the dark ochre chequer board, I am convinced that it will support my weight. It doesn’t start to feel dubious till I’m half way across and a feel a slight increase in the bounce underfoot, nothing concerning but certainly noticeable.

Flood Gate, Simon robinson (2014)
Flood Gate, Simon Robinson (2014)

The other side of the water opens up in the lee of the railway embankment. I come out into the small void of white space I could see on the map.

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It is covered in bracken and brambles, I venture closer to the rivers edge, the stagnant pool to my back. As I walk other the covering on bracken I realise the ground is increasingly squishy underfoot, I am standing on a semi solid void between the bank and a brick casing holding back the embankment from toppling into the river, which is a three metre drop below.

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I quickly take my photo. It isn’t the worst situation I have been in while trespassing, that still is held by standing on a small section of the second floor of a burnt out ward in Cane Hill asylum, that I realise once I packed my camera away was a honeycomb of holes, with a thin layer of rubble on top and nothing below until the foundations under the missing first and ground floors.

Cane Hill- from the series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Simon Robinson (2005)
Cane Hill- from the series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Simon Robinson (2005)

This doesn’t even come close, but still feels suspect. I have a more pronounced feeling for personal safety since the birth of my daughter. While standing there, a group of people walk down the other side of the riverbank. They are from a local community group cleaning up the debris flushed down the river from recent heavy rain. They look confused to see me, but wave anyway. Most people assume you are supposed to be there and don’t bat an eyelid.

Worrying that my time might be cut short I cross back over the floodgate, stopping half way to photograph the pool. On the other side of the gate is an area were flood debris has collected, silting up the water to a point that it is solid enough to stand on. The water starts again five metres beyond this point. I clamber down, intent on taking a photo. A makeshift fence of corrugated metal, topped with trident spiked galvanised security fencing and razor wire separates the space from the breakers yard next door. A blue metal post, supporting the corner of the improvised wall, holds up my side, a pile of tires sits against the other side of the fence from me.

Tyres, Simon robinson (2014)
Tyres, Simon Robinson (2014)

Just next to it is one of the many storm drain grates, large round metal doors holding back the escape of water from the sewage system, waiting to be opened if the weather turns biblical. The water that I have come to photograph is beautiful, and surrounded by green foliage, juxtaposed against the shipping container and fencing. A sign barely visible is attached to the back of the container, a legacy to its previous life on another edgeland site; I can make out ‘Twines, Wiper, Load, Rope, 77321 for service’. I wonder who was the last person to read the sign, or call the number for service; no one is going to see it here.

Twines, Wiper, Load, Rope, 77321 for service, Simon Robinson (2014)
Twines, Wiper, Load, Rope, 77321 for service, Simon Robinson (2014)

I finish making my images just as the rain starts again, sheltering under the bridge I listen to the birds, the water dripping from the iron work above, splashing with a plop into the now disturbed water below. A train thunders over head, deafening, and break the semi-peace of the location, the traffic continues beyond the tree line, a constant wall of static that until I pause to listen to, I haven’t been aware of. I pack up my camera bag, happy with the roll of 120 that I’ve shot, and venture back out in the world beyond the trees, descending on the Costa next door.

Further down from this void of space, is a larger pocket of trees and tracks, seemingly inaccessible trapped between the railway tracks and scrap works. As of yet I haven’t come up with a plan to access it, but hope to return on a future trip.

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The Tour de France continues along Brightside lane, past the Police station and Royal Mail depot. It hits the roundabout in front of Forgemasters steel works and swings up the valley towards Jenkin Road, or Côte de Jenkin Road as it will now most certainly be known.

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Jenkin Road begins just outside the local steel foundry, the sort of area where you find discarded hubcaps at the kerb. Painted on the surface, along with the names of cyclists, are the names of people who live there: “TEESH”, “KATH”, “SHAZ”.

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Up it goes, past Brightside Post Office, past the Nisa corner shop, past Chafer’s decorators, eventually coming to an elevated end in the shadow of some smart but unprepossessing 1920s brick houses. Round the corner is the boxing gym that turned Prince Naseem Hamed into a champion. An Arctic Monkeys song pumps out of some speakers. I try to imagine Jacques Anquetil or Luis Ocana puffing their way up here back in the day, and for once my imagination fails me.

Think of Le Tour, and its classic peaks pierce the mind. The verdant and regal Tourmalet; the scree-flecked wilderness of the Galibier; the snow-capped moonscape of Mont Ventoux: all as pleasant to watch as they are unpleasant to ride. But on Sunday, the humble suburb of Wincobank in east Sheffield wended itself into the Tour’s rich heritage. With a maximum gradient of 33 per cent, Jenkin Road or the Côte du Jenkin Road – is the steepest section of this year’s race.

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There is a reason the second stage had been described as Yorkshire’s answer to the Spring Classics, a course to rival the Amstel Gold Race or Liège-Bastogne-Liège. There is a Belgian-style inconsistency to the landscape. It is not so much the severity of the climbs, but their relentlessness. There is a barely a moment to catch your breath before the next upward slog. And Jenkin Road, placed just three miles from the end of a long and gruelling stage, represents nothing less than half a mile of pure pain. It is a short but brutal climb, a residential road so treacherous that there are railings along the pavements for pedestrians to keep their balance.

At which point it is natural to engage one’s sadistic side, and congratulate Christian Prudhomme and the organisers for yet another magnificent piece of routing that again ripped up the rulebook. Second stages are not meant to be as brutal as this. Hills should look like hills. Climbs should be death in paradise, not murder in suburbia.

Jenkin-Road-Sheffield

Why would anybody make a road this steep? And why would anybody live on it? “You should see it in winter,” one resident calls out from her front garden. “Some days it can be snowing here and not at the bottom. They didn’t tell me that when I bought it.”

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There is a YouTube video of Marcel Kittel, yesterday’s yellow jersey, riding up the hill a few months ago with John Degenkolb and his other Giant-Shimano team-mates. By the time he is halfway up, it is clear his main objective is not so much moving forwards as trying to avoid moving backwards. “This stage is super hard,” Degenkolb told ProCycling magazine afterwards. “The final result in Paris will not be decided on these roads, but it will surely lost by some because they are very dangerous.”

And it was the prospect of high drama on the high slopes that brought as many as 60,000 people to the roadside on Sunday. Before the race, Chris Boardman had picked this out as the most important segment of the stage, the place where attacks could be made and decisive time gaps could develop. And the words “Shut up, legs” painted on the road were a portent of the brutal ordeal that awaited.

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Those with pocket radios had kept us apprised of progress. And as the whirr of team cars and police sirens got ever closer, a whisper spread through the crowd. “Is that him? It’s him! Froome’s in the lead!” The roar was colossal as bike No 1 led the pack up the hill. Froome looked calm, untroubled. So too eventual stage winner Vincenzo Nibali behind him. But as the frontrunners receded into the distance, the mood of those following was subtly different.

Fabian Cancellara went past, grimacing like a man undergoing an unanaesthetised vasectomy. Brice Feillu’s mouth hung wide open, as if breathing for the last time. Niki Terpstra looked deeply unimpressed, like a man who had just locked himself out of the house. Sylvain Chavanel chuckled a rueful chuckle at the sheer madness of it all.

Cycling, you crazy old crone. Never change.

Several minutes later, loud cheers greeted the grupetto as it brought up the rear of the field. Everyone made it over, but the real toll of Jenkin Road will be felt in the days ahead.

“Sheffield,” George Orwell wrote during one of those frequent periods when he was struggling to pay the rent and taking his frustration out on the industrial North, “could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World. The town is very hilly, and everywhere streets of mean little houses blackened by smoke run up at sharp angles, paved with cobbles which are purposely set unevenly.”

Well, Orwell can get lost. The cobbles are long gone, but the sharp angles remain, and nobody here would have it any other way. Cycling can be tremendously ugly at times, but this was not one of those times.

In fact, to stand by Jenkin Road, as the last of the stragglers cleared the crest of the hill, with the sun setting behind the steelworks, was to be possessed by a rare and very particular beauty.
Tour de France 2014: Murder in suburbia as riders embark on steepest hill in this year’s race, The Telegraph, (2014)

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The aerial footage of the tour highlights the changes still happening in the areas surrounding Meadowhall. Even so many years after it’s industrial demise and change of use, the location is still ridding itself of it’s former heritage. On the right hand side of the riders is a large expanse of waste ground, being cleared to become a shiny new commodified space, one that is in keeping with it’s commercially orientated surroundings.

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The current image of Meadowhall, Tinsley and Attercliffe is in stark contrast to the one captured by John Darwell in the 1980s. Published in the last couple of years for the first time by Café Royal Books, I have shown images from them before, but didn’t own copies until they were delivered o the same day the Tour past the same locations.tour de france edgeland  089

When I was producing these images it felt like the end of an era (later it was labelled ‘post-industrialisation’). Thatcherism was in full flow and the steel industries of Sheffield (along with the coal mines and docks) were suffering, both from the effects of this assault, and from the increasing competition overseas.

The steel industries began to be replaced with temples to the new consumerism and Meadowhall was the centre of this in Sheffield. It was fascinating to watch the new structure take shape and the tell tale dome became a point of reference for much of the work I produced in Sheffield at this time.
John Darwell

Joining the previous books, Sheffield, Meadowhall, Hyde Park, Ponds Forge (2013) and Tinsley Viaduct (2013) is Sheffield, Things Seen Whilst Wandering around Attercliffe (2014). In reality many of the sites feel little changed, especially once you leave the main road through Attercliffe, and descend into the cobbled backstreets and around the industrial warehouses.

Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe, John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe,
John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe, John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe,
John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe, John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe,
John Darwell (2014)
Sheffield Things Seen Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe, John Darwell (2014)
Sheffield Things Seen Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe,
John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe, John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe,
John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe, John Darwell (2014)
Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe,
John Darwell (2014)

The tour finished outside of the Premier Inn by the Motorpoint Arena, my base for whenever I’m working in the area.

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The aerial coverage from stage 2 and 3 of Le Tour was suburb, as the peleton wound it’s way through Sheffield old industrial quarter, and the East End of London, Stratford, Silvertown, Poplar, the camera picked out little pockets of edgeland and urban wild spaces, tucked between new builds and infrastructure of the DLR. the images below are screen grabs of the best shots.

Sheffield

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East London
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A Wider View Of The World

One of the things that has interested me for a number of years, and has recently re-emerged within my development images over the last few years is the panoramic frame. It is also something that I have become increasingly aware of within the recent work of my contextual sources.

I came to photography late, or at least what I considered to be late. It wasn’t until I had started my A levels that I first picked up a camera, this was through necessity of needing a skill for my bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. This doesn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in lens based imagery, up until the turning point during my only year of A level study, I had always wanted a career in the film or television industry, either in cinematography or special effects. Being a geeky teen that devoured every film he could, regardless of quality or age, I could extoll the virtues of a films aspect ratio. The best starting point for looking at aspect ratios is Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which switches its frame size to accentuate the films multiple time frames and the standard ratio of the time.

The 1930s, Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (2014) cinematography by Robert Yeoman
The 1930s, Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (2014) cinematography by Robert Yeoman
The 1960s, Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (2014) cinematography by Robert Yeoman
The 1960s, Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (2014) cinematography by Robert Yeoman
1985 to the Present, More or Less, Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (2014) cinematography by Robert Yeoman
1985 to the Present, More or Less, Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (2014) cinematography by Robert Yeoman

I could talk about current conventions, a true anamorphic frame, 2.40:1 or 2.35:1 vs. a super 35mm frame 1.85:1.

After this point we get into the truly nerdy, Ben Hur’s (1959) aspect ratio of 2.93:1 shot on MGM’s camera 65 format,

Ben Hur, William Wyler (1959) cinematography by Robert L. Surtees
Ben Hur, William Wyler (1959) cinematography by Robert L. Surtees

or the real oddities of Polyvision 4.00:1 used for Napoleon (1927)

Napoleon (1927)
Napoleon (1927)
Napoleon (1927) 3projected images
Napoleon (1927) 3projected images

and Cinerama used for How The West Was Won (1962)

both used a 3 camera system that shot and then projected 3 images onto separate or curved screens to immerse the viewer in the image.

Perhaps the strangest aspect ratio ever seen on home video comes with the Blu-ray release of the classic 1962 Western How the West Was Won. The movie was photographed in the short-lived Cinerama format by a huge camera with three lenses. When displayed in a genuine Cinerama theatre, three projectors shone the movie onto an enormous curved screen that filled the viewers’ entire field of vision.

How the West Was Won (1953) on the screen at the Cinerama Dome
How the West Was Won (1953) on the screen at the Cinerama Dome

The effect is nearly impossible to reproduce on home video. Previous DVD and Laserdisc transfers crudely merged the three Cinerama segments into a single letterboxed image with join lines at the intersection of each panel. Due to registration and colouring errors, the sides of the picture often looked disconnected from the centre.

For the new Blu-ray release, Warner Home Video meticulously restored the movie by scanning each panel separately and digitally integrating them all back into one complete image. Warner has largely (though not entirely) removed the join lines, and the picture is vastly more consistent and satisfying in appearance.

As for the aspect ratio, Warner chose to include two very different transfers with the Blu-ray edition. Disc one contains a conventional letterboxed transfer with an ultra-wide 2.89:1 ratio. Disc two presents the movie in a brand-new process known as SmileBox. The process digitally bows the top and bottom of the film into a concave shape. SmileBox is intended to simulate the original experience of watching a Cinerama film on a 146-degree curved screen. From its highest point to its lowest, the SmileBox image measures 1.95:1, with dips in the center. According to David Strohmaier, director of the Cinerama Adventure documentary contained on the Blu-ray Disc, SmileBox was created with input from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and some top visual-effects talent in Los Angeles. The process was designed to re-create the viewpoint of a seat in the 12th to 14th rows of the Seattle Cinerama theater. Admittedly, it’s a unique- looking picture and may take some getting used to. But after a while, the curved effect can be quite compelling, especially when you watch it on a large home theater screen.

SmileBox, How the West was Won (1962)
SmileBox, How the West was Won (1962)

Of course, it’s not a perfect simulation. During the movie’s production, each of the three Cinerama camera lenses was angled in a different direction. The center lens aimed straight ahead, and the left and right lenses each aimed diagonally toward the opposite side. In theatrical exhibition, the three projectors (named Able, Baker, and Charlie) were arranged likewise. The leftmost Able projector shone onto the far right panel of the curved screen. Baker shone straight ahead, and Charlie (on the right) projected toward the left panel. Because of this unconventional process, both the flat letterbox and the SmileBox simulated curve have some degree of geometrical distortion, but in different ways. You can see this 9.5 minutes into the film when Jimmy Stewart paddles a canoe from screen left to screen right. When he hits the right-hand panel, the shape of the canoe seems to warp and bend away from the camera in the letterbox transfer. However, the boat moves in a fairly straight line in the SmileBox image. Elsewhere, a three-shot of characters at time code 2:26:07 looks normal in the letterbox version but is very oddly stretched in SmileBox. In the latter, Debbie Reynolds looks like she’s been flattened into a two- dimensional cutout and pasted onto the left side of the screen.

Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses. SmileBox doesn’t win everyone over. Former professional projectionist Vern Dias claims to have seen How the West Was Won in its original three-panel Cinerama more than 20 times. To him, “SmileBox approximates the view looking through the doors from the lobby or sitting in one of the rearmost rows of seats in the theater.” Dias says, “My favorite seat and the choice seat for full involvement in the action was to sit dead center in the row of seats that roughly lines up with the chord of the arc that the screen creates. This usually meant row 7 or 8 from the front but was dependent on the individual theater. This seat would closely correspond to the position of the camera when the movie was originally shot. When you sit in this sweet spot, you are located almost equidistant from all points of the screen, and the height at the center of the image does not appear to be significantly less than the height of the sides.” For the Blu-ray release, Dias prefers to watch the letterbox transfer on his front-projection screen.

To this, Strohmaier counters, “Every effort was made to do this SmileBox process correctly up to and including projecting 1962 historic three-panel Cinerama/MGM focus charts on the actual 146-degree Cinerama curved screens at the two existing Cinerama locations. This became the template for the SmileBox process. It was developed with very great care by people who knew and cared deeply for what they were doing.” In the end, the two aspect ratios for How the West Was Won come down to personal preference. Both are valid in their own ways. Thankfully, Warner provides both versions in the Blu-ray package.
Aspect Ratio Oddities, Sound and Vision (2009)


As a a photographer I tend to work in a 5:4 ratio, either with a large format camera or with a 6x7cm medium format camera, however I am increasingly driven to work with a wider image. In photography the main panoramic formats are 6x12cm or 6x17cm, along with the rarely used monster of 6x24cm. Many of my influences are second unit shots from motion pictures. Second unit shots invariably don’t contain any principle actors, whose time is expensive and therefore not to be wasted, they are usually “Pick-ups”. After the main unit has finished on a set or location, there may be shots that require some or all of this setting as background, but don’t require the principal actors. These shots might include things such as close-ups, inserts, cutaways, and establishing shots. To me these have always been the most interesting images and are an eloquent way to progress a story without the need for exposition. These are also the style of image that you will regularly see appearing in photographic narrative works.

My biggest panoramic influence in photography came while reading the History of the Photobook Vol 2 for the first time. Up until this point I had never come across the work of Josef Koudleka, in particular his Black Triangle, and Limestone books. Not only was I mesmerised by the beautiful black and white images but the striking wide format of his 6×17 camera

Lime, Josef Koudelka (2001)
Lime, Josef Koudelka (2001)
Josef Koudelka (2000)
Josef Koudelka (2000)

When working on several commissions in France, including playing a prominent role in the DATAR project,

Datar - en Lorraine, dans le Nord et à Paris, Josef Koudelka (1987)
Datar – en Lorraine, dans le Nord et à Paris, Josef Koudelka (1987)
Datar - en Lorraine, dans le Nord et à Paris, Josef Koudelka (1987)
Datar – en Lorraine, dans le Nord et à Paris, Josef Koudelka (1987)
Mission Photographique Transmanche (DATAR), Josef Koudelka, (1989)
Mission Photographique Transmanche (DATAR), Josef Koudelka, (1989)

the Czech Magnum member, Josef Koudelka, began to make photographs with a panoramic camera,

Mission Photographique Transmanche (DATAR), Josef Koudelka, (1989)
Mission Photographique Transmanche (DATAR), Josef Koudelka, (1989)
Mission Photographique Transmanche (DATAR), Josef Koudelka, (1989)
Mission Photographique Transmanche (DATAR), Josef Koudelka, (1989)

a tool that was particularly associated with his distinguished compatriot, Josek Sudek.

