Category Archives: Review

Surveying The Terrain

One of the benefits of undertaking a PhD is the increased amount of time I spend looking at new photography and contextual sources. Having realised that I had arranged a supervision meeting for a Thursday at the end of June, I was able to attend the private views for the first photography week at Free Range for the first time since finishing my MA.

It will come, as no surprise that an awful lot of the work on display at degree shows is either very self indulgent, or carbon copies of whatever is the current photographic zeitgeist. I don’t want to spend too long exploring the reasons for this, but it firmly has something to do with the lack of funding in higher education leading to increased intake numbers, and digital technology meaning any university or college can now offer photography courses without needing the money or skill set to deal with traditional analogue methods.

I always feel it is unfair to judge third year work, as increasingly students spend 2 years playing with their craft, trying to fill in the weak points from A-level and foundation courses, and then spending a final year trying to hone their voice into a cohesive body of work. In many ways it would be fairer to run a 4 year program, either with a foundation year at the beginning to introduce the subject, or a final year leading straight to an MA. Three years is not enough time to understand your subject and find your voice. I can testify to this having dicked around for two and half years and then rolled straight into a two year MA program after my graduation as I felt that my BA project was the start of something, not the end. I am only just starting to reconcile my intentions from that point, and it is 9 years since I left Falmouth.

Looking through the online graduate showcases on Source or the walls of the Truman Gallery, normally confirms the fact that the best work consistently comes out of the universities with the strongest reputations, Brighton, Bournemouth, Newport, UAL. However in the last few years I have been gobsmacked at the work coming out of University College Suffolk based at Ipswich (reason enough to doubt it). Their output consistently outweighs their current reputation. Having taught A Level students for a number of years and had a large input into their UCAS applications they normally act very surprised when I recommend this small college. However its modest size allows it to keep its group sizes at the point they should be (30-35) unlike one university who proudly told me that had 600 enrolled in their photography degrees, sharing 5 studios and a colour darkroom for 12 people. The small size also means that they are able to curate a group that shares similar photographic interests, creating a cross pollination amongst students.

The work that normally speaks to me is the work I would describe as quiet poetic landscape, the large format shots informed by the New Topographic show, and the work of the American colour photographers of the 70s, or pyschogeography inspired bodies of work.

This years Free Range was very short of this kind of work, and I get the feeling it is slowly moving out of fashion again after years of carbon copy Alec Soth wannabes. It was still on display in the UCS show, and when done well still carries a huge amount of power.

The rest of my choices are either because I have an interest in the subject matter, (the Beeching Act, infrastructure, post industrial landscapes), or because they are areas I know, and in a couple of cases have photographed.

Three UCS students stood out for me, not to say their work was better than the rest, it just had more resonance to me.


Alastair Bartlett – Here We Are (2014)

Here We Are is set in the Cambridgeshire fenland. This is a place that, for most, is not a destination in itself. Rather, it is a place that is on the way. I like to drive around the unfamiliar and take photographs. Sometimes, certain places call to me. Other times, I have to look harder. Cambridgeshire is familiar enough so that I am comfortable in its presence, yet it is still foreign. I like the solitude. I just like to drive and take pictures.

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Tom Owens – Edgelands (2014)

Owens has been fascinated by light, colour and his surroundings since childhood. The official labelling of designated areas of beauty has made him question what is beautiful in the countryside. Seeing the same places over and over again at either end of the day tugs chords within him and scenes bathed in morning or evening light take on a transformation from the dull and uncared for environment. Mankind has shaped the countryside for millennia yet nature will subsume our efforts to abuse it. These edgelands are a constant reminder of the tension between rural and urban environments where nature will eventually outwit us all.

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Sproughton post Flextight

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Cattawade Verbascum and Coke


Henry Huxtable – The Pits (2014)

An aspect of my photographic inquiry is the topographical documentation of the landscape. Much of my work focuses on how the landscape is transformed. The visual markers of this process, often overlooked or ignored, form the basis of my work. In particular, gravel pits fascinate me, and the tension between the visually compelling and the extraction process. This resource material is often used for development projects that also further eradicate and alter the landscape. When this process is finished the pits are left to flood or lie dormant. The place, slowly and over time, is reclaimed by nature eventually absorbing but never removing the remnants of our human presence.

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The only other body of work that interested me, that I saw at Free range this year was from the University of Roehampton.


Mari Boman – Dry The River (2014)

Dry the River is a documentary landscape project exploring the complexity of a contested space, the Turia Gardens – referring to notions on space, representation, the truth and the everyday. The project tracks the development of a dry riverbed in Valencia, which has been turned into a park and recreation grounds. It follows the ongoing journey of local people from past to present and looks towards an uncertain future. Using own photographs mixed with found items, texts, archival materials and postcards, a complex collection of voices emerges in the book.

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Unfortunately I didn’t get down to the second week of shows which included many of the bigger names, so these are taken from the online galleries.