Prague panoramas, Josef Sudek (1956)
Prague panoramas, Josef Sudek (1956)
Prague panoramas, Josef Sudek (1956)
Prague panoramas, Josef Sudek (1956)

Koudelka took the lessons he learned in France with him when he returned to Czechoslovakia, and began to photograph the area known as The Black Triangle. Under the Communist government, where the extraction of coal and the production of electricity from coal fired power stations was an absolute state priority, this area became one of the most polluted in Europe.

Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)
Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)
Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)
Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)

In the foothills of the Ore Mountains, 75 million tonnes of coal from open cast mines were extracted annually… Koudelka’s panoramas show a devastated countryside, a war zone of blasted trees and vegetation, a landscape as atrophied and as wrecked as anything Paul Nash painted of the Somme… One might argue that Kouidelka is making beautiful images out of misery, and there is no denying that these are rich, dark-toned and sumptuous photographs. Koudelka is an unashamedly romantic artist, and has admitted that the region has a horrible beauty.
The History of the Photobook Vol 2, Gerry Badger & Martin Parr (2006)

Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)
Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)
Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)
Black Triangle, Josef Koudelka (1994)

Due to the cost of both of these books I know that the chances of me actually owning them is slim (even as obsessive purchaser of books I would find it impossible to justify the current £1000+ value of these books on the second hand market). I was however able to own a piece of Koudelka’s panoramic output with the release of Wall (2013) by Aperture. These images were taken along the security fence of the contested Israel/Palestine border. Comprising panoramic landscape photographs he made from 2008 to 2012 in East Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and in various Israeli settlements along the route of the barrier separating Israel and Palestine.

Wall, Josef Koudelka (2013)
Wall, Josef Koudelka (2013)

Whereas Israel calls it the “security fence,” Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall,” and groups like Human Rights Watch use the term “separation barrier,” the wall in Koudelka’s project is metaphorical in nature—focused on it as a human fissure in the natural landscape. Wall conveys the fraught relationships between humankind and nature and between closely related cultures.

Wall, Josef Koudelka (2013)
Wall, Josef Koudelka (2013)

The images aren’t flinching in their depiction of the wall, and act as a brutal reminder of the often forgotten realities of the on going conflict. They act as the perfect companion to Mark Thomas’ book Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun (2011).

Wall, Josef Koudelka (2013)
Wall, Josef Koudelka (2013)

I was first lead to Koudelka’s Wall by a tweet from Mark Power, who has also recently been experimenting with the panoramic image in a series of works, (I love) MARRAKECH (!), And POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA V: WISCONSIN, both (2013)

Sacred River, For 'Postcards from America V/Milwaukee'. Mark Power (2014)
Sacred River, For ‘Postcards from America V/Milwaukee’. Mark Power (2014)
USA. Wisconsin. Milwaukee. (W Michigan Ave and N 27th St). For 'Postcards from America V/Milwaukee'. Mark Power, April 6th 2014.
USA. Wisconsin. Milwaukee.
(W Michigan Ave and N 27th St).
For ‘Postcards from America V/Milwaukee’. Mark Power, April 6th 2014.
USA. Wisconsin. New Berlin. (W Nine Iron Ct). For 'Postcards from America V/Milwaukee'. Mark Power, April 7th 2014.
USA. Wisconsin. New Berlin.
(W Nine Iron Ct).
For ‘Postcards from America V/Milwaukee’. Mark Power, April 7th 2014.
USA. Wisconsin. Oak Creek. (Chicago Rd and Oakwood Rd). For 'Postcards from America V/Milwaukee'. April 5th 2014.
USA. Wisconsin. Oak Creek.
(Chicago Rd and Oakwood Rd).
For ‘Postcards from America V/Milwaukee’. April 5th 2014.

My own approach was led by my equipment, an (on-loan) Phase One back paired with an Alpa body. The camera allows two images to be made side-by-side which are then stitched together in Photoshop. Its resolution, two images of 80 megapixels each, enabled me to retain a discreet distance and, after a time, I seemed to become almost invisible.

(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)
(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)
(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)
(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)

In a city much over-photographed by tourists this method felt both sensible and appropriate, given the impossibility of being anything other than a tourist myself. I revelled in the beautiful, shambolic mess that is Marrakech, viewing the city as a stage, the play a series of scenes within scenes, pictures within pictures.

(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)
(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)
(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)
(I love) MARRAKECH (!), Mark Power (2013)

In a previous post I wrote about Toby Smith’s Lower Lea Valley images, taken from the series is a set of panoramic images that very much remind me of establishing shots from an Andrea Arnold or Lynne Ramsey film, full of a sense of loss and passing.

THE LEA VALLEY, Toby Smith (2007)
THE LEA VALLEY, Toby Smith (2007)
THE LEA VALLEY, Toby Smith (2007)
THE LEA VALLEY, Toby Smith (2007)
THE LEA VALLEY, Toby Smith (2007)
THE LEA VALLEY, Toby Smith (2007)
Fish tank, Andrea Arnold (2009)
Fish tank, Andrea Arnold (2009)

Another body of work I came across by accident is by Andreas Gronsky. Once in a blue moon Amazon recommendations throws up a book that is of interest to you and you don’t already own. In this case it was Gronsky’s Moscow Suburbs (2014). While I impatiently waited for it to turn up in the post I explored his website and came across an earlier body of work entitled Mountains and water (2011).

Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)
Mountains and Water, Andreas Gronsky (2011)

These instead of being taken with a panoramic roll film camera utilised taken two large format frames and presenting them as a diptych, it is the same as the method I used on The Smell of Bitumen (2007).

Port Talbot Two, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Port Talbot Two, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Grain, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Grain, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Canvey Island, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Canvey Island, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Barry, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Barry, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Fawley, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Fawley, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Canvey Island Two, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Canvey Island Two, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Port Talbot, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Port Talbot, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Harwich, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Harwich, The Smell of Bitumen, Simon Robinson (2007)
Massive Cherry Picker Adventure, location images from The Smell of Bitumen (2007)
Massive Cherry Picker Adventure, location images from The Smell of Bitumen (2007)
Massive Cherry Picker Adventure, location images from The Smell of Bitumen (2007)
Massive Cherry Picker Adventure, location images from The Smell of Bitumen (2007)
Massive Cherry Picker Adventure, location images from The Smell of Bitumen (2007)
Massive Cherry Picker Adventure, location images from The Smell of Bitumen (2007)

Many photographers use the same method to produce either a diptych (2 images) or a triptych (3 images). The advantage of using a large format camera is you can use the cameras movements to create a prospectively controlled image without the converging verticals and shifting vanishing points of rotating the camera to cover a wider frame.

While looking for examples of diptychs I came across a research project by Bowdoin College, a liberal art college (is there any other) in Maine USA. The project A River Lost and Found; The Androscoggin in Time and Place. Previously labelled as one of nation’s most polluted rivers, the Androscoggin River has slowly, if incompletely, recovered over time. Yet the river that allegedly inspired the 1972 Clean Water Act remains veiled in stereotype and ignored by the thousands who live along it.

Tree in Water (diptych), Gulf Island Pond, Greene, A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin in Time and Place (2011)
Tree in Water (diptych), Gulf Island Pond, Greene, A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin in Time and Place (2011)

“A River Lost and Found” explores the hidden past and neglected present of this important New England waterway. Our collaborative project combines photography, oral history, archival research, and non-fiction writing. Here we present a selection of our still-unfolding work. Together we ask how an injured river might reveal an ethic of place that embraces the complexities of human and natural history together. Our answers may suggest how we can embrace places that are neither pristine nor completely despoiled—the very places so many of us call home.

Durham Boat Launch (triptych), A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin in Time and Place (2011)
Durham Boat Launch (triptych), A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin in Time and Place (2011)

The images produced include a series of ambrotypes, either as diptychs or triptychs. While the methodology or subject matter aren’t identical to my work it is very interesting to see similar ideas being utilised.

View of Bates Mill from Auburn (diptych), A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin in Time and Place (2011)
View of Bates Mill from Auburn (diptych), A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin in Time and Place (2011)

For my image I have been using a 612 back on my large format camera, as it is the cheapest way I can produce panoramic images, and allows me to cover a range of formats with a single camera, while maintaining camera movements for perspective control.

One of the things that creating panoramic images on my DSLR has thrown up is how much framing influence I have absorbed from motion pictures, and one of my supervisors has asked if I intend to move into moving image. I am currently trying to develop my topographic image style into something less removed from the landscape. I have considered trying to produce topographic motion stills that mimic the large format image. By incorporating time, motion and sound into these moving stills (no camera movement) I hope for them to act as establishing shots to the wider narrative of the locales. I am currently hoping to purchase a Panasonic GH4 which will allow me to shoot ultra high definition images (four times the size of current High def TV) that can then be projected as diptychs, emulating the work on How The West Was Won, and partly inspired by David Hockney’s Wold video works from his Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy. This work utilised nine or eighteen digital cameras filming the landscape to create a moving ‘Hockney Joiner’.

We are watching 18 screens showing high-definition images captured by nine cameras. Each camera was set at a different angle, and many were set at different exposures. In some cases, the images were filmed a few seconds apart, so the viewer is looking, simultaneously, at two different points in time. The result is a moving collage, a sight that has never quite been seen before. But what the cameras are pointing at is so ordinary that most of us would drive past it with scarcely a glance.

At the moment, the 18 screens are showing a slow progression along a country road. We are looking at grasses, wildflowers, and plants at very close quarters and from slightly varying points of view. The nine screens on the right show, at a time delay, the images just seen on the left. The effect is a little like a medieval tapestry, or Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century painting of Paradise, but also somehow new. “A lot of people who were standing in the middle of the Garden of Eden wouldn’t know they were there,” Hockney says.

"MAY 11TH 2011 WOLDGATE 12:45PM"  18 DIGITAL VIDEOS SYNCHRONIZED AND PRESENTED ON 18 55" NEC SCREENS TO COMPRISE A SINGLE ART WORK, 27 X 47 1/8" EACH 81 X 287" OVERALL DURATION: 2:00 © DAVID HOCKNEY
“MAY 11TH 2011 WOLDGATE 12:45PM”,  DAVID HOCKNEY

The multiple moving images have some properties entirely different from those of a projected film. A single screen directs your attention; you look where the camera was pointed. With multiple screens, you choose where to look. And the closer you move to each high-definition image, the more you see.

0911-reviews-c-x616

Hockney’s technology assistant, Jonathan Wilkinson, explains how this 21st-century medium works. “We use nine Canon 5D Mark II cameras on a rig we’ve made, mounted on a vehicle—either on the boot or on the side. Those are connected to nine monitors. I set it up initially, taking instructions from David, to block it in. At that point we decide the focal length and exposure of each camera. There are motorized heads with which we can pan and tilt, once we’ve got going, while we’re moving along. There’s a remote system he can operate from the car.”

0911-reviews-b-x616

The wild plants at the side of the road are only one subject. A number of other films chart the sequence of the seasons in the quiet corner of the English countryside where Hockney now spends much of his time. These too present a subject that is centuries old (the four seasons were a feature of medieval books of hours), but with a twist made possible by technology that became available only very recently.

 WOLDGATE WOODS, David Hockney
WOLDGATE WOODS, David Hockney

They offer a lesson in the startling changes in vegetation, quality of light, and patterns of shadow that a few months will bring. The left-hand side will show, say, a progression down a country road in early spring, the right-hand side the same journey taken at exactly the same speed past the identical trees, fields, and bushes in high summer: the same, but utterly transformed. Because it is in practice impossible to drive at absolutely the same speed along a road in spring, summer, and winter, the precise synchronization of these sequences is achieved by editing. “Because we’ve done things at different times of the year,” as Wilkinson puts it, “we remap time to get them in the same place simultaneously in each film.”

 WOLDGATE WOODS, David Hockney
WOLDGATE WOODS, David Hockney

“A lot of people have told me,” Hockney remarks, “that before they see these films they can’t imagine what nine cameras could do that one can’t. When they see them, they understand. It’s showing a lot more; there’s simply a lot more to see. It seems you can see almost more on these screens than if you were really there. Everything is in focus, so you’re looking at something very complicated but with incredible clarity.” In a way, this is a matter of multiplication: nine cameras see many times more than one.

Furthermore, Hockney believes that his multiscreen film collages are closer than conventional photography to the actual experience of human vision: “We’re forcing you to look, because you have to scan, and in doing so you notice all the different textures in each screen. These films are making a critique of the one-camera view of the world. The point is that one camera can’t show you that much.”

"MAY 11TH 2011 WOLDGATE WOODS 1:45PM" 18 DIGITAL VIDEOS SYNCHRONIZED AND PRESENTED ON 18 55" NEC SCREENS TO COMPRISE A SINGLE ART WORK, 27 X 47 1/8" EACH 81 X 287" OVERALL DURATION: 2:00 © DAVID HOCKNEY
“MAY 11TH 2011 WOLDGATE WOODS 1:45PM”, DAVID HOCKNEY

The deep depth of focus and resolution within Hockney’s multiple camera works is very reminiscent of the large format image, but is not something that is often currently found in cinema. The current trend is for limited depth of field and tighter shots, even though there is a huge history of deep focus within cinema, especially in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, exquisitely shot by Greg Toland.

When looking for other notable example I came across Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964).

Red Desert, set in an awesomely large dockside industrial area near Ravenna, proved that the director was as adventurous and revolutionary with colour as he had been with framing and composition. Shot after shot in this movie fires the mind and the senses, even if it’s some smokestack belching poisonous yellow smoke. See Landscapes of deliquescence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, http://www.matthewgandy.org/datalive/downloadfiles/Gandy8.pdf

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma
Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

michelangelo-antonioni-red-desert-04

Below are some of my previous images, cropped into a 2.4:1 ratio to emulate second unit shots from an unmade film about Estuary England.  I will be posting more recent panoramic images in the next few posts.

Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- West Thurrock, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Estuary English- Purfleet, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)
Cobholm Island- Great Yarmouth, Simon Robinson (2012)

 

 

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

I ain’t gonna take it no more.
I ain’t gonna take it no more.
I ain’t gonna stand idly by while the bridal reply of a marriage of styles is
“Yeah, but what’s their demographic?”

I ain’t gonna take it no more.
I ain’t gonna take it no more.
I ain’t gonna stand idly by with a tut and a sigh while inside we all cry out for something new.

I ain’t gonna take it no more.
I ain’t gonna take it no more.
Soulless music, artless lyrics.
Goalless movements, heartless gimmicks.
Controlled and clueless, careers lasting a minute.
If this is the big life, well I ain’t lookin’ to live it.
We ain’t pushing the boundaries, we’re blowing them up.
We ain’t trying to expand the scene, we want the scene to erupt.

So make some room on the floor and somebody bolt the doors cos tonight. we ain’t seeking applause.
Tonight… Well, gee,
we’re just looking to have some good new-fashioned fun, y’all.

The Beat that my Heart Skipped, Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip (2008)


I have always had a passion for books, but my love of photography books as objects didn’t happen till late in my photographic education. Like many students we were made to do an artist’s book unit in our first year at Falmouth, however along with many other things that I am still resentful for, this was so poorly explained and managed that I took no enjoyment from it. This is the one and only time I have ever been failed for a unit and forced to redo the whole thing. I made a notebook journal, filled with polaroids of my mates and I getting “pissed up”, these were held in place with cellotape and interspersed with my memories of the period, in the form of diary entries. Now a days I could contextualise this with endless examples of the DIY aesthetic, but at the time I was clueless and angry with being held back by stupid briefs (time). I was going to refuse to play their version of the twee craft artist book.

Simon's Diary May 2003 (or until the money runs out)
Simon’s Diary May 2003 (or until the money runs out)
I wish I could afford scampi, Diary detail (2003)
I wish I could afford scampi, Diary detail (2003)
all night drinking, Diary detail (2003)
all night drinking, Diary detail (2003)

The version of the book that I had to make to pass, was 24hrs on the beach in one spot, housed in a book made of toweling, with decorative hand marbled end papers, all housed in a canvas toe bag. I still keep both to remind me to stick to my guns, however originally I kept it to remind me not to eff up again and play the game. The version I was forced to produce is horrific and I’m still angry about it

Simon Robinson, Time, Tote and toweling cover (2003)
Simon Robinson, Time, Tote and toweling cover (2003)
Simon Robinson, Time, marbled end paper (2003)
Simon Robinson, Time, marbled end paper (2003)
Simon Robinson, Time, (2003)
Simon Robinson, Time, (2003)

With the element of hindsight the original is far closer to my eventual aesthetic than I ever knew at the time. Scanning it’s pages it reads like a proto-version of this blog, but with more teen angst and misguided pathos. It captured a moment in my life when I came very close to dropping out and wasn’t coping with uni. the final page “the first of many” was taken at the end of my first year, and within a month half of the people in the images wouldn’t talk to one another ever again, bearing grudges that stand to this day.

The first of many, Diary detail (2003)
The first of many, Diary detail (2003)

My passion didn’t kick in until my MA at Rochester, and it was down to two events. The first being the publications of the history of the Photobook Volume 1 & 2, which for the first time allowed me to see the scope of the field.

Screen shot 2011-07-28 at 7.10.17 PM 6The second was the V&A’s Blood on Paper exhibition

The incredible catalog is still one of my most prized books, and at the time as a poor student was a hard purchase to justify, due to it’s price.

Blood on Paper (2006)
Blood on Paper (2006)

From the moment I walked into the darkened space to be confronted by the range of publications, I Knew I was in love, it was the beat that my heart skipped, like the moment I developed my first photo, or seeing Thomas Struth’s images at the Met. The floor opened up and suddenly I could see the potential of the subject, photography wasn’t about prints on the wall, it was about audience, curation, and spectacle. Ever since that point I have made book dummies and encouraged my students to think about the presentation of their work, how its intentions change dependent on it’s publication outcomes.