Ben Darby, University of Hereford – Withdrawn (2014)

Withdrawn explores the violent nature of the relationship between man and his environment. Quarrying is an inherently destructive activity, scarring the landscape, leaving it completely unrecognisable from its original form. This series acts as an emotional response to the violent nature of man on an environment that has no choice but to alter. They set out to capture the juxtaposition of a violently altered landscape which has since become a place of tranquillity and calm. All the images were captured in a single quarry in North Wales.

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Suzanna Davidson, University of South Wales, Newport- Genius Loci (2014)

‘The ruinous landscape can demonstrate something of the other, a different moment in time, lacunae, here and there strewn with ruins, can in a fragmentary way stir up something of the past, as a support to the memory of a city.’ Jan De Graaf. Wastelands are often looked at as inane eyesores. I have always been intrigued and enchanted by the museum like qualities they hold, every barren landscape has a history to tell. In wastelands across Britain, this work tells a story of these spaces before they were left to ruin. The most profound photograph for the previous function of each desolate place is found, and projected back into the landscape, creating a juxtaposition of the past and present.

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Lottie Pugh, University of Brighton – Nieuw Land (2014)

My practice is primarily concerned with the relationship between photography, travel, landscape and architecture. When exploring the landscape, I particularly focus on the presence of infrastructure and man’s alteration of the environment. This project, Nieuw Land, is an exploration into the heavily constructed reclaimed land of the Netherlands. The photographs draw attention to the relationship and interaction between land and water, and how this is highlighted in the uses and functions of this manufactured space.

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Paul Gareth Sands, University of Plymouth – Of The Land (2014)

‘Of the Land’ offers an appreciation for Industry and Land within areas I am familiar with. It is to serve as a passive gaze. Looking at Industry and not questioning the impact it has, but showing the way Industry sits within and is part of the land. This has developed from wanting to question how land is used while also showing gratitude to the exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape.’ Working with a large format camera and black and white film, I have begun a journey that I wish to continue long into my practice: looking, documenting and questioning the use of land.

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Dan Bellenger, Hereford College of Arts – Spaghetti Junction (2014)

Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction is best known to be one of the busiest junctions in Europe. By looking into this area, it creates a different atmosphere when all is quiet and empty. Using the light provided by street lights and flood lights which is reflected between the layers of the junction it creates an aesthetic that isn’t normally seen in this type of area.

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Emily Normansell, Sheffield Hallam University – End Of The Line (2014)

This project explores the idea of non places. These are places we travel through frequently, however we never stop to engage with them. I have explored this through documenting derelict railway lines that were once a non place, and to some extent still are. I am giving the viewer a chance to experience these places without the strict time constraints, they usually observe these places within. The body of work also features the idea of our landscape being a canvas for time, through the way in which it documents how man’s neglect effects the landscape.

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William Pitt, UCA Farnham – Quickmix (2014)

All concrete supplied by C+H Quickmix, my grandfathers business. In 1965 C+H Quickmix was formed after the joining together of R.G Carters Limited and W J Hall Extractors Limited. ‘Quickmix’ was produced with geographical restrictions with all of the structures based in my home town Great Yarmouth and closely surrounding areas, and for all of the concrete to be supplied by C+H Quickmix. The project questions the idea of the banal, exploring the subtle characteristics of concrete and its form but at the same time acts as a personal document and family history.

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This is no means a definitive list of all the work, but it is the pieces that jumped out at me. Some of the artist’s statements highlight how early these students are in their own practise and many of them do emulate their contextual sources. This is to be expected at this stage in their careers, and just to stand out in the sea of images is good enough at this stage.

What is shocking is how few degree courses make it to Free Range, unfortunately regardless of what you think, London is still the creative epicentre of this country and unless students have the opportunity to show their work, it makes it very hard to break out of the provinces. Also students need to understand the importance of being represented on Source and Free Range, not uploading images is just lazy, the same as having a poorly designed website (tumblr is for cat images, food porn and digital pinboards, not for serious work you have slaved over for the best part of a year) or worst still, no website (apart from the blog, I still haven’t got round to building one).

Remember when you are at your private view, it isn’t an excuse top simply get pissed, I remember my mum telling me to go take the time to speak to people looking at my work, and several of them turned out to be very useful people to know. Your degree show is the culmination of 3 years of work, partying and sleeping, it is now time to take your career seriously (or start an MA), the myth of the student that is plucked from no where and thrust onto the art world is very rare. If you are going to make it as an artist it will take hard work and a lot of heart ache. Don’t follow trends, do what makes you happy and you will find an audience.

 

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Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

During the Easter break I was invited down to Plymouth University to attend a symposium entitled ‘Patterns of Disclosure: The Narrative Document and the Photographic Book’, organised by David Chandler and Michael Mack. The symposium was excellent and explored the importance of the analogue book within contemporary photographic practice.

This however was not my main reason for making the exceptionally long drive from Norfolk to Plymouth. Over the Christmas period I had been corresponding with Jem Southam over twitter, discussing and exploring the ideas behind his twitter based bodies of work, St James’ Halt and it’s off shoot Still Life series.