I feel slightly odd writing this post because it goes into things that I have barely discussed with my supervisors except in passing. They are well aware that I was offered two studentships at two very different universities, each involved working out of two differing research clusters and approaching the thesis in differing but interconnected ways. The one I accepted was the AHRC funding at LCC, working out of the Photography and Archive Research Centre, somewhere that with hindsight is the perfect fit, however at the time it was more difficult decision. The other was UCA Farnham’s BookRoom cluster, and since I turned it down, my potential supervisor, whom I felt I had built the start of a rapport with, hasn’t spoken to me.

Before this point however I spent two years working with Norwich University of the Arts on designing the thesis as a joint body of work between my wife and myself, joint bodies of practice with linked thesis, based on a research methodology from theater research where the outcome will always be collaborative. I am in debt to my wife’s input throughout the entire process, I have stolen countless ideas from conversations we have had and never fully thank her for them.

The two things that this work was always supposed to be was collaborative and book based. However during the last year this hasn’t really been discussed, except for briefly wanting to one day roll the project out as a wider commission, which Val wisely pointed out to me was for way in the future.

Hopefully by putting these intentions on paper it will force me to move them forward. Until I started writing this blog I never considered myself to be much of a writer, however I am increasingly becoming more comfortable with my written voice. Val is pushing me to find a way that these blog posts can become a tangible object. We had discussed using them as the basis for a show at PARC, hopefully in Feb/March 2015, mixing my words, images, videos, and sound recordings. I am incredibly excited by the possibility of this, but an exhibition is still an ephemeral item, you can’t hold it, or own it, to look at and explore in your old time.


My intentions for the work have always been wider than I am able to produce in the current time frame. The blog allows me to bring together and share all the sources that inform my work, but I, like many people actually find it very hard to read and absorb information from a screen, instead printing all my PDFs so I can read them at a later time, making notes etc. I obviously have always intended to produce a series of artist books for each region within my work, but I would also like to produce a series of publications that bring together my work, with that of others working in the field of urbanism.

The single most important invention of the second millennia was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. The moment the written word stopped being the domain of the state and church, and was open to the masses is the day that activism started.

How can you think freely in the shadow of a chapel, Situationist graffiti (1968)
How can you think freely in the shadow of a chapel, Situationist graffiti (1968)

The birth of psychogeography as an idea can be traced back to Guy Debord, and the Situationists International movement. An organisation born out of surrealism and the avant-garde movement, whose aims were to challenge the Marxist notion of capitalism and replace the bourgeois nature of western society. Like all good anarchic left wing organisations they were keen publishers of journals as a means to disseminate their manifesto.

The first use of the term psychogeography can be traced back to Potlatch #1 (which ran for 27 issues), of which 50 copies where printed and circulated as gifts. However it was not until the Situationists published their own journal that a coherent idea emerged. International Situationiste published a glossary of terms;

Internationale Situationniste No 4
Internationale Situationniste No 4

Situationist
Having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. A member of the Situationist International.

Situationism
A meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as Situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of Situationism is obviously devised by anti-Situationists.

Psychogeography
The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.

Psychogeographical
Relating to psychogeography. That which manifests the geographical environment’s direct emotional effects.

Psychogeographer
One who explores and reports on the psychogeographical phenomena

Dérive
A mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances. Also used to designate a specific period of continuous deriving.

Unitary Urbanism
The theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation to the experiments in behaviour.

Détournment
Short for: détournment of pre-existing aesthetic elements. The integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In the sense there can be no Situationist painting or music, but only a situations use of the means. In a more primitives sense détournment within the old cultural sphere is a method of propaganda, a method that testifies to the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.

Minor Détournment
An element which has no importance in itself and which draws all it’s meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph.


I am very aware as I proofread this that it has become very heavy, very quickly. The point I’m trying to make is like all subversive political movements the journal or pamphlet is the key method of dissemination. The Situationist International’s methods had a huge influence in counter culture movements in the proceeding years. Especially in the anti establishment politics of Oz or the punk movement, when the zine took hold, with its anarchic content and cheap cut and paste content, every page dripping with anger and resentment at the old guard.

Oz Magazine
Oz Magazine

On the pages of John Savage’s London’s Outrage (1976),

London's Outrage No 2 Cover, Jon Savage
London’s Outrage No 2 Cover, Jon Savage
London's Outrage No 2, Jon Savage
London’s Outrage No 2, Jon Savage
Same Thing day after day, London's Outrage No 2, Jon Savage
Same Thing day after day, London’s Outrage No 2, Jon Savage

and Linder Sterling’s Secret Public,

The Secret Public, Linda Sterling
The Secret Public, Linda Sterling
The Secret Public, Linda Sterling
The Secret Public, Linda Sterling

Audience were introduced to left wing politics, trade unions and feminism. While I have never enjoyed the aesthetics or sounds of the punk era, I can’t help be appreciative of their energy, and content. Savage’s images were recently shown at Tate Britain as part of the Ruin Lust (2014) exhibition, here they were shown out of context with no text linking them to their past use.

Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)
Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)

These photos were taken on an old Pentax during January 1977: their purpose was to serve as an image bank for the second issue of the fanzine London’s Outrage. The location was the square of North Kensington that lies between Holland Park Road, the Shepherd’s Bush spur, Westbourne Park Road and the Harrow Road.

Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)
Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)

The bulk of the images come from the streets around Latimer Road and Lancaster Road: the district called Notting Dale. Here, as in other inner London areas like W9 (the Chippenham) and WC2 (Covent Garden), the tide of industry and humanity had temporarily receded. Slum housing stock had been demolished, but there was no reconstruction: squatting communities like Frestonia (based in Notting Dale’s Freston Road) occupied the remaining buildings. Not yet the clichés of punk iconography, large tower blocks loomed like primitive monsters above the rubble and the corrugated iron. I was guided to this area after seeing the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I was very taken with the Clash, partly because their North Kensington manor was so close to mine. Songs like “How Can I Understand The Flies” and “London’s Burning” reflected their environment with precision and passion. London was very poor in the late seventies. The Clash and the Sex Pistols – the guttersnipes and the flowers in the dustbin – spoke of the human cost. This focus on the forgotten parts of the city was part of the social realism that would soon swallow punk. There was, however, something futuristic in this desolate landscape. The landscape that had been cleared to allow the Westway’s serpentine path opened up a gap that allowed imaginative and physical space. By 1976, the ideas contained in J.G.Ballard’s “Crash” and “High Rise” were like spores in the wind.

Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)
Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)

Like the dub reggae that saturated parts of West London, early Clash songs like ‘How Can I Understand The Flies’, with their instrumental drop-out, incorporated these gaps into their very fabric. The hyper-speed velocity of the Clash’s early live shows were, in part, an indication of the energy that came from seeing London’s dereliction as an opportunity: the forgotten city as playground. These areas are unrecognisable today. There are dwellings, theme pubs, smart media offices, cars, a new leisure centre. This regeneration is better, surely, than the blasted landscape of 30 years ago. But there was a kind of freedom in London’s spaces: before it became trapped in mass media definitions and music industry marketing, Punk offered a way of envisioning the metropolis anew, of redrawing its mental and physical map, that is now impossible.
Jon Savage

Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)
Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)

The aesthetic and sentiment of the punk era has found it ways into many psychogeographic publications of the post punk era, whether in the work of Tom Vague’s Vague, later Vague: Psychic Terrorism Annual. Arguably the best of the early eighties post punk scenes, Vague was a major work.

London Psychogeography: Rachman Riots and Rillington Place, Vague (1988)
London Psychogeography: Rachman Riots and Rillington Place, Vague (1988)

It was thick, well bound and full of massive sprawling articles on pre fame Adam And The Ants, the proto Goth scene, squatting, anarchism, Apocolpyse Now and long road stories, it felt radical and editor Tom Vague was bang in the middle of an emerging subculture that would soon be mislabeled Goth, he was there at a time when it was radical and thrilling and reflected it in his superb writing. It would later include a heavy psychogeographic element with important issues such as ‘Rachman Riots and Rillington Place’, an episodic treatment of certain key moment in the recent history of Nothing Hill.

On the face of it Vague’s treatment of history is conventional to the point of barbaric idiocy: his use of a timeline to structure the narrative can hardly be called sophisticated and his refusal to interpret events or people psychologically or sociologically would be below most hystoriographers.

Almost all history is written by dinosaurs but Vague is of the 1-2-3-GO! school and the result, raw and elementary, creates a lot of space for your own associations, relevant knowledge and mental garbage to fill the gaps. In the context of psychogeography Vague is moving in the opposite direction of most psychogeo writers. Instead of writing about a spatial entity from the perspective of the individual (place and space presented as malformed after a rollercoaster ride through the maelstrom of the personal madness and deep emotions of a very special person (as, you are aware, all writers (boring fucks) are)). If you read carefully – the last page gives the biggest clue – Vague presents this almost as the autobiography of Nothing Hill with him as the inspired mouthpiece, his own biography mixed with that of the subject. He is the place.
Cryptoforestry Inner City Reforestation in Utrecht and the G/Local Amazon; Psychogeography is involved. (2011)

I first came across the work of Laura Oldfield Ford in the sterile pages of Blueprint, just like Savage’s work finding a new home in the gallery setting, it was neutered of it’s original intentions and it was difficult to think of her as more than an interloper in other peoples lives. The gallery is now her primary method of dissemination, but her intentions of the work remain the same, “psychogeography has become a depolitical bourgeois activity, thanks to Will Self and cohorts, I want to return it to a Situationist perspective, a stringent urban critique, a method of geopolitical interrogation.”

Wapping, Laura Oldfield Ford
Wapping, Laura Oldfield Ford
Brutalist Estate, Laura Oldfield Ford
Brutalist Estate, Laura Oldfield Ford

Born in Halifax as the textiles industry was being ripped apart by Conservative Britain, she became involved in the early 90s squatting and rave scene, of the kind depicted by Tom Hunter in Le Crowbar (2013), far removed from the hysteria I remember growing up in the M25 belt, depicted luridly in the local news.

The Total Resistance soundsystem, Tom Hunter, Le Crowbar (2013)
The Total Resistance soundsystem, Tom Hunter, Le Crowbar (2013)

It would be in the Pages of her zine Savage Messiah (2005-09) that she would find an outlet for her anger at London’s gentrification and community alienation. Each issue would focus on a different London postcode.

Savage Messiah cover, Laura Oldfield Ford
Savage Messiah cover, Laura Oldfield Ford

In 2008 Owen Hatherley named Savage Messiah 10: Abandoned London as one of his “books of the year”, describing it as “an oneiric vision of a depopulated, post-catastrophe capital, pieced together from snatched conversations and reminiscences, set in a landscape of the labyrinthine ruins of 1960s architecture and today’s negative-equity banlieue. (French suburb, or increasingly American style housing ‘Project’”In 2011, Hari Kunzru listed Verso Books’s publication of Savage Messiah in book form as a “book of the year” and described it as “a wake-up call to anyone who can only see modern cities through the lens of gentrification.” In a 2013 review for the American Book Review, Sukhdev Sandhu described the Verso publication as an example of “invisible literature” and “avant-pulp psychogeography” able “to rekindle erased histories of popular dissent from the 1970s to the 1990s”, and one relevant to “a new and possibly endless age of austerity”

Savage Messiah detail, Laura Oldfield Ford
Savage Messiah detail, Laura Oldfield Ford
Savage Messiah detail, Laura Oldfield Ford
Savage Messiah detail, Laura Oldfield Ford

Laura Oldfield Ford’s samizdat pamphlets, recording moody expeditions, pub crawls, mooches through the kingdom of the dead that is liminal London. Even the author’s name seemed like a serendipitous marriage of Blake’s Old Ford and the poet Charles Olson’s notion of open-field poetics (the contrary of the current fetish for enclosures). The original Savage Messiah “zines” are serial diaries of ranting and posing among ruins. Ford delivers the prose equivalent of a photo-romance in quest of a savage messiah with attitude, cheekbones and wolverine eyes. A feral, leather-jacketed manifestation of place.

Collided into a great block, the catalogue of urban rambles takes on a new identity as a fractured novel of the city. Slim pamphlets, now curated and glossily repackaged, have an awkward relationship with their guerrilla source. With a formal introduction and a cover price a penny short of £20, it is difficult to sustain the swagger of the throwaway form, strategically manipulated to look like dirty sheets on which you can smell the ink, glue, semen and toxic mud. The structure depends on a steady drip-feed of quotes from JG Ballard, Italo Calvino, Guy Debord, Walter Benjamin. White men all, festering in elective suburbs of hell, where they labour to finesse a paradise park of language.

Bristol Zine, Laura Oldfield Ford (reminiscent of Jon Savage)
Bristol Zine, Laura Oldfield Ford (reminiscent of Jon Savage)
Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)
Uninhabited London, Jon Savage (1977-2008)

Moving beyond this relentless Xeroxing of the entire genealogy of protest from Blast to Sniffin’ Glue, by way of Situationism and psychogeography, Oldfield Ford displays authentic gifts as a recorder and mapper of terrain. She is a necessary kind of writer, smart enough to bring document and poetry together in a scissors-and-paste, post-authorial form. Like so many before her, psychotic or inspired, she trudges far enough to dissolve ego and to identify with the non-spaces into which she is voyaging. “This unknown territory has become my biography.” Her story is eroticised by the prospect of riot, anecdotes teased from smouldering industrial relics. The “euphoric levitation” of brutalist tower blocks. Post-coital reveries from “an ugly night on ketamine in a New Cross squat”.
Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford – review, An inspired collection of urban rambles, The Guardian (2011)


Technology has moved us away from the cut and paste photocopy zine of punk and post punk eras. The development of digital offset printing as seen a resurgence in indie publishing, in a myriad of forms. Once again the medium has been liberated from the bourgeois and is been used by the everyday to tell their own stories. A new generation is combining digital technology with the traditional craft of the artist’s book as a means to produce mass produced publications. Old technologies, such as Risographs, originally designed as a cheap duplicator for churches, schools and prisons, and vintage printing presses, have been re-appropriated from second hand sales, leading to re-embracing of the arts and craft studio, pioneered by Morris, Burne-Jones and Ruskin.

Risograph Printer, Ditto Press
Risograph Printer, Ditto Press

One of these new breed of studios and publishing imprints is Ditto, speaking here in the British Journal Of Photography about the formation of their business.

The duo spent the next two months sourcing equipment, much of which was bought second-hand. Central to there plan was the Risograph – a high-speed digital printing system that was launched by the Riso Kagaku Corporation in 1986, but at the time gained little traction in the photography or creative industries.

We were the first company in the country to use it. There was a company in Holland printing on them for about 15 years, a company in Switzerland using them to print their own books, and a guy in America who was a fan, but when we started, if you Googled Risograph you wouldn’t find much.

We came upon it at the right time – the credit crunch meant paper companies shut down; printing companies shut down and budgets disappeared. If someone did a graduation show, the budget for the catalogue used to be £15,000 and people would sponsor it. Suddenly because of the electronic printing revolution, the economic slowdown and the printing industry dying, budgets were more like £3000-4000. Students and galleries don’t have huge amounts of money to spend on printing collateral any more.

Enter this print process, where you can print fluorescent pink on beautiful paper for £50, and suddenly everyone wanted to use it because there were no options, other than digital that looks kind of soulless…

Herschel Telescope, Ditto Press
Herschel Telescope, Ditto Press

It obviously doesn’t suit everything, if you want photos to look crystal clear, then digital or offset printing is the best way to do it. Where it works best is when people think, ‘OK, this is how the process looks, I’ll design a book to make the most of that process.’

If you where to now Google Risograph you would find a multitude of Studios/Collective/Imprints/Presses using the technology, Hato, Two Press, Bolt, Victory Press, etc.


At the other end of the craft spectrum are collectives, buying up and reusing moveable type. The London Centre for Book Arts (LCBA) is an open-access educational and resource centre dedicated to book arts. Based in what was once the heart of London’s print industry in Fish Island, close to Hackney Wick in east London, LCBA fosters and promotes artists working in book form and self-publishing. They offer access to specialist printing and binding facilities, and run workshops on a variety of subjects related to book arts. As well as encourage collaboration and dialogue, and running an exhibition programme highlighting work being done regionally and beyond.

While these facilities have been available for years at our specialist art colleges, London College of Communication, Camberwell College of Art, UCA Farnham’s BookRoom Cluster and the University of West England’s Book Arts at the Centre for Fine Print Research. This is the first major resource that anybody can access on a membership basis.

The BookRoom space
The BookRoom space

Some people travel the US to see the sights and bright lights, to maybe lose themselves in the kitsch of Vegas or Hollywood’s craziness. Simon Goode, on the other hand, roamed the country to explore the joys of papermaking, typesetting and bookbinding.

“The trip was like a holy grail,” he said, rhapsodising over three months travelling from New York to Los Angeles on a mission that has helped result in Britain’s first ever centre for a craft that is in danger of disappearing: book arts.

That term may be a mystery to some. “It is a difficult one to define and still, to this day, a lot of people don’t know exactly how to define it,” admits Goode.

Essentially, it is creating art in book form. “Then you’ve got the question, what is a book?” he added. “My experiences define it as using traditional techniques, like bookbinding and letterpress making – but not wholly, and not exclusively – for artists to produce their own works.”

If that’s still fuzzy, then Goode hopes people might just come along to his centre to explore an art form whose practitioners have included Richard Long, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha, whose first artist’s book was Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, which featured 26 photographs of just that. In the UK, the largest number of artists’ books is held by the V&A, while Tate has about 5,500.

Goode said it was something of an anomaly in the UK that while there has been no centre until now, there are plenty of artists’ book fairs and shops where the books are sold.

That’s not the case in the US, where the first book arts centre opened in New York 38 years ago, with others following in cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Goode said his trip to the US “visiting these incredible institutions” was a complete eye-opener and that it was these experiences which led him to create the London Centre for Book Arts in a 365-square metre space in Fish Island, Hackney, which has been funded by membership fees and benefactors.

Clive Phillpot, a former director of the Museum of Modern Art’s library in New York, said it was “remarkable that a capital city such as London has not previously had a specific centre for book arts”.

Goode’s mission has been driven by his experiences when he graduated from his book arts course – now earmarked for closure (since closed)– at the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing) in 2006.

“I soon found out there was nowhere for me to use all these bits of specialised equipment that I’d learned. I spent three years learning all these bookbinding and printmaking techniques, it was amazing and I had a brilliant time and I wanted to carry on, but there was simply no access,” he said.

“Unless you can afford to buy all your own equipment, and you’ve got a living room with reinforced floors, there’s no way of doing it.”

It took two weeks to move in the specialist equipment that Goode had been accumulating and storing in garages over the years, including an impressively intimidating Victorian guillotine once owned by Ted Hughes, who used it for his own small press publications. That has been donated by the University of the West of England in Bristol, while a wooden press from 1897 comes from a former printer in Birmingham who sold it ridiculously cheap so it went to a good home.

“It is a little bit dangerous, which is why it’s chained up at the moment,” said Goode. “It’s not for use by anyone other than myself really. It looks nice though – and it does work.”

Simon Goodge, London Centre for Book Arts
Simon Goodge, London Centre for Book Arts

Goode opens the centre later this month and hopes to have about 2,000 people through the doors in its first year.

The opening has been welcomed by people in the book arts world. Sarah Bodman, senior research fellow for artists’ books at the University of the West of England’s centre for fine print research, said the UK needed to establish something similar to the American example.
“The UK needs a model like this to open and support the creative economy and help artists to produce book works, build upon their skills and network with their peers,” she said.
New chapter opens with Britain’s first centre for book arts, The Guardian (2013)


Last Days of W, Alec Soth (2008)
Last Days of W, Alec Soth (2008)

Another sector of the indie print industry that is flourishing is newsprint, used for several years by photographers like Alec Soth, Last Days of W, (2008) and his series LBM Dispatch, which is now embarking on its final journey through the state of Georgia USA. Since it’s inception in 2012 with Ohio.

LBM Dispatch #4: Three Valleys, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar (2013)
LBM Dispatch #4: Three Valleys, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar (2013)
LBM Dispatch, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar (2013)
LBM Dispatch, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar (2013)

The LBM Dispatch is an irregularly published newspaper of the North American ramblings of photographer Alec Soth and writer Brad Zellar. Over the course of one week in May 2012, Alec Soth & Brad Zellar visited a dozen towns and cities throughout Ohio in search of community life, and along the way recorded the faces and voices of people longing to connect with their neighbors. This newspaper was published one week after Soth & Zellar returned from Ohio.

LBM Dispatch, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar (2013)
LBM Dispatch, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar (2013)

I didn’t want a big book so I decided to self publish it as a newspaper. It was a goof, and I ended up having a lot of fun with it. LBM (Little Brown Mushroom) is a lemonade stand and, with each project, I want to keep that in mind. If it gets too serious, if it becomes a business or a job, then I want to back off. My goal is not to get too serious – to break even, not to grow, not to make money.
Alec Soth

The UK company Newspaper Club has created a business that allows people to easily produce newspapers in arrange of sizes and page numbers. A quick look at their blog shows how readily the creative industries have taken to the throw away medium.

Photographers are choosing newsprint for a number of reasons, Soth spoke of liking the non archival quality of the newsprint. “In 40 years from now, I want to pull out an old yellow copy and show it to my grandchildren and say, ‘I published this at the end of George Bush’s presidency’.” Jason larkin chose it for the unfinished feel, and to complement the Subject of Cairo Divided, a city in a state of flux. The decision was also born out of the frustration of how the main stream press were treating photo journalism, a two year project would be condensed to six pages.

Cairo Divided, Jason Larkin (2011)
Cairo Divided, Jason Larkin (2011)

“It’s a reality of the marketplace, but I was very interested in expanding the project in terms of the number of pages, and also the size of these pages. I wanted to be able to print the landscapes big. When you open up a newspaper you realise there’s quite a lot of space there.”
Jason Larkin

Rob Hornstra of The Sochi Project talks of the versatility and audience that a newspaper can encompass.

It was a very small story, so it just didn’t feel right to print it in a photobook. We wanted to be able to distribute this newspaper in different places across Europe and for different purposes. Sometimes the newspaper would act as a catalogue for the exhibition, other times we would just distribute it to people on the streets, and in some cases it acted as the exhibition itself, pinned to the wall. So the designers and myself made the decision to create assort of multifunctional newspaper…

On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)
On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)
On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)
On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)

Printing newspaper is a brilliant way to get a story out. If you use newsprint you can give it away for free. Of course you can charge for it, but that’s really stupid…

If you do a photobook, your story won’t be seen by many people. With Newspaper, you can spread it round…

On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)
On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)

In Japan, they are producing some really beautiful newspapers that are really different from what we expect newspapers to look like. That’s the problem we’re facing, people are still thinking about the idea of it being an actual newspaper. You shouldn’t. You should think about it as a series of pages with which you can do whatever you want. Most newspapers I’ve seen are still fairly conservative. But you can turn it in all directions; readers can create their own layout and sequence. You can fold it in two or in four. You can print across several spreads to make a poster. We can learn a lot about it from the Japanese market. I think it will be very interesting to see how it’s used in the future.
Rob Hornstra

On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)
On the Other Side of the Mountain, Rob Hornstra (2010)

The importance of the Japanese photobook cannot be underplayed, for many this was a closed community, little known outside of it’s country of origin or very specialist collectors. It wasn’t unit Badger and Parr dedicated a chapter of their seminal History of the Photobook Vol 1 (2004) that the art community as a whole was able to get their introduction to it. It is unsurprising that a culture that holds craft in such reverie that craftsman can be certified as Living National Treasures by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, should embrace that photobook as the primary medium of displaying work.

Japan in the 1960s and early 70s marks a highpoint in the history of the photobook, another of those briefs periods, like Russia in the 1930s, when photographic book publishing was at the forefront of the cultural renaissance that touched all the arts. The iconoclastic photo-magazine Provoke had a vital influence on Japanese photography and all the Japanese photobook. It was an influence that one might contend, that was out of all proportions to the mere three issues published during its short, hectic existence.
History of the Photobook Vol 1, Badger & Parr (2004)

Provoke
Provoke

Provoke (Purovōku) was an experimental magazine founded by photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Koji Taki, and writer Takahiko Okada in 1968. The magazine’s subtitle read as: shisō no tame no chōhatsuteki shiryō (Provocative documents for the sake of thought). Photographer Daido Moriyama is most often associated with the publication, but Moriyama did not join the magazine until the second issue. Provoke lasted only three issues with a small print run, but remains an important cultural artifact of the postwar era.

Provoke 3
Provoke 3

The magazine sought to be, in accordance with its namesake, a provocation to Japanese society and specifically its photographic culture, at the time mostly relegated to staid, European-style photojournalism and straightforward commercial photography. They sought to awaken and refresh the aesthetics of existing photography and question the increasingly commercial visual language of Japanese society following the havoc wreaked by war. Considering Provoke. Artist Dan Graham once saying of his conceptual magazine works, “I love magazines because they are like pop songs, easily disposable, dealing with momentary pleasures.”

Indeed, a strength of the magazine as medium is its very ephemerality and serial nature. It has the ability to capture the artist’s pure reaction and burning mood, and in the case of Provoke, a sort of subdued anti-commerciality following national tragedy. Magazines are rarely difficult to produce or consume and can be more widely circulated than other kinds of artwork. And because they are often produced in editions, the weight of a single issue isn’t as highly estimated in the artist or audience’s mind as a singular painting or sculpture might be. While Provoke is far from being considered disposable (now rare and highly collectible), it’s useful to consider these rudiments of magazine as conceptual medium in the case of Provoke and its legacy.

Provoke, page detail
Provoke, page detail

One book by Daido Moriyama has gone down as a pinnacle in book making and takes the style that dominated the pages of Provoke to its logical conclusion. The aesthetic that came to define post-war Japanese art photography: saturated to the point of looking wet, content savagely abstracted, and forms leaden or hallucinatory. This are-bure-boke photographic style and the dark portrayal of post-war Japanese society lay in sharp contrast to the existing public imagery of the era.

In 1971 Moriyama tagged along with his friend Tadanori Yokoo on a trip to New York. This was Moryama’s first trip outside Japan, and the use of the images would lead to an improvised masterpiece of photobook making. Hiring a Tokyo shop/gallery in 1974, Moriyama would spend 14 days hand making a book Another Country in New York (1974) for people while they waited. In lieu of mounting photographic prints on the walls of the gallery, Moriyama brought in a photocopy machine and silk screen printing station. Using this equipment, he generated an ad hoc photobook composed of photocopied sheets staple-bound inside a silkscreen cover. Every day Moriyama would alter the books sequence depending on his mood.

Another Country in New York, Daido Moriyama (1974)
Another Country in New York, Daido Moriyama (1974)

Since 74, Moriyama has restaged the show Printing Show (1974) twice. Once at the aperture gallery in 2011, entitled Printing Show – TKY,

Cover, Daido TKY, Daido Moriyami (2011)
Cover, Daido TKY, Daido Moriyami (2011)
Page detail, Daido TKY, Daido Moriyami (2011)
Page detail, Daido TKY, Daido Moriyami (2011)
Page detail, Daido TKY, Daido Moriyami (2011)
Page detail, Daido TKY, Daido Moriyami (2011)
Screen printing the cover, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Screen printing the cover, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Page selection,Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Page selection,Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Selecting page edit, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Selecting page edit, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Covers, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Covers, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Stapling individual publications, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)
Stapling individual publications, Printing Show, Daido Moriyama, New York (2011)

And most recently at the Tate Modern in 2012 for the show William Klein + Daido Moriyama, working with the imprint GOLIGA that produces, edits, and publishes limited editions, experimental book works, and photography-based events. Goliga’s principal objective is to experiment with innovative ways of disseminating and engaging with photography. The resulting book was entitled Menu.

GOLIGA’s founder Ivan Vartanian describes the thought process around Printing Show. ‘I think the question of what a publisher is very interesting. Usually it’s about taking a body of work and putting it in a traditional book format for distribution. That is uninteresting for me. Im looking for that place where we can take the publishing process and make it as much as possible a clear reflection of the photographer’s empirical involvement with the book/object/thing/experience/dynamic/installation/moment as a work in itself – while simultaneously incorporating a distribution and sales model.

I also want to bring people together and have them actively engage with the work. I see the performance venue as a theatre, library, thinking space, communal area, and the province of the artist. That’s what these performances are about – being connected, being present. I see books as part archive, part documentation and part meta-process. The book itself has to be an outcome of the event process that it is documenting, but it is also a reflection of whatever we are making at the time. And that, I think, is ultimately what I’ve learnt from Japanese photobooks and Moriyama’s ‘Printing Show’. It is not a reproduction of something that happens somewhere at some point. The photobook in its reproduction and in its creation is an original. Even though there are 300 of them, each one is an original and is a reflection of the photography it contains. Everything that I’m doing now and everything that is embraced within printing show comes back to that one idea.

DAIDO MORIYAMA PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA
PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA
PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA
PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)
DAIDO MORIYAMA
PRINTING SHOW, Tate (2012)

I wasn’t intelligent enough to attend Printing Show, at the time (and still a bit now) I don’t really enjoy are-bure-boke photography, and it seems cynical and perverse to buy a book you don’t like just for it’s design factors, it is too much of a move to fetishisation. However as a photographer I wish I could have experienced the audience’s reaction to the process. I

was able to recently experience the DIY book on a far smaller basis, in the form of the Norwich University of Arts, Illustration catalogue, which was presented as a self assembly station, with pre punched pages and simple binders. The students that I accompanied to the show thought I was mad, as I told them how great this was, but I enjoyed jostling with others to pick up the pages and assemble my edit, experience the work as a collective experience, instead of isolation.

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Once we go back to university in September I intend to discuss how we can incorporate elements of the ideas above into the work. I am really hopeful that I can find a way to transfer the blog and wider research into an analogue object, that the audience can take away. Something that is in keeping with the DIY aesthetic of the situations, and is informed by the print heritage of psychogeography. And above all that allows me to incorporate into it, the words and images of my peers, either through pre-existing materials or as a call for ideas/content. If you have any thoughts please get in contact with me.

The Lower Lea Valley

This post follows on from Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, and was originally written as one piece, however I have split it as I feel that while both posts have a linking thread, they deserve to be treated as there own entity. I do however suggest you read it first.

After a recent supervision meeting I found myself with time to kill at Stratford tube station. Normally I stop off there to split my long tube journey to Epping and enjoy a burrito at Wahaca. However this time I had already eaten earlier in the day. Instead I decided to go explore the newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to see what had actually changed in the 18 months since it had closed its gates. As I wandered round the newly landscaped site, I found myself needing to take photos.

With Jem’s conversation still ringing in my head I pulled out the only camera I had on me, my iPad mini. I was honestly surprised by what I could achieve with the iPad, it has no extra photography apps and the original (until ios8) camera software is almost as basic as point and shoot can be.

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Since I shot those original images I have continued to use the iPad, either when I am already in London for meetings and it is all I can carry in my bag, or as a tool to aid the development of a shoot while I’m out either with the Large format or RB67.

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HS1 Undercroft, West Thurrock

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West Ham Underground Station

What I’m going to say next is probably cause for me to have to hand over my left of centre/liberal card, but as you might have  guessed I don’t confirm to a left wing stereo type all the time.

‘I like the Olympic site’, there we go I’ve said it now. I know that this opinion is very unfashionable amongst my peers. I have read the numerous critiques of it by the likes of Hatherly and Sinclair, and agree that the money could have helped in other areas.

However I disagree with the opinion that this is wholesale gentrification.

The suggestion that working class areas don’t need facilities for the elitist Olympic sports, such as Hockey, Cycling, Tennis is ludicrous. If all the children that devoted their life to playing football with only the slightest chance that they will make the premier league, were encouraged and had access to good sports facilities, and we removed the connotations linked to other sports then we might actually stand a chance of seriously dominating on the world stage.

I need to point out that I have played hockey since I was ten years old, and I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had a very good hockey team and junior system. Half of my school team went on to play National Premier League Hockey, would this have been the case if we had all been pushed into football due to society pressure? I should also point out that during the period that I played top flight hockey, that I was far from fit, so if I can do it!

Before anyone suggest that this was down to our backgrounds, we went to a bog standard state school. So I for one don’t see the destruction of some of the football pitches at Hackney Marshes as a huge loss. Certainly not as bigger loss of the Wilderness sports ground run by the Eton Manor Boys club in 1967.

'The Wilderness' Eton Manor Boys Club (1955)
‘The Wilderness’ Eton Manor Boys Club (1955)

The Eton Manor Boys club (EMBC) was established in 1909 by four ‘old Etonians’, Arthur Villiers, Gerald Wellesley, Alfred Wagg and Sir Edward Cadogan as a philanthropic endeavour to improve the lives of those living in the East End. No doubt it is the kind of endeavour that we would pour derision  on now as a grand social experiment.

Eton Manor before Olympic redevelopment (2006)
Eton Manor before Olympic redevelopment (2006)
Eton Manor (2014)
Eton Manor (2014)

On the fringes of London’s notoriously deprived East End, EMBC members were able to try out all kinds of sports and leisure activities. In comfortable surroundings, they enjoyed boxing, amateur dramatics, debating, drawing, first-aid, squash, tennis, football, cricket, rugby, billiards, table-tennis, photography, badminton, athletics and rifle-shooting.

Membership of EMBC gave boys from working class backgrounds the chance to enjoy a wide variety of sports and games in a safe, spacious and congenial environment. Because of the first rate facilities and the excellent instructors, Eton Manor had gained a reputation as an elite boys’ sporting club by the mid-20th century. However, the club was not primarily about sporting excellence – teamwork, character, helping others and making the most of yourself were most important. Some members were helped out with advice to assist them in their careers or encouraged to apply to university. A few members were offered interest-free loans to start businesses or supplied with low-rent accommodation to enable them to save money to buy their own homes. But most important of all, members were provided with an Eton Manor ‘family’: the friendships they struck up as boys during happy evenings at the clubhouse, or over sunny weekend afternoons on the Wilderness often lasted for a lifetime.

Roy “Chopper” Reeve, who joined in 1950, says of the club: “Virtually everybody was penniless. It was to give people half a chance in life, and East End people, given half a chance, would take it.”

Peter “Wiggy” Wilson can close his eyes and recall every piece of the Eton Manor club, every positioning of the seven football pitches, the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, rugby and cricket grounds. The son of one of the managers of the boys’ club, he joined the club in 1959.

“You could only join when you were 13 years 11 months and you faced an interview at the club by boys your own age,” he remembers. “You entered into a probationary period to achieve a certain amount of points by attending some of the classes – it was all about desiring to attain membership and everyone wanted to be a member of this truly magnificent club.”

Peter says the club’s supportive atmosphere was critical during the war years. “Eton Manor boys, captive in prisoner of war camps, often said that in the back of their mind they thought of the club and the Wilderness sustained them because they knew they had something to come back to.”

The impact of the club on the area cannot be underestimated. Even now, 43 years since its closure, the old boys still meet several times a year, particularly on Remembrance Sunday to recall the Eton Manor boys who died in both world wars.

Aged 91, Fred Millard is still a regular at the gatherings. He laughingly recalls how someone once knocked at the door of his Hackney Wick house and asked his father if Fred lived there, only to be told: “No son, he sleeps here, he lives over at the Manor.”
London 2012 Olympics: renewal stirs the memories, The Telegraph, 25th July 2010

To celebrate the rebirth of Eton Manor for the 2012 Olympics, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy paid tribute to the history of the location, displayed on three steel and brass engraved sheets installed at the site.

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The past is all around us, in the air,
the acres here were once ‘the Wilderness’-
“Blimey, it’s fit for a millionaire”-
where Eton Manor Boys Club came to train;
or, in the Clubhouse, (built 1913)
translated poverty to self-esteem,
camaraderie, and optimism
similed in smiles.

Hackney Wick-
fleas, flies, bin-lids, Clarnico’s Jam; the poor
enclosed by railway, marshland, factories, canal-
where Wellesley, Villiers, Wagg, Cadogan came,
philanthropists, to clear a glorious space;
connect the power of place to human hope,
through World War One, the Blitz, till 1967…
on this spot, functional, free, real- heaven.

This is legacy-
young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped
to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong;
believe community is self in multitude-
the way the past still dedicates to us
its distant, present light. The same high sky,
same East End moon, above this reclaimed wilderness,
where relay boys are raced by running ghosts.
Eton Manor, Carol Ann Duffey

The London Olympic organising committee (LOCOG) understood the importance of art within the site, and much of it tapped into the psychogeography of the area.

Ackroyd and Harvey: History Trees
If you’re looking for a way in to the Olympics then look out for a large tree with a metal ring around it’s branches. There will be 10 such History Trees planted to mark the new 500-acre Olympic Park – each a semi-mature specimen with a 500kg, 6-metre diameter bronze or stainless steel ring suspended within its canopy – although only three have been planted to take root in time for the Games. Over time, branches and ring will fuse together, while those who look more closely will also see that nine of the rings are engraved on the interior face with text capturing the history of its location. The tenth tree, an English Oak, holding one of the bronze rings, is inscribed with local resident’s recollections of the area. The ring’s shadow, captured at the time of the Olympics, will be commemorated by an inlay on the ground adding a further magical element (the Stratford solstice perhaps), whereby ring and shadow will momentarily align each year.

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Lucy Harrison: Mapping your manor
In response to Ackroyd and Harvey’s History Trees, local artist Lucy Harrison worked with people who live or work near to the Olympic Park, and with a mobile recording unit, to make an audio soundtrack to be listened to in the vicinity of each marker tree. Guided walks have been planned with a local walking group and over 30 audio tracks are available to listen to including poems, songs, memories, ambient sounds and cookery sessions.

 Jo Shapcott: Wild Swimmer
‘Wild Swimmer’ comes from poet Jo Shapcott is written in four sections, to be read together of separately. It takes its readers through the rich social, industrial and natural history of the area including 8km of waterways in and around the Park (primarily north to south through the Park and finally connecting with the Thames), eventually emerging at Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre.

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I
Open this box
breathe
dive in

II
you are mostly water
glide
in your element

III
Surface in the Bow Back Rivers, quite at home
because you are small and tidal like them.
Here, the River Lea became a man-made mesh
of streams and channels to drain the marsh,
a maze for lightermen, of channels through
old waste, today’s liquid green corridors.
Count off rivers as you swim: Bow Creek, the Waterworks,
the Channelsea, the City Mill, Hennikers Ditch.
Swimming through time is rough: all swamp
and sewage until the Northern Outfall drain
where you don’t swim but give a grateful nod
as you plunge with kingfishers, otters, voles.

IV
Backstroke through the past
and remember how Alfred the Great
dug the Channelsea to keep out Danes
and how the mill streams powered on
through centuries. Waterworks were King.
Swoop underwater through the Prescott Channel,
touching pieces of the lost Euston Arch as you go
and break surface among reeds, oak, willow, ash.
Shoot under the stadium itself,
where the little Pudding Mill River runs:
at last dive up into a building shaped like a wave
and swim your heart out, for you are all gold.
Wild Swimmer, Jo Shapcott

Linked to Shapcotts Wild Swimmer is Lynne Ramsey’s Swimmer, also commissioned for the 2012 games. Swimmer is a poetic journey through the waterways and coastline of the British Isles, following a lone swimmer through lakes, rivers and coves. The journey is framed by a soundtrack of seminal British music, combined with a sound tapestry of hydrophonic recordings and snippets of bankside conversations. The film aims to give a real feel for the diversity of landscape and people of Britain.

The Klassnik Corporation, Riitta Ikonen and We Made That: Fantasticology: Wildflower Meadows
Working in collaboration with the Park’s landscape architects and public realm team, the artists came up with a series of planting designs in the southeast corner of Stadium ‘Island’. The result is a floral celebration of the industrial heritage of the site, where the planting designs mirror the footprint of the industrial buildings that used to be there.

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Sited between the Olympic Stadium and Aquatics Centre the Meadows can be enjoyed at ground level as a vivid floral display and focus for discussion relating to the history of the site and the flora and fauna of the biodiversity that inhabit the Park now. When viewed from above, such as from the viewing platform of the adjacent ArcellorMittal Orbit, the distinctive graphic geometries of the planting will be revealed.

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The development of the site itself has been documented by many photographers and artists, Photo Fusion’s show “Residual Traces” at Photofusion Gallery, Brixton is a group exhibition of 6 photographic projects concerned with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games and the subsequent marginalisation of a community in one of London’s least known and contentious areas, the Lea Valley. A formerly overlooked and undeveloped enclave of urban neglect – pylons and graffiti, Tower blocks and abandoned sheds, compulsory land purchase orders and hipster regeneration – this polemical exhibition explores the hastily engaged transformation of one of London’s most loved hinterlands.

This secret pocket, loved by the locals but little known to the rest of London, was an untamed part of the East End where golfers and quad bikes played next to gasometers and scrap yards and where giant weeds dominated the river bank.

The hinterland of sprawling post-industrial wilderness, an enclave with an eclectic social mix of young artists, street gangs and run down council estates was characterised in 2007 as a “ragged hole in the city’s fabric” (Andy Beckett, The Guardian).

Five years on the area has been transformed and the hole has been partially filled. New housing developments, restored tow paths, cycle tracks and organic cafes are evidence of a new era in the valley, but the older traditional society is still in residence, perhaps more marginalised than ever.

LCC alumni Toby Smith produced a body of work that mapped the landscape of the area.

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Writing on his blog Shoot Unit, Toby said;

I moved to East London in 2007 and the Lea Valley offered a secret but welcoming garden of photographic exploration.  This landscape was explored poetically in the musings of Iian Sinclair who painted with words an overlooked and secret  “hinterland”.  That summer international media and fresh green plywood hoardings announced it to be on the cusp of  permanent change and global limelight. Earmarked for ‘total redevelopment’ for the 2012 Olympic Games its unkempt,  garages, foundries, fish-smokers and brownfield corners were being evacuated towards a  deadline of ODA possession,  demolition and repurposing.

Lower Lea ~Valley, before Olympic redevelopment (2006)
Lower Lea ~Valley, before Olympic redevelopment (2006)

The natural  perimeter was defined by nettle-lined footpaths, busy trunk roads and rail-links yet was impossibly criss-crossed by  a network of rivers and canals that quietly ferried algae, shopping trolleys and traffic cones towards the Thames.  The Lea Valley’s unique identity and atmosphere was heightened by  the diversity of  its residents and workers.  Initially forbidding, a rich palette of hues, textures, scrawled political messages and inhabitants became irresistible and I was seduced further by cheap wine and conversation in the warehouse’s of trapeze artists or sweet tea and rough jokes with grubby mechanics.

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The deadline for evacuation came and went quietly whilst the few remaining  business owners waited in desperation for sale of their machinery.   Thriving artist’s communities by default became squatters and  were left wandering darkened hallways, confused, orphaned and angry at a faceless landlord.  As bakeries, incinerators and printing houses lay silent the green corners  asserted themselves to damp further the sounds of the city. The smoking white transit vans  were replaced immediately by the summer growth of brambles, trees,  weeds and the noise of birdsong.  Like the calm before the development storm this expansive area of London felt abandoned as if a nuclear holocaust had descended. For the quick-witted and fleet-footed its now silent corners lay ever more accessible and every door left wide open.

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Early security efforts had only a futile grasp of the 11 mile blue fence and the perimeter had blind spots of responsibility.  Simply donning a hi-vis jacket afforded unchallenged vehicle access to complete ‘personal  topographic’ surveys.   Once frenetic businesses were left unsecured for the scrappies and opportunist scavengers to attack the architecture with crowbars and wire strippers. Gutting and recycling the now abandoned properties they scoured every cavity and switchboard for  valuable copper and iron.  Their entrance points marked by the piles of discarded cable insulation. Unregulated and on the cusp of poverty these magpies do surely dismember buildings more precisely than the rush of JCBs and concrete crushers that followed.  Once valuable, now unclaimed and abandoned car parts filled acres of contaminated land freshly hemmed in by 1000′s of fly tipped vehicle tyres.

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Lakes of vile coloured liquid separated expanses of dark brown earth too contaminated with decades of heavy oil and chemicals for even the hardiest weed.  The security fence eventually secured the wasteland with an 8 foot  blue band exchanging sweeping vistas with pixelated stock sports photography.  The nation’s access was restricted to rose-tinted  press releases or  an elevated sewer called The Greenway. By September 2007 the scrum of competing contractors began to nibble with earnest at buildings and scrape the ground back to its ancient contaminated foundations. My favourite and indeed final vantage point was a derelict cement silo that  afforded a view across the entire landscape until a pack of trained dobermans became residents .

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Over the last 5 years I gave only a cursory glance to my archive of unscanned negatives.  My interest in the rot and decay of the area became second best to the lure and shiny opportunity of the  ” Official Imaging Tenders” or “Artistic Opportunities” of 2012.  Like so many small businesses in the Olympic Boroughs I threw myself at the possibilities to engage and catch the wave.  Many years later reduced to a mere punter I bet 1000′s of pounds on tickets but empty handed I am now reduced to the endless torch procession and TV coverage.Today, 30 days before the opening ceremony, I have learnt to trade my researched cynicism of the Olympics to the excitement and pride that London will become such a world stage. 5 years later I have trawled the negatives of this extinct  landscape and it has now clearly, irreversibly and impossibly become the Olympic Park. Despite not setting foot in the area since 2007, Google Earth proved an invaluable resource to accurately place the original images and imagine what vision would occupy a 2012 viewfinder.

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A warehouse for galvanising steel has become the Olympic Stadium,  piles of scrap metal metamorphosed into the Aquatic Stadium, my cement silo no doubt shadowed by a twisted red roller coaster. The River Lea itself has been scoured, scrubbed, and populated with new wildlife that can no longer perch on the dozens of electricity pylons now buried in huge underground tunnels.I can only imagine when I  can legally return with camera and GPS in hand to repeat these same photographs. Unsuccessful in my bid for tickets we must all painfully wait until much later this year to evaluate this new landscape. I am in no doubt that the 2 week spectacle of sport and culture will impress audiences globally however, I sincerely hope  that the legacy  justifies the cost local residents and our economy has born.
The Lea alley Becomes the Olympic Park, Toby Smith (2012)

After the boys club closed in 1967, the running track and its surrounds decayed alongside the surrounding industrial wasteland. The images of the Wilderness captured in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) by Saint Étienne are both haunting and moving. The film explores the no mans land of the Lower Lea Valley, the area that is now covered by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, Saint Etienne (2006)
What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, Saint Etienne (2006)

This stylised visual journey presents a nostalgic look at London’s Lower Lea Valley in the days before it was transformation from stagnant industrial wasteland into the now iconic Olympic Park. Set on Tuesday 7th July 2005, a day that saw a jubilant Britain, fresh from the capital’s victorious Olympic bid, quickly deflated and forever changed by the London Bombings, the film presents an uneasy paradox of celebration and devastation and its themes are mirrored in the film’s setting as local residents fondly recall the area’s industrial glory days. These thoughts are juxtaposed against a backdrop of images presenting a romanticised view of urban decay.

Revisiting the Lower Lea Valley in the wake of the Olympic splendour lends the film added poignancy. An area once populated by the pioneers of industry is presented here as an almost post-apocalyptic terrain, captured in the eerily unpopulated frames of a seemingly deserted community. Saint Etienne’s haunting soundtrack and disembodied vocals effectively anchor this depiction of an atmospheric ghost town. Kelly contradicts the widely reported notion of the area as an unloved stretch of wasteland in a series of tenderly framed images that serve to transform the dejected Valley into a striking work of art.

This cinematic flip-book brings mundane to life and sees abstraction in the ordinary. Seemingly inspired by cultural voyeur Martin Parr, Kelly’s discerning spectacle resembles a series of nostalgic picture postcards, offering a sentimental farewell to this endangered landscape. A fictional narrative meanders without urgency alongside this stylish visual feast in which curious young paperboy Mervyn acts as our tour-guide, cycling through the ravaged landscape with wistful, wide-eyed bewilderment.

Voiceovers from real-life residents recalling inadvertently humorous anecdotes about local mythology and a seemingly forgotten industrial legacy provide an informative accompaniment. Additional and somewhat needless narration comes in the form of local luminaries David Essex and Linda Robson who provide hammy colloquial soundbites and abstract, nonsensical cockney-isms. Attempts to add further depth to Mervyn’s story feel unnecessary and, perhaps intentionally, lead nowhere. Their inclusion distracts from the rich and until now, untold history of the Valley clearly in evidence.

One of the film’s closing frames sees Mervyn pondering the 02 Arena in the distance – its scale and design resembling a freshly landed spaceship, a world away from Lea Valley’s land that time forgot and a taste of things to come. Ultimately, the film presents a thought provoking and visually sumptuous critique that questions the concept of ‘regeneration’. Its presentation of a place forever remembered for ‘Two weeks of unprecedented sporting spectacle’ but now detached from its diverse history, seems an unjust and melancholy prospect.
Little White Lies (2012)

I feel that this is unjust as a notion and the site does have a strong connection with it’s history, however to get stuck in the sites past often over romanticises an area that while love by some, was for the most part, well in need of regeneration. Yes I am aware that this runs counter to my entire PhD argument, but I am a realist, many of the sites I love need to be reclaimed, but some need to be treasured. Not all regeneration is bad, and not all interstitial sites are worthy of protection. Enjoy them while we can, and then enjoy what comes next, don’t always live in the past.

I know I’m not the only sceptical (at first) pyschogeographer to become interested in the Olympic site, I recommend looking at John Roger’s blog The Lost Byway.

 

a sense of place, defining the character of a locale

For just over the last week I have been struggling to sit down and write, it’s one those moments that I just can’t think of anything constructive to say. It’s is linked to the fact that twitter keeps throwing up interesting people and blogs concerned with psychogeography and I’m hit by the amount of really exciting work that is already happening and I’m struck with doubt in the validity of what I’m doing and trying to say.

This would no doubt of been helped if after last weeks time spent in the Thames Gateway I had been able to develop my films and hold a tangible piece of research. However film as I am readily reminded by everyone (especially while out in the field trying to explain what a large format camera is) is a dying entity, and increasingly difficult to get commercially developed. While my local Snappy Snaps is able to run 120 through their machines in an hour, I am very reticent to trust their level of service. So instead I either have to use uni or Metro in London, the downside to this is I have to wait until either I am visiting London for a meeting, or have enough film to make the trip financially worth while.

In an attempt to kick-start some ideas again, I have been going through old notes written in my notebook and was struck by one fundamental idea; how do you define the character of a place? So welcome to what in my original plans should have been my first real post after the introduction.

First of all we have to question what place even is. To most people, at least on first thought, it is a physical geographic entity, we have to think of it like that to ground us, ‘I am here, in this place’. In this case Purfleet, opposite Feederz mini mart.

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But I stop and take a breath, allowing my mind to wander, slowly I start to pick up on sounds that a few seconds ago where an ambient jumble of noise, I start to smell my surroundings. Now that place is a collection of sensory stimuli, unique to that point and time, transitory, but also a defining characteristic of the location.

As I’m setting up my camera on it’s tripod, a security guard comes over to speak to me, I’m expecting the usual hassle of trying to explain why I’m standing on a patch of grass owned by Esso, outside of the Purfleet Thames Terminal. Instead he starts to talk to me about my camera, which in turn leads to a discussion about my PhD topic. We chat for five minutes and he talks candidily about leaving Ghana to come to the UK, and having to take any job he can get as companies are worried about his foreign qualifications. Place is now about people and their stories, how they are affected by the local, regional and national (micro, meso and macro levels of analysis) socioeconomic politics.

Place is no longer a single geographic entity. To explore it we have to be open to all of these ideas.

Certainly Place is something more often sensed than understood, an indistinct region of awareness rather than something clearly defined. ‘Place’ has no fixed identity, as places themselves do not.
Place, Tacita Dean & Jeremy Miller (2005)

As a photographer, working merely on the visual senses this was something that caused me problems. In early discussions surrounding the PhD I used to joke that the easiest way of doing this work would be to take a group of people to each location and let them experience it. However I chose to go into the arts as I am interested in exploring the world and presenting my curated reading of it. There are many fine academics, sociologists, ethnographers, geographers and artists who are leading walking tours of locations, and this is brilliant, but just not for me at this moment. So how do I produce a more experiential ‘image’ of the Place.

Amy Hanley and Rick Dargavel from Manchester School of Architecture Intimate Cities, edgeland program introduced me to the work of Professor Doreen Massey and her writing on a Sense of Place, ‘First… we understand space as the product of interrelations: as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny… Second, that we understand space… as the sphere in which different trajectories coexist [plurality]… Third, that we understand space as always under construction.’

• places do not have single identities but multiple ones.
• places are not frozen in time, they are processes.
• places are not enclosures with a clear inside and outside.

In a Podcast interview with Social Science Space Massey talks about the idea of physical space being alive.

“A lot of what I’ve been trying to do over the all too many years when I’ve been writing about space is to bring space alive, to dynamize it and to make it relevant, to emphasize how important space is in the lives in which we live.

Most obviously I would say that space is not a flat surface across which we walk; Raymond Williams talked about this: you’re taking a train across the landscape – you’re not traveling across a dead flat surface that is space: you’re cutting across a myriad of stories going on. So instead of space being this flat surface it’s like a pincushion of a million stories: if you stop at any point in that walk there will be a house with a story.

Raymond Williams spoke about looking out of a train window and there was this woman clearing the grate, and he speeds on and forever in his mind she’s stuck in that moment. But actually, of course, that woman is in the middle of doing something, it’s a story. Maybe she’s going away tomorrow to see her sister, but really before she goes she really must clean that grate out because she’s been meaning to do it for ages. So I want to see space as a cut through the myriad stories in which we are all living at any one moment. Space and time become intimately connected.”

The idea of space and time being linked is at the heart of contemporary ‘Ian Sinclair’ psychogeography.

Iain Sinclair surrounded by  the ephemera of  Psychogeography
Iain Sinclair surrounded by the ephemera of Psychogeography

Sinclair’s peculiar form of historical and geographical research displays none of the rigour of psychogeographical theory and is overlaid by a mixture of autobiography and literary eclecticism… London’s topography is reconstituted through a superimposition of local and literary history, autobiographical elements and poetic preoccupations, to create an idiosyncratic and highly personal vision of the city.
Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley (2010)

This form of psychogeography and it’s issues as a sole means of research has been written about by the spatial filmmaker Patrick Kieller, famous for his Robinson trilogy of films were he knowingly subverts the educated middle class hang ups of Sinclairian psychogeography with the creation of a fictitious ‘disenfranchised, would-be intellectual, petit bourgeois part-time lecturer’.

Robinson in Space
Robinson in Space

Through the character of Robinson, Kieller is able to at times knowingly satirise the role psychogeographer as self obsessed auto ethnographer, while at the same time using the method as a means of interrogation. ‘Pschogeography was conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seem more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods’. Ultimately highlighting the danger that all art concerned with Place can fall foul of, the danger of the artist acting as a colonialist, ‘capturing’ places that they find fascinating.

MSA’s Intimate Cities program proposed a method of research gathering to start to analyse Place; Eyewitness, Ear Witness, Interviewer, and Cartographer. It is their opinion that no one method of data gathering can explore a system as complex as the idea of Place, and it needs to be tackled through a multidisciplinary method. This is something that the traditional still image is very bad at, be it in a book or gallery wall it only offers a two dimensional representation of a multi dimensional space. For years I have struggled to come to terms with the limitations of the medium and have grown frustrated by it. Both sound arts and the moving image have been born out of collaborative practices. Combining multiple elements to give a more rounded reading of a locale.

The Sound work of Angus Carlyle in pieces such as Air Pressure (2012) and Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places (2012) combine photography, storytelling and psychogeographical elements in their chosen publication methods.

Air Pressure, Angus Carlyle (2012)
Air Pressure, Angus Carlyle (2012)
Air Pressure, Angus Carlyle (2012)
Air Pressure, Angus Carlyle (2012)
Air Pressure, Angus Carlyle (2012)
Air Pressure, Angus Carlyle (2012)

While the moving image work of Patrick Kieller, the Films of Saint Etienne

and the most recent documentary/ music collaboration of Karl Hyde and Keiran Evans in the project Edgelands/ The Outer Edges (2013) blend multiple disciplines to create a reading of Place.

Karl Hyde, Edgelands
Karl Hyde, Edgelands

I would argue that technology advances have allowed more photographers to start transcending the traditional boundaries of their practice, and methods of self publication have allowed them to take risks with the presentation of work that commercial galleries and book publishers would have found difficult to sell. Examples of this range From Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen’s Sochi Project, which blended photography, interviews, moving image and psychogeography to explore the complex area of the southern Russian Caucasses.

Examples of The Sochi project
Examples of The Sochi project
Sochi Project Website
Sochi Project Website
Sochi Project Website
Sochi Project Website

To David Dufresne & Philippe Brault’s Prison Valley (2010) which explores Cañon City, 16% of the Cañon City population is inside prison; it is an economy based almost entirely upon incarceration. Cañon City has a population of 36,000 and 13 prisons, one of which is Supermax, the new ‘Alcatraz’ of America. The new Supermax was described by former warden, Robert Hood, as “a clean version of hell.”

Prison Valley, Philippe Brault (2010)
Prison Valley, Philippe Brault (2010)

Purposefully designed as a web based project and “Web Documentary”. To view the film beyond its introduction you must sign in with either your Twitter or Facebook social network accounts. Once signed in the website will bounce you between a mixture of multimedia, interviews, photo-galleries, non-sequitur video clips and auxiliary documents. The documentary canvases opinion from various characters who the filmmakers meet along the way. ‘When we first started this project. We didn’t really think about shooting video. Of course, we planned to to film our interviews, but that was pretty much it. We were thinking that we would be working with photography above everything else’. World press awards judges described it in their first multimedia contest as a ‘Magnus opus visually, conceptually and in terms of the information and reporting offered’.

Prison Valley's user navigation interface
Prison Valley’s user navigation interface
Prison Valley's user navigation interface
Prison Valley’s user navigation interface
Prison Valley's user navigation interface
Prison Valley’s user navigation interface

Both of these examples along with Karl Hyde and Keiran Evans are complemented through a strong web presence and allow the creation of interactive, explorable, curated archives.

Edgeland/The Outer Edges interactive map
Edgeland/The Outer Edges interactive map

A group from London took an alternative approach to exploring Place, Learning from Kilburn (2013-14), which they describe as:

A tiny experimental university with its curriculum rooted in Kilburn, nw6. The university will use the high road and its hinterland as a campus, occupying a number of locations for classes initially running from October 2013 to April 2014.
Weekly classes will study what makes Kilburn what it is, led by a range of artists, architects, writers and thinkers. Each class will ask a single question, looking at one thing at a time in order to understand Kilburn as a whole. The university wants to know what Kilburn looks like, where it starts and finishes, how money works in Kilburn, whether Kilburn even exists, where Kilburn is going.

Over a period of months the pop-up university has run a series of classes ranging from evening seminars, too traditional lectures, and daylong practical assignments run by collection of lecturers from differing academic and artistic backgrounds.

Learning From Kilburn seminar
Learning From Kilburn seminar

My practice proposes the creation of an archive of materials ranging from photography, moving image, field sound recording, and interviews as well as mapping the locales through writing. I hope like Learning from Kilburn to be able to develop the work into a wider entity and utilise the input of others into the work.

This is in conflict with the traditional architectural view of Place, which many of us can agree often has a blinkered view of the wider world that proposal inhabit. Speaking to one of my old housemates who is now a landscape architect he told me about having to perform ‘Landscape Character Assessments’ on sites during the proposal phase.

Our appreciation and understanding of landscapes have increased over time, partly as the result of our need and desire to record, understand, influence and manage change.

Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) is one tool that helps in that understanding, and is defined as:

“The tool that is used to help us to understand, and articulate, the character of the landscape. It helps us identify the features that give a locality its ‘sense of place’ and pinpoints what makes it different from neighbouring areas.”
Landscape Character Assessment: Guidance for England and Scotland, The Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage, (2002)

LCA can be used in many situations, for example in devising indicators to gauge landscape change and to inform regional planning, local development, environmental assessment and the management of protected landscapes.

Landscape Character Assessment Hierarchy
Landscape Character Assessment Hierarchy
Landscape Character Assessment Hierarchy
Landscape Character Assessment Hierarchy

Ultimately this kind of analysis produces very limited data and is concerned with categorisation of space through a series of typologies. These are produced by Natural England as National Character Areas, and divide England into 159 distinct natural areas. Each is defined by a unique combination of landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity and cultural and economic activity. Their boundaries follow natural lines in the landscape rather than administrative boundaries, making them a supposed good decision making framework for the natural environment.

So the five regions that I’m concentrating on can be defined through the following character types

London & The South East
London & The South East
North East
North East
North West
North West
East Midlands
East Midlands

I am happy to admit that they do have their merits, but the point I, and others are trying to make is that no one method of data collection is correct, in fact to even think of it as quantifiable data is wrong, these are living breathing places. Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy stated in his book General Systems Theory (1968) ‘complex phenomena cannot be reduced to the discrete properties of the various parts, but must be inderstood according to the arrangement of and the relations between the parts that create a whole. It is the particular organisation that determines the system, rather than it’s discreet parts.’

The French have a term in wine making to describe the complex land properties that go into making wines, that I first came across in 2006 on the BBC’s “Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure”,

‘Terroir’, the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. This is often described as Gout de terroir,” which can roughly translate to “taste of the soil,” “taste of the earth” and “sense of place”. It defines a sensory profile, in aroma, taste and tactile sensation that is common to wines grown in the same terroir. To the French, terroir includes the soil, the climate and topography, three conditions that are inseparable.

It got me thinking that could this word be adapted from complex Sense of Place system to another, does an Urban Terroir exist. Some research lead me to a few blog posts on the issue.

‘Terroir’ is not a word to be found in a Dictionary of Human Geography, but geographer Tim Unwin (2012) locates the notion of terroir “at the heart of Geography”. A recent article from The New York Times entitled ‘Vive le Terroir’ reappeared in the International Herald Tribune as ‘A sense of place that defies globalization’. The narrative introduces a family who reside in the rural village of Castelnau de Montmiral, South West France. It explains the family’s deep and emotional connection to the land (Jérôme is a farmer), to the extent that one “knows every inch, every stone, and which parcels are for what”. It describes terroir. The article defines terroir as a concept “almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity – of roots, and home – in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere”. The elements of soil, weather and region are important here, but the quotation also captures notions that are keenly geographical: roots and home (dwelling perhaps), as well as authenticity and genuineness. The ideas also capture a sense of knowing a place through practice and performance, as well as debates that examine local and global geographies of food production and consumption. The idea of terroir then, is not all that distant from geographical concepts, and may be useful as a tool for capturing a notion more deeply in qualitative or ethnographic research at the micro-level.
Knowing ‘Terroir’: a Sense of Place, Fiona Ferbrache

It is therefore an important idea to use to interrogate the urban environment and a means to discuss the very complex factors that have gone into forming the system as we experience it.

The geography, climate, history and structure of a place impart special meaning on a city. Perhaps most closely linked to the structure, scale and density that make up a spaces’ urban fabric, urban terroir refers to the elements that make up the conditions of our urban spaces. Thus, the feeling of New York City’s is distinct from that of Boston; just as being in Denver feels different from being in Austin.

Another way of looking at terroir is the parts of a city we can influence. Just as a farmer carefully nurtures and cultivates his or her soil, a city can influence its structure and history. Indeed urban terroir posits human cultivation, and cultivation in an urban sense is how a city becomes “our space.”

What gives terroir importance compared to words like ‘density’ or ‘fabric’ is its holistic nature. Urban terroir explicitly includes both humanity and nature and we cannot treat it unconnected from either. Indeed, each is intrinsic to terroir and the reason we cultivate it. Simply focusing on static features such as structure and scale lack this holistic connotation.

While the built form of the city can be static, or dead, its terroir is constantly evolving. As with all living things, terroir is subject to both discrete human intervention and to larger economic and climatic patterns as well as the relationship these factors form. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, urban terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed. Whatever affects it—such as scale—becomes part of the terroir, nurtured both for its own sake and for what it can give to what we want to achieve and to sustain in our cities.
Urban Terroir: The Qualities of a City, Yuri Artibise

As with all things, a sense of Place is a subjective idea, experience (of a place) is personal and depends on the individual personal characteristics, just like Place we are all a complex system informed by similar factors. Take an idea like experiencing a colour, I am colour blind my experiences of red is probably very different to someone else’s, but I know it’s red because that is what I have been told. But then the same applies to the resulting experience of your representations (the curated artwork etc.). Your reading will be coloured by your experiences. All you can do is produce your reading and then let the world respond to it. There is no right and wrong answer, the same, as ultimately you can’t map the character of a location.

To use a ham-fisted analogy, the idea of Place suddenly exhibits some of the basic characteristics of quantum mechanics, were things can exist in multiple states simultaneously, this is often explained with the idea of Shroedinger’s Cat. In the hypothetical experiment, which the physicist devised in 1935, a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter detects that the radioactive material has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed. Quantum mechanics suggests the radioactive material can have simultaneously decayed and not decayed in the sealed environment, then it follows the cat too is both alive and dead until the box is opened. Up until the point of observation it exists in multiple states, but once observed becomes a fix entity. Our idea of Place is such a complex system that it exists in multiple states/ readings, until observed by an individual, at which point it becomes an entity but just for that individual at that time. This is fine as long as we are aware there is no such thing as objectivity in art, only the individuals curated reading.

If we think of the French concept of terrior being a process in which physical characteristics act on plants, whilst this can be experienced subjectively as a flavour, that flavour will be subject to an individuals variations of palate and likes or dislike of certain aspects.

LoLCats, Like Shroedinger, demonstrating the absurdity of applying complex notions to real life
LoLCats, Like Shroedinger, demonstrating the absurdity of applying complex notions to real life

Are people, and places like plants? Are these complex systems growing, absorbing, being shaped by and then in turn shaping their environment in this way?

Terroir is an evolving context, subject to human intervention and to the vicissitudes of nature in a larger sense. It evolves, but the pace of evolution of its different elements can vary radically. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed.
We use words like structure, scale, density, and fabric to describe the urban context, but these are all elements of something larger. By calling this “something larger” terroir, we raise the possibility of cultivation, but against a deeper background—the regional ecosystem in which a city is situated. Terroir could also be said to be that part of nature we can influence. Thus its boundaries are potentially vast. Exurbia* (read Subtopian Edgeland), the embodiment of our economically and culturally divided society, is also a byproduct of a cultivation strategy that treats social displacement in its different forms as an externality. The question of who cultivates, and why, is as legitimate for city making as it is for farming, fishing, or forestry.
John J. Parman

*(Sociology) US the region outside the suburbs of a city, consisting of residential areas exurbs that are occupied predominantly by rich commuters exurbanites

Welcome to the future, A Brave New Dawn

What’s blue, red, and blue? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not Cardiff City FC.

I spent Thursday and Friday at West Thurrock and around the area known as the Thames Gateway, starting to photograph and explore some ideas for my first case study/ site-specific body of work.

New housing estate in Strood, in a disused chalk pit
New housing estate in Strood, in a disused chalk pit

It is fair to say that I have been obsessed with the idea of the Thames Gateway for a number of years, ever since I first visited the evocatively named Isle of Grain in 2005. At the time I was going through a period stress following the discovery that I was failing my photography degree and had three weeks to turn it around or I would be asked to leave the course. Due to the increased stress, an idea got under my skin; it started off just being about the industrial landscape, but over the years became refined and increasingly politically motivated.

The Thames Gateway was New Labour’s flagship regeneration scheme, in reality it built upon a plan started under the last days of John Major’s Conservative government surrounding HS1, then simply known by the far less “cool” Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The original plan for HS1 had it going under South London by Tunnel to an underground international terminus near Kings Cross. This plan was rejected in favour of a plan to send the line through East London to St Pancras. The plan was Michael Hesaltine’s legacy to urbanism, he saw that the East End of London had some of the poorest wards in the UK and was ripe for regeneration.

The label ‘Thames Gateway’ is said to have been coined by Michael Heseltine while being given a helicopter tour of East London and the lower Thames. With a bird’s-eye view, Heseltine became convinced that the whole area – over 40 miles of river bank and floodplain stretching from the London Docklands to the Thames Estuary, and traversing some 16 local authority boundaries and three government regions – needed to be treated as a single strategic whole.

As Heseltine rightly saw, the area badly needed investment and regeneration. Where the Thames to the west of London has an almost Arcadian quality that has long attracted wealthy settlers, the area to the East was given over to docklands and industry. It was bombed heavily during the Second World War, and as the docks declined and industry and population fell away, an area which was already poor and environmentally degraded took a further toll.
Whatever happened to the Thames Gateway? By Ben Rogers on 12th April 2013

The project expanded hugely under New Labour and became one of four poster boys for regeneration set out in it’s Sustainable Communites Plan (2003). Along with plans for Milton Keynes, Ashford, and the ‘Peterborough-Stansted-Cambridge’ corridor, The Thames Gateway was by far the most ambitious, which ultimately played a major part in its downfall. The plan for the Thames gateway called for the building of 91,000 new houses in a 70km window by 2016.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 20.57.17

By 2020, London Thames Gateway will be a destination of choice for living and working. It will form a new city within a city, with a well-designed mixture of houses, a range of job opportunities, excellent social and cultural infrastructure and good transport connections to the rest of London, South East England and Europe.

Tapping into the development potential of the Thames Gateway will help to accommodate London’s growth without encroaching on green field sites or the Green Belt, will deliver significant quantities of affordable housing, and will improve quality of life through integrated social, environmental and economic revitalisation for existing communities.

Public sector agencies, and local and regional authorities, will work with the private sector to build new housing that is integrated with – and reflects the character of – East London’s existing communities, that centres on hubs served by new and existing public transport, and that is designed to include buildings and public space of the highest quality.
London Thames Gateway Development and Investment Framework

In reality very little of the proposed development ever came into existence and that which did was either for the 2012 Olympic development or off the back of pre existing conservative projects; the millennium Dome and surrounding Greenwich peninsular, or HS1. The below table of development in the Thames Gateway region is taken from Wikipedia, so it needs to be considered on the correct level, but it does give an overview of the project.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 16.40.38

The current coalition government quietly sidelined the Thames Gateway project when it wound up New Labour’s regional development agencies in favor of local government oversight. My original intentions for the Thames Gateway section of my PhD was to explore the legacy of this project on the region, the affects of a series of disjointed infrastructure decision taken and altered by a series of governments, whose first mandate is always to ignore what has been put in place by the opposition before them and start again.

Given all of this, I was incredibly surprised when George Osbourne’s announcement surrounding Ebbsfleet Garden City came out. What surprised me further was the choice of language.

GEORGE OSBORNE:
We’re also for the first time in a hundred years going to build a garden city in Ebbsfleet, in the Thames Estuary. This means morehomes, this means more aspiration for families. This means economic security and economic resilience because Britain has got to get building.

In Ebbsfleet, well the initial plans will be for 15,000 homes. I’ve spoken to the
local MPs. They’re enthusiastic about it. We know that local people want to see the regeneration. We’ve got a high speed stop actually on the high speed line to the Channel Tunnel, so it’s closely linked to London, and it will be …

ANDREW MARR:
(over) Fifteen thousand is a huge amount, isn’t it?

GEORGE OSBORNE:
Well it will be a proper garden city. It’s not something this country’s attempted for decades. But that’s one of the messages of my Budget. You know Britain has to up its ambition, Britain has to upits game, Britain has to earn its way in the world. Yes the economy is recovering, but that is not enough. We’ve got to finish the job.

ANDREW MARR:
I don’t want to be offensive in any sense to Ebbsfleet, but a lot of people have said that this or thought that this new garden city would be in Oxfordshire or somewhere up in the richer parts of the country. Why have you chosen Ebbsfleet?

GEORGE OSBORNE:
Well Ebbsfleet, there is the land available, there is fantastic infrastructure with a high speed line. It’s on the river. It’s in the South East of England where a lot of the housing pressure has been and, crucially, you’ve got local communities and local MPs who support the idea. We’re going to create an urban
development corporation, so we’re going to create the instrument that allows this kind of thing to go ahead – in other words sort of cuts through a lot of the obstacles that often happen when you want to build these homes.

ANDREW MARR:
Will we see turf cut before the Election?

GEORGE OSBORNE:
Well I hope we will get go… There are already some homes being built on the site, so actually progress was underway but it was on a much much smaller scale and with much less ambition than what I’m setting out today. You know I think this is … When you look at Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City or Milton Keynes, you know our predecessors, they had the ambition to build for Britain.

My first issue is the use of the term first Garden City in 100 years; suddenly we are removing the whole new town movement and all its supposed negative connotations. Instead we have tapped into the concept of the rural idyll and a mock historical vernacular. John Grindrod in his book Concretopia (2013) describes the Garden city movement as being ‘The Britain of bucolic railway posters, those mythmaking images where the latest locomotives were seamlessly blended into the rolling landscape, as if they had always been there’. Even the supposedly politically independent think tank Centre for London, starts referring to the East, West London divide, where the Thames to the west of London has an almost Arcadian quality that has long attracted wealthy settlers, the area to the East was given over to docklands and industry. To use the term Arcadian suggest that only the semi rural or ‘Rurban’ is an acceptable, aspirational method of development.

The apparent separation of Garden Cities and New towns in George Osbourne’s mind suggest that he has no knowledge of what he is tapping into or worse a deliberate spin of the history, to further distance the conservative government from left wing ideals of true regeneration as they have done with the NHS and state education. Both Garden Cities and New Towns are interconnected.

Ebenezer Howard was a Quaker and reformist who in 1898 published To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, this book would lay out plans for a third type of landscape that was neither town nor country, but instead Town-Country. Howard was repulsed by the quality of life in the slums of our industrialised cities and proposed a series of new settlements inspired by Port Sunlight and Bourneville. ‘There are in reality not only, as it is so constantly assumed, two alternatives- town life and country life, but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination’. I can’t see how a true garden city can be built in an old chalk pit next to Bluewater.

The site of the proposed Garden City, with Bluewater on the left and Ebbsfleet Intl Station on the right
The site of the proposed Garden City, with Bluewater on the left and Ebbsfleet Intl Station on the right

The squalid slum conditions that Howard was trying to save the working classes from, on the whole no longer exist. To me the adoption of the garden city smacks of the snobbery that existed during the new labour years, the idea of aspiration. According to New Labour and the current coalition, we are all supposed to aspire to being middle class, or at least the middle classes that Grayson Perry explored in his channel four program In The Best Possible Taste (2012). Everyone should go to university and get a degree, everyone should drive at the very least a new VW if not BMW, our homes should be decorated wholesale with Next soft furnishing. It seems to be no longer acceptable to be working class, industry is dirty, along with places like the Thames Estuary, they need to be dragged into the 21st century.

Please don’t sully the history of the Garden City and New Towns with your watered down, private finance lead ‘regeneration’. The new towns were brave developments and took an act of parliament to see them through and avoid the NIMBYism that will clearly haunt this project. They were born out of a desire to make the world a better place.

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.
Che Guevara

This is by no means an extensive post on the subject of either New Towns or the Thames Gateway, and I still have an extensive amount of reading to do on the subject. My intention is to work on this case study over the next 6 months leading to a series of publications. I look forward to expanding on these early musings.

Thames Gateway, St Mary’s Island

I have been dreading writing this post, but as my research is both ethnographic and auto ethnographic it is as much about my experiences within the locations and producing the research. I haven’t shown a completed new body of work to the public since I finished my Masters Degree in 2007, in the mean time I have been working on bits and pieces, but life has tended to get in the way.

Producing work outside of the supportive confines of academia is a very scary process and can feel very isolated, so I am intending to document the tests and shoots that go into the production of my final body of work. Hopefully this will lead to a level of discourse with the wider community and help the editing and development process, as well as giving me a place to show my visual musings.

This is one of the first development shoots that I produced on the Thames Gateway and it is of a new development in Chatham called St Mary’s Island. I first became familiar with the development during my MA at UCA Rochester. The photography department was situated on the top floor of the building and had amazing views across the Medway Valley. Our MA room had no windows or natural lighting, so I would regularly have to go out to the corridor to soak up my much needed daylight, to stop the cabin fever of constant Photoshop retouching, and to enjoy my mug of noodles. I would stand staring out of the huge picture windows, a view that took in Rochester castle and Cathedral, the huge war memorial on the headland, and carried on across the historic dockyards over to the Isle of Grain. Stuck on the edge of the peninsular was St Mary’s Island, just past the dockyards and the hanger housing Dickens World.

OS Map of St Mary's Island
OS Map of St Mary’s Island

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 00.07.06 Aerial Photo of St Mary’s Island[/caption]

While I was struggling to find my muse, I became interested in an area on my own doorstep. One mile from the university sits the old Chatham maritime dockyard.

In the mid 1990’s, the Government announced an international competition to create a master plan for the regeneration of St. Mary’s Island, a part of the former dockyard. Of the master plans submitted, Countryside Properties’ was the most visionary and they were chosen by English Partnerships to undertake the 150-acre residential redevelopment of the island.

St. Mary’s Island is a 150-acre residential redevelopment by Countryside Maritime, a joint venture between SEEDA and Countryside Properties that forms part of the 350 acre Chatham Maritime regeneration project. The regeneration of the island was always going to be more than just a building project. It was going to be a grand scheme to create a new way of life for people who valued the simple things: tranquility, harmony and community.

St. Mary’s Island has the unique distinction of being Britain’s first and only strategically planned island community.

The architecture on the island changes according to phases of construction and were they are geographically situated on the island. The range from New England style wooden clad buildings to brick semi detached properties. I became interested in this architectural mix of styles and were they collided with one another creating juxtapositions of style.
Taken from my MA final Paper (2007)

Developer Images of the St Mary's Island Estate
Developer Images of the St Mary’s Island Estate
Developer Images of the St Mary's Island Estate
Developer Images of the St Mary’s Island Estate

In reality the so called ‘Island Community’ is no different from the swathe of new housing developments up and down the country. It’s mixture of housing styles is a range of buildings in a series of faux fishing and scandinavean vernaculars. It’s the kind of development that takes it cues from HRH Prince Charles’ Poundbury development, kindly described by many as a bastardised view of history, the creation of a Thomas Hardy theme village, as depicted in Steffi Klenz’s 2005 work Non Such.

Non Such, 2005, Steffi Klenz
Non Such, 2005, Steffi Klenz
Non Such, 2005, Steffi Klenz
Non Such, 2005, Steffi Klenz

The same can be said about St Mary’s Island, it has all the realism and charm of the Next door Dickens World amusement. The developers have managed to sell the notion of a place that never existed on this site, a notion that many are happy to buy into, a safe mock existence to go with their Ikea interiors.

Developer Images of the St Mary's Island Estate
Developer Images of the St Mary’s Island Estate
Developer Images of the St Mary's Island Estate
Developer Images of the St Mary’s Island Estate

So if there is nothing remarkable about the buildings, why my passion for the location over such a long period of time? The answer to that is in the sites history and the legacy it leaves upon the landscape. The following is taken from Countryside Properties website.

The Beginning
The Romans found good use for the Island, even though it was little more than a marshy swamp criss-crossed by tidal channels. They constructed a road and established a ferry route from the Island to the Hoo Pensinsular. The ferry – incongruously named Prince’s Bridge on early maps – remained in constant use right up to the final years of the last century.

Dutch Invasion
The Island and St. Mary’s Creek (subsequently filled in to create the great Victorian basins we see today) – played an important part in the defence of England. Hurriedly, when an invading Dutch fleet was sighted in the summer of 1667, old ships were sunk across the creek and between St. Mary’s Island and the far bank of Upnor.

It was all to no avail, for the Dutch fleet sailed round the sunken vessels, smashed through a chain stretched from one side of the river to the other, and caused such destruction to the sheltering English fleet.

Convict Hulks
From the time of the Napoleonic wars to the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, the ox-bow reaches of the river off St. Mary’s Island were used to accommodate line upon line of hulked ships. These decommissioned naval vessels accommodated incarcerated hardened criminals and prisoners of war.

The Basins
At the height of Victorian England, thousands of convicts were used to dig out St. Mary’s Creek and construct, in its place, Basins One, Two and Three. The spoil was used to create St. Mary’s Island. Completed in the 1870s, the three Basins were used by Chatham Dockyard and warships of the Royal Navy for close on 100 years. It was closed in March 1984 by the Ministry of Defence with the loss of around 7,000 jobs and left a legacy of contamination that required extensive remediation before housebuilding could even start.

The Big Clean Up
The ground levels on St. Mary’s Island were originally made up from waste materials used at the brickworks and dockyard.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 23.15.16

English Partnerships, who were initially responsible to the Secretary of State for the Environment, set about determining the nature and level of such wastes as an absolute priority. A detailed research plan to test the ground across the whole of the Island was therefore put into effect, extensively testing and retesting soil and water samples.

Once the testing process was completed, a programme of work was begun to bring the Island up to the most stringent levels recommended by government safety guidelines. A redundant pump house was excluded from the regeneration programme only to be demolished at a later date.
Over a three year period 1.2 million cubic metres of soil was taken away from the site and replaced. The extent of the clean-up operation and the attention to detail with which it was carried out can best be illustrated by the fact that for virtually three years, every four hours, twenty-four hours a day, a train left the site carrying away soil and unwanted deposits in covered containers.

A train removing topsoil from St Mary's Island
A train removing topsoil from St Mary’s Island

Radiological testing was carried out by the Ministry of Defence and English Partnerships and checked annually by an independent assessor.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 23.15.21

The history as portrayed by the developers is very limited, it’s largest period of use as a royal naval dock is dealt with in one paragraph and leaves you none the wiser to it’s real use. You then get to the almost throw away sentence about yearly radiation testing by the MOD. Is this standard for all ex MOD brownfield sites or something else? In reality the three big basins at St Mary’s were used for the refitting of Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet up until the dock closed in 1984, including refuelling of the submarines reactor core. Low-level radioactive waste was buried in the Dockyard near Gillingham Pier. Medium level radioactive waste (pumps etc.) was stored in the warehouse in the same location pending offsite disposal. The spent nuclear fuel was stored in the Core Pond, and placed directly in the nuclear flasks when Windscale (now Sellafield) had capacity to deal with it. It was possible to see Cherenkov’s Glow) in the Core Pond when spent fuel was stored. The blue glow is caused by negatively charged Beta particles travelling faster than the speed of light in water.

an example of Cherenkov’s Glow
an example of Cherenkov’s Glow

This interesting history has lead to a lot of discussion and ‘urban rumours’ on various local history forums, the following posts are taken from http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/

• Bilgerat, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
when the navy had the yard, nuclear waste was stored in the old collier dock to the right of the south lock on the map. The river end of it had been bricked up and it was filled filled with water. I remember seeing the yellow radiation warning flags on poles all around the roof they built over it. The spent fuel from the submarine reactors was taken out in crash-proof flasks on special trains in the dead of night, with armed marine guards aboard. In the late 70’s a couple of local boys who lived up the road from me, i think their surname was Dallas, made the headlines in local papers when they scaled the wall and got into the nuclear waste storage facility.

• WildWeasel, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
So, the railway line from the dockyard runs in a cutting parallel to Rosebury Road / Richmond road.. It meets the main line just East of Gillingham station…Clearly visible on Google Maps…
I grew up in this area so we used to play on the line as kids…Big clue that it was used was the fact that the rails where always clean …IE No rust….
A mate of mine ( now sadly deceased ) Lived in Brooklyn Paddock next to the Bridge over the line at Burnt Oak Terrace …He took photo’s late one night of a train coming out of the Dockyard loaded with suspect containers…
He had a visit from MOD Police and was told to ” Be carefull “…………

We know Chatham was a base heavily involved with the re-fit of Nuclear Subs…So its obvious that there would have been a need to remove waste material from the spent reactors….Taking it out by train in the middle of the night would seem to be a sensible option…
MOD Banged to rights by this and other posts…

• Ben_10000, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
Very interesting topic, it seems that as kids we used to FISH within 50 meters of a Nuclear storage dump off of Gillingham pier. Well that was until one night when all the fish washed up dead, this would have been late 70’s… Many years later there were rumours of something to do with HMS Dreadnought coming up the river glowing; she never sailed under her own power again after her last visit to Chatham. But as this happened in the dark ages (pre google) little trace remains of articles about HMS Dreadnought, she had a mysterious machinary problem (possibly secondary coolant circuit) and as then laid up.

Its odd to think that we used to live so close to a Nuclear facility (I could see it from my bedroom) and that we fought to keep it too but it was jobs I guess, my father worked in the yard for many many years. I also remember that after the dockyard closed they left low and medium level waste behind.

Best access to the rail line for us kids used to be from the wooded area behind Hillyfields School where we used to muck about and fire pears at each other, happy days ☺ and as an adult I used to commute from a station that saw Atomic waste trains overnight but it never did us any harm now did it, ☺.

• ChrisExiledFromStrood, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
So to sum up the trains…

a. when the dockyard was operating, there were occasional workings of spent fuel from the subs travelling in the dead of night* with military escorts. Those wagons were much much bigger than the ones still used today for power station waste, with a sort of double bogie arrangement at each end. The escort staff rode in converted mainline coaches.

b. after it closed, there were the trains pictured earlier in the thread, carrying low-level waste for landfill. The sort that’s basically harmless after a few years in the ground.

*there was one incident where the train derailed in Gillingham sidings and was there for all to see the following morning in broad daylight, sometime around 1980. Not a serious derailment, probably just fell off a dodgy bit of old siding at low speed. Shame I didn’t have a camera then.

1:10,000 OS Map (right), & USSR targeting Map (left), both from 1984, the year of the Docks closure
1:10,000 OS Map (right), & USSR targeting Map (left), both from 1984, the year of the Docks closure

While there is no danger from the sites former use (that is known of) it is clear that this isn’t the kind of history the inhabitants would expect, and as well as the physical decontamination of the site, there is also a little historical decontamination to avoid any of the hysteria that surrounds anything related to nuclear energy. The low level waste is still stored in a walled off area owned by the MOD, away from the housing development. It was originally thought to have a half-life of 25-30 years (the time needed to decompose to a safer state), but this figure is now apparently far higher based on increased levels of various radioactive compounds.

Like the rest of the Thames Gateway region, the Medway towns have an incredible amount of psychogeographic potential based on their maritime history and recent redevelopment.

The following images are all early developments, taken on a borrowed Hasselblad H2D. I am not happy with them at this stage as they are to detached from the resonance of the location, and the digital format adds a sense of hypereality that I don’t want in the images as the site study progresses. The images are designed to ape the publicity material of the developers and slowly reveal elements of it’s unfinished state and industrial neighbours. I used a longer lens than my normal wide angle to create a visual compression within the plains of the image, as an attempt to document the claustrophobia of the over developed site.

St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary's island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013
St Mary’s island, shoot one, Simon Robinson 2013

The Only Way is Essex

This post follows on from last week’s entitled The East Anglian Plains, The Topographic Sublime and looks at the work of Jason Orton and Ken Worpole.

Thanks to programs like TOWIE and Snog, Marry, Avoid, most people’s only perception of Essex is a lazy shorthand of fake tans, boobs and short skirts. While there is of course an element of truth to this stereotype, it is certainly not a localised phenomenon, and it is unfair to taint an entire region with it.

Photographer Jason Orton and author Ken Worpole have been working on a series of projects based on the topography of Essex since 2005, when Jason was commissioned by ExDRA, the Essex development agency to produce a series of images depicting the Essex coastline. Jason contacted Ken to contribute an essay on the history and topography of the region. These two linked essay, photographic and literary where published as 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (2005).

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In the early months of 2005, we walked, cycled and occasionally drove, separately or together, much of the 350 miles of coastline, taking in the atmosphere, the landscape, and the abiding relationship to the sea. At the end of the journey we appreciated, more than ever, that the Essex shoreline is especially memorable for its obstinate refusal to conform to conventional notions of what is beautiful or picturesque. This landscape is singularly rich in history, and full of layered meanings and visual pleasures to those who give it the time and attention it deserves’

Number 101, Lee-over-Sands
Number 101, Lee-over-Sands
Minewatching Tower, Dengie
Minewatching Tower, Dengie
Bradwell Power Station, Bradwell-on-Sea
Bradwell Power Station, Bradwell-on-Sea

Like many topographic bodies of work it is always a difficult decision whether to include people and portraits within the series. Since Alec Soth published Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) the use of the awkward large format portrait has in my opinion become saturated and there is a real danger of it detracting from story you are trying to tell.

There was one difficult editorial decision to be made, however, not without anguish, and that was whether to include any of the portraits which Jason had taken. These were of some of the people he had met in his travels – a boat-builder, a Salvation Army Captain, a well-known gardener, a gallery director – amongst others. Try as we may, we couldn’t make these portraits fit. For as we quickly came to realise, both Jason’s photographic point of view and my essay, were based on a sense of distance (though not detachment). Distance of space, distance of time. The portraits brought us too close in: broke the spell, disrupted the reverie we were each trying to create.

This does not mean that ‘350 miles’ is depopulated. The ghostly presence of human activity is to be found everywhere on this extraordinary coastline, and along its great estuaries, along with the ruins of past epochs and battles, buildings and boats. The water’s edge proved for both of us to be a memory theatre, a place of constant shape-shifting and evocation of past lives.
Memory Maps: ‘Estuary Lines: An essay on the Essex coastline’

Sand Extraction Plant, Fingringhoe
Sand Extraction Plant, Fingringhoe
Car and tractor, Fingringhoe
Car and tractor, Fingringhoe

Like the work of Mark Power and Daniel Cockrill on Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment (DTLFTSOTE) (2006-10), much of the journey was undertaken separately.

Although we communicated frequently between visits, discussing places we had been, it was always understood that the photography and the writing were being pursued independently – each according to our own distinctive interests and obsessions.

On publication a number of reviewers or commentators remarked how well they matched, and it is pleasing to record that this was wholly a matter of shared, elective sympathies, rather than brute aesthetic force. This is not to say that there was no editorial judgement involved in the final publication, far from it. The essay had certainly picked up on some of the places Jason had enthused about or found especially mysterious, whilst on several occasions I pointed him in the direction of places which over the years held a particular appeal to me. So there was a degree of inter-weaving of themes and places before the final editing took place.

Car, Holliwell Point
Car, Holliwell Point
Sea wall and jetty, Canvey Island
Sea wall and jetty, Canvey Island

An extract of Worpole’s essay is available on the V&A’s Memory Maps website.

In the proceeding years Orton has continued to work on projects around the Essex foreshore and the area now designated the Thames Gateway. Some of this has been in response to both this major planning project and the 2012 Olympic site at Stratford, which would eat heavily into the Lea Valley.

Owen Hatherley described the Thames Gateway as:

A gigantic dollop of land between London and the North Sea; an area which should really be described as the Industrial South. It begins with the disused wharves of the London Borough of Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, extends up the the River Lea to the industrial estates of Stratford, then along the Thames past Silvertown, Barking, Erith, Dartford, Gravesend, Tilbury, Sheerness, Basildon and Canvey Island, finally departing up the Medway to Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham. It passes London’s internal organs, and places that the keep the capital going but which have long been expelled from the metropolis itself: container ports, factories both closed and thriving, petroleum refineries, sugar refineries, several power stations, marshes and nature reserves.

The Thames Gateway has recently often been a locus for M25 flanerie or exurban poetics… it is a slippery zone, its very name implying that it is merely the way into the real event, the Metropolis itself.
A New Kind Of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (2012)

The following images are taken on the site of a former smallpox hospital on the edges of Dartford and the M25 crossing. Since Orton took the pictures, the 264-acre brownfield site, including the former hospital grounds, has been developed into a mixed-use “community” of offices, industry and homes called The Bridge.

Littlebrook Nature Park, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Littlebrook Nature Park, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007

Below are two of Jason Orton’s images from the 2012 Photofusion show Residual traces, which looked at the development of the Stratford Olympic site and it’s impact on the pre-existing edgeland community.

Channelsea River 01
Channelsea River 01

Cities need to have holes in them. Places where they can breathe – a valve where the unexpected can be let out
Silke Dettmers.

Residual Traces brings together photographic projects which have engaged with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games coming to one of the most deprived areas of London, the Lea Valley.

This secret pocket, loved by the locals but little known to the rest of London, was an untamed part of the East End where golfers and quad bikes played next to gasometers and scrap yards and where giant weeds dominated the river bank.

The hinterland of sprawling post-industrial wilderness, an enclave with an eclectic social mix of young artists, street gangs and run down council estates was characterised in 2007 as a “ragged hole in the city’s fabric” [Andy Beckett, The Guardian].

Five years on the area has been transformed and the hole has been partially filled. New housing developments, restored tow paths, cycle tracks and organic cafes are evidence of a new era in the valley, but the older traditional society is still in residence, perhaps more marginalised than ever.
Taken from the exhibition statement for Residual Traces, Photofusion 2012

Channelsea River 02
Channelsea River 02

350 miles has now been joined by a companion book, The New English Landscape (2013).

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002a

For nearly a decade we – Jason Orton and Ken Worpole – have collaborated on documenting the changing landscape and coastline of Essex, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography and architecture.

The New English Landscape critically examines the changing geography of landscape aesthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline. It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding these territories as places of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military and industrial occupation, and the dramatic incursion of the sea.

These are landscapes of profound ecological and imaginative resonance, particularly along the Thames foreshore, and the islands and estuaries of its north-eastern coastal peninsula. The book assesses the past, present and future of this new territorial aesthetic, now subject to much debate in the contested worlds of landscape design, topography and psycho-geography.

Horsey island, Essex, March 2013
Horsey island, Essex, March 2013

While the subject of the images and essay aren’t necessarily considered edgeland site (as laid out by Marion Shoard) they are interstitial regions, and this is something that Worpole explores in his accompanying essay.

Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013
Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013

Many Londoners discovered a spiritual home along the River Lea, and further out in the Essex reaches, and loyalty to this ‘bastard’ countryside is complex and enduring. The distinctive topography of the Lea Valley remains hallowed ground. Combining industry, agriculture, leisure and recreation, ecology and a tumultuous social history, it was a prototype of a new kind of landscape which emerged after the war, a model of how a working landscape could be seen to possess aesthetic and communitarian qualities. Such hybrid landscapes capture the ambivalent feelings we all have about our wavering loyalties between town and country, the life of the street and the solitude of the woodland walk or coastal path.

The hard and fast distinction once made between town and country is no longer tenable in many parts of Britain today, especially as road building, housing development and retail parks have extended deep into formal rural terrain, whilst at the same time agriculture itself has industrialised.
There is today a wide and rich vocabulary used to describe these new hybrid landscapes, ranging from the relatively benign ‘suburbia’ to the scathing ‘drosscape’.

Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013
Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013

The Thames Estuary in South East England, home to the London 2012 Summer Olympics and wartime “bulwark shore against invasion”, is a drosscape to some but a place of great fascination to others. Photographer Jason Orton and author Ken Worpole have spent over a decade documenting these sodden flatlands and reveal them to be a place of quintessential English beauty.

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013
Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013

Here Worpole explains for uncube the shifting English landscape aesthetic.

Landscapes, and the representation of them, are charged with political significance. This makes the study of landscape aesthetics – particularly around issues of topography and ‘sense of place -’ of continuing intellectual interest and concern, more so since the European Landscape Convention (also known as the Florence Convention) was adopted by the Council of Europe on 20 October 2000, and came into force on 1 March 2004. Article 5 states that “each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.” The UK government belatedly endorsed this charter in February 2006.

What is considered beautiful in landscape changes over time. In wartime, highly sentimental representations of pristine fields and forests, along with crystal streams and snow-capped mountains are often patriotically evoked. However, most of Europe has now been at peace for seventy years, during which time rapid industrialisation, and subsequent post-industrial decline have altered many European regions irrevocably. Can we continue to insist that the study and representation of landscape remains a matter of picturesque, national-romantic or modernist frames of reference? Landscape aesthetics is now surely a much more shape-shifting and muscular affair.
In mainland Britain the aftermath of the Second World War brought about a profound geographical shift in what had hitherto been regarded as the quintessential ‘English’ landscape. Previously the ‘West Country’, along with the Peak District and the Lake District, provided the stock images of English life and culture, represented as small villages nestling within the folds of undulating uplands and gentle river valleys. After the war there was a marked shift to the east, particularly to the coastline of East Anglia. This was a somewhat harsher territory, bleaker in its marshes, mudflats and estuaries, but heroic in its role as ‘the bulwark shore’ against invasion.

The eastern shoreline was thus established as a steel, concrete and armoured wall, and the remains of those fortified structures can still be seen today, and have become not only familiar but almost cherished elements in the landscape. Writers and artists have also gravitated towards East Anglia, regarding this historic coastline as a place of significant visual and cultural disruption – the result of military or industrial occupation – and therefore open to a surrealist, constructivist or abstractionist interpretation.

In recent years there has also been significant interest in landscapes which have developed unbidden in the interstices of urban and industrial development. In North America topographers now talk of drosscapes, whilst in the UK and elsewhere the same abandoned land is described as urban fringe, edgelands, or bastard countryside. None of these terms is as effective in capturing this indeterminate territory as the 19th century French phrase terrain vague.

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013
Benfleet, Essex, March 2013
Horsey island, Essex, March 2013
Horsey island, Essex, March 2013

I really do wish that I could include more of Ken Worpole’s beautifully written essay, however I have already taken too much. I urge you to pick up a copy of this book; at £15 it is a bargain and worthy of a place in any topophiliac’s library. It is clear that we share many of the same references and interests and I’m sure will include elements in future posts.

All photographs are the copyright of Jason Orton, and all quotes are by Ken Worpole unless otherwise stated.

The East Anglian Plains, The Topographic Sublime

Yesterday was my Birthday. A long time ago my relatives learnt a couple of things, I am very hard to buy for, and I hate surprises. So for as long as I have been mature enough to spend it, I have received cheques instead of presents. This is brilliant as it allows me to go out and buy exactly what I want, even if I don’t know what I want at the time. The downside of cheques is that I physically have to go to the bank to pay them in.

I have lived on the outskirts of Norwich for the last five years, and currently live just above the River Yare valley. A place that is eloquently described in Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (2007).

Map of the Norfolk Broads
Map of the Norfolk Broads

Cocker turns to look at his own recent past, describing how he and his family moved from inner-city Norwich to make a home in the flat country of the nearby Yare valley. The change is presented as an act of migration, which is at once bird-like (because it is driven by instinct) and falteringly human (because the new house, at least to start with, leaves him feeling disoriented). As he begins to acclimatise, he finds that rook-watching charges “many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance”. The birds, he says, are “at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration”.
Andrew Motion, Taken from The Guardian

I find the plains of the Norfolk Broads and the rivers that feed them, to be incredibly spiritual. I think it has to do with the scale of the landscape, the huge skies, and the horizons that may be a mile or 20 miles away.

But to walk in the landscape is worse. To the human eye the valley is an extensive plain of grassland interrupted now and then with alluring reed-fringed pools, circled with alder carr or poplar plantations. It seems a gentle, unpeopled, easy place, but its very flatness is the source of the illusion. Bounding every field, and initially invisible to the visitor, is a network of water filled dykes. Farmers and wildfowlers have bridged many of them with old rotting planks, known as liggers, but many others have no means of access. And memorising navigable routes takes a lifetime of familiarity. My walks across the open spaces were often reduced to a tedious tour of each field’s inner perimeter, made more frustrating by the sight of my goal and the impossibility of its attainment.

One consequence of the valley’s intractability is that I take a map with me every time I go out. No other landscape has made such a demand. Other places I’ve lived in or known resolve into a complete mental picture relatively quickly. The different facets link up like parts of a jigsaw, and as the last few fragments drop into their unique, logical place there is that sweet sense of completion. But it didn’t happen like that in the Yare Valley.
Mark Cocker, Crow Country (2007)

In 1999, the nature writer Mark Cocker moved from Norwich to live in Claxton. He bought a house called 'The Hollies' and his move to the village is documented in his book Crow Country.
In 1999, the nature writer Mark Cocker moved from Norwich to live in Claxton. He bought a house called ‘The Hollies’ and his move to the village is documented in his book Crow Country.

The witness to the sublime is overwhelmed, by vastness, by awe, by wonder, by terror. The sublime is crushing!

According to Burke, the sublimes qualities include, ruggedness, lack of clarity, infinity. Succession and uniformity of parts of which constitute the artificial infinite, give the effect of sublimity in architecture… Greatness of dimension is also requisite.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

The sheer manpower that has gone into producing the landscape, an estimated 900 million cubic feet of peat was removed for up to the 14th century when the land was finally taken by rising seas levels. They are a true definition of the sublime, at once man humbled by the Creator (read nature), and at the same time pushing back against in. They have a power that no Casper David Freidrich painting can challenge, and that the Norwich School was unable to capture.

If we consider that our entire rural idyll is a man made construct, through years of farming and other interventions, then we can apply Burkes statement to the so-called natural world.

Mankind usurped God, man kind has to put it mildly augmented the inventory of the sublime. Not though pictorial or literary representation, not by making art about it, but by matching it, by mimicking nature, by emulating the elements, by acting like camoufleurs.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

They have more life than the never-ending flats of North Norfolk and the Wash. The hedge lines and copses of trees, ground them with a human scale, and give the audience a reference point that the Wash is missing.

I am no stranger to wide landscapes, having spent a large amount of my youth on Dartmoor, and living on the Sussex Weald, stuck between he North and South Downs. I also went to college in Croydon, anyone that has had too commute on the train through South London is well aware of the mini Manhattan of Croydon looming on the horizon. However the landscape around the Broads has really got to me.

The Broads is an area reclaimed from the sea, and it still has a hold on the landscape. Mark Cocker writes:

For all it’s history as terra firma, the sense of Haddiscoe and Halvergate (an area on the southern edge of the Broads) as a stretch of open water remains imprinted on my imagination, as if a ghost image of the sea lays just below the physical features. Haddiscoe also retains one of the sea’s fundamental qualities. It is a landscape that yields very little sense of its age… it makes me think that in order to project a sense of the past upon a geographical place the human imagination requires something three dimensional, some relief, on which to frame it. Think of mountains. Their monumental scale is permeated with a sense of age and of the past. They dwarf us both physically and chronological, looming behind and beyond us.

But flat landscapes, like open water, resist the processes of memory. They seem too plain, too ordinary to have acquired a history… it reminds me to show reverence towards this wonderful place, to give thanks for its spare features, its simple line, its open skies and its emptiness.
Mark Cocker, Crow Country (2007)

However it is a region steeped in history and conflict, the Iceni uprising against their Roman despots, the sacking of the region by a puritanical Matthew Hopkins, self titled Witch Finder General during the early part of the 17th century. The history of Dunwich as the location of the bishop’s seat in the kingdom of East Anglia, until the port was reclaimed by the sea in the 17th century. There is nothing hugely remarkable about this, except for the fact that Dunwich elected two members of parliament until the mid 19th century to represent a constituency that was mostly underwater.

In it’s more recent history East Anglia has been home to major military establishments. The region was during World War two, dotted with air force bases, and still includes several active sites including the home to one of the UK’s apache gunship forces. On the mouth of the river Deben sits Bawdsey Manor, the first home to the development of radar during the start of World War two.

Sublimity and terror are found in technological warfare, listening devices, choreographed mass rallies, explosions of atomic bombs, cloud seeding, the multiplication of means by which the atrocious can be achieved.

They are found in pylons, great dams, oil refineries, power stations, bridges, cooling towers, chimneys who’s smoke colours the sky.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

Further up the coast is the shingle spit of Orford Ness, home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, used for environmental testing. When a laboratory test is conducted to determine the functional performance of a component or system under conditions that simulate the real environment in which the component or system is expected to operate. Many of the buildings from this time remain clearly visible from the quay at Orford, including the distinctive “pagodas”. Whilst it is maintained that no fissile material was tested on the site, the very high explosive initiator charge was present and the buildings were designed to absorb any accidental explosion, allowing gases and other material to vent and dissipate in a directed or contained manner. In the event of a larger accident, the roofs were designed to collapse onto the building, sealing it with a lid of concrete.

Orford Ness, Pagodas
Orford Ness, Pagodas

Nature throughout much of mankind’s term on this planet has been determined by God.

Mankind when it discovered there was no God, saw an opportunity, there was a void to be filled, and filled with ostentatious earnest and grandiose exultation. This was a near sacred project undertaken with the upmost gravity. It usurped the God that wasn’t
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

I first visited the region on a scout camp and my sixth form art field trip. I had no knowledge or understanding of the sublime at this point, but felt myself being intrinsically pulled towards the places we visited, Sizewell B nuclear reactor, or sitting on the banks of the river Orwell, painting the bridge crossing it towards Ipswich. Most importantly we stayed in Bawdsey Manor, and I remember wandering around the disused and unloved radar and Bloodhound missile station.

This is readily apparent in the East Anglia landscape, covered in monumental structures. From the glorious basilica of power sitting on the coast at Sizewell, shining for miles around, partnered by it cuboid sibling, Magnox series A.

Sizewell Power Station,  A & B Reactor
Sizewell Power Station, A & B Reactor

The huge sugar beet factories at Cantley and in the middle of the roundabout at Bury Saint Edmonds, belching its bizarre smell into the air.

Cantley Sugar Beet Factory, on the banks of the River Yare
Cantley Sugar Beet Factory, on the banks of the River Yare

I love living close to Norwich, it has most of the benefits of a city, but feels small and comfortable. It is quite a bohemian place and in many ways feels like a smaller, cleaner version of Brighton. It has an excellent music scene and reasonable art community, fueled largely by the constant influx of students to Norwich University of the Arts, however is has no notable photography scene. It is just too far from London to have an arts council funded gallery that specialises in photography, and any small community based galleries and groups have found that there isn’t the traffic to make them viable. The two major galleries are NUA space, which I find has fallen into the trap of many smaller funded spaces, and only displays work from traveling shows, many of which increasingly only speak to themselves and the educated fine art community. The far larger but no less dismal space is the Norman Foster designed Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts at UEA. It was built to house a collection of colonialist works of world art, and many of the shows it puts on are a reflection of this collection, stuffy white and very middle class.

It therefore always comes as a surprise when I discover new photography in Norwich. Opposite the NatWest on Gentleman’s Walk is a small independent bookshop The Book Hive, that was voted the best small bookshop in Britain by The Telegraph in 2011. They always have an excellent collection of books, and I always walk away with something to read for my PhD (books are one of my only vices). It has helped me find some of the more interesting literary references that I wouldn’t come across on amazon. Generally however I find its art section to be very limited and generally full of design books for first year BAs.

Today I went in on the off chance that they would have something interesting, and city on the table display by the door was a copy of Patrick Keiller’s The View From The Train, Cities & Other Landscapes (2013). I have been meaning to buy a copy for some time, and while I could have got it cheaper from Amazon, I think it is important to support small bookshops. After I paid for it, I stopped to put it in my rucksack, which I rested on top of a pile of books, while I wrestled with my bag and the contents of my daughters changing bag. Two books caught my eye, at first merely for their design and fonts. The New English Landscape by Jason Orton and Running Wild by Frances Kearney. As I leafed through them I was surprised that both contained images of East Anglian interstitial sites.

Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013,  Jason Orton
Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013, Jason Orton
Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013,  Jason Orton
Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013, Jason Orton
Untitled IV, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled IV, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled I, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled I, 2009, Frances Kearney

Both of these publications reminded me of the work of Mark Edwards, who’s work I first came across at a show at the Forum Library in Norwich entitled Photo-ID. This was the only major show I remember in Norwich and I was struck by Mark’s huge images of the Yare Valley taken on a 10”x8” field camera. At the time, Mark also lived in a similar area of the Yare Valley as Mark Cocker and myself. He is now teaching at University College Suffolk.

Overpass No 3, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 3, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 4, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 4, 2005, Mark Edwards

Over the next few days I will post more detailed critiques of their work, something I’m slightly nervous of as Jason Orton is following this blog.

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 physica