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Jem’s previous bodies of work have all been marked by their rigorous aesthetic discipline. Using a 10”x8” field camera, Jem works with single locations over a period time, exploring changes within the landscape, both natural and man-altered. These images are then often presented as incredibly rich contact prints, forcing the viewer to engage with them on a very individual basis.

Taken from Rockfalls, Rivermouths, Ponds, by Jem Southam (2000)
Taken from Rockfalls, Rivermouths, Ponds, by Jem Southam (2000)
The Pond at Upton Pyne, Jem Southam (2001)
The Pond at Upton Pyne, Jem Southam (2001)
Painter's Pool, Jem Southam
Painter’s Pool, Jem Southam

 

For his most recent work he has embraced digital capture and has been working using an iPad to document the area around his house and allotment in the St James area of Exeter.

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While his work has always had a strong sense of place within the final images, the immediacy of the iPad and the adoption of the wandering flaneur has created a looseness within his interrogations. I would argue that it’s his most exciting image making since Raft of Carrots (1989).

Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes… The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, the neglected populations—an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends,’ as a detective apprehends a criminal.”

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1979)

I have sat in meetings with photographic academics that argue whether this quote is honest or satirical. The language Sontag chooses to use, often place her texts at first glance within the realms of satire, poring scorn on the over active egos of photographers who place their medium at the pinnacle of artistic endeavour. To the outside world, many of us are simply wandering around with a camera, seemingly taking images at random. Once you strip away extremes of her language and look at the quote from a perspective of the host of photographers work that have re-embraced the large format camera since New Topographics. Choosing to explore the built landscape in a more poetic manner, the quote takes on a more sincere voice. Certainly as a photographer I recognise within myself the character that Sontag is describing, though perhaps in a quieter manner.

As a photographer predominately, at least for now, still working in film using a large format field camera, I would describe the first time I picked it up as an epiphany. Up until that point I had struggled to find a voice within my work. Using a large format camera ruins you. You find yourself becoming obsessed with the image, and digital can’t quite make up for a missing feeling. Because of this I am not one of those photographers that always carries round a camera, I don’t even own a camera phone. It got to the point that I wouldn’t even take an image if I didn’t know its end point. One of the problem with photographers and filmmakers is we tend to fetishize equipment; I like many photographers have an intense personal connection to my kit. We spend years honing our collections and finding one that works for us. Moving to something new can be difficult. It is no surprise to me that for the last image in Rob Hornstra’s An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (2013), he chose to use a photo of his camera kit in it’s rucksack.

The contents of Rob Hornstra's camera bag, taken from An Atlas of War and
The contents of Rob Hornstra’s camera bag, taken from An Atlas of War and

Mark Power recently wrote a piece on his blog about moving to a digital system;

UK. Sunderland. Nissan car plant. (From 'Open for Business') June 2013.
UK. Sunderland. Nissan car plant.
(From ‘Open for Business’)
June 2013.

Recently, while working on the Magnum group project ‘Open for Business’ I had something of an epiphany.

I’d borrowed a Phase One camera, a remarkable piece of kit and, as all who try one must surely do, I fell instantly in love and now hanker after one passionately (… here endeth the advertisement… assuredly not part of the loan deal, in case you’re wondering).

Anyway, I was in the Nissan plant in Sunderland, the biggest car factory in Europe and reminiscent of a sort of ‘cleaned-up’ Blade Runner…  Spectacular, in other words.

Every time I pushed the shutter of the Phase One and looked at the screen I was disappointed. Each picture failed to get even close to the experience of being there.  Josef Koudelka’s infamous remark that photographers always make their best work before turning 40 began to hang heavy; it seemed I was clearly past my sell-by date, and wasted no time in telling Murray, who was assisting me, exactly this.

Later, over a beer, we reached an interesting, though perhaps obvious, conclusion.  In the past­­­ (as well as in the forseeable future, since I sadly have no means of actually buying a Phase One) I’ve always worked with film.  This means there’s a delay between the push of the shutter on location and the collection of contact sheets from the lab.  Meanwhile, the memory fades a little and the pictures somehow take over and become the experience.

This is different when using a digital camera because we see the picture immediately and inevitably compare the flat image on the screen with the multi-dimensional experience happening right in front of us.  This discrepancy is exacerbated when working in a particularly spectacular space, as I was at Nissan.  Now, we all know it’s impossible to photograph noise or smell or danger or any of the myriad sensations I felt while standing on a gantry overlooking robots assembling cars, but I was finding it hard to be logical.  I was just disappointed in myself.

The following day, when I returned to the same factory, I stopped obsessing about the screen (the one on the Phase One is terrible anyway) and instead told myself I’d look later… several days later if possible.  And it worked… now that the experience has faded the pictures aren’t so bad.  Of course, they’re nothing like the real thing because they’re just pictures.  But they’ll do.

Which reminds me: I know a couple of photographers who will let months pass before processing their films, in order to let the reality fade even more, and to further distance the pictures from time and place.  They say this gestation period helps.  I used to think they were just kidding themselves, but perhaps they had a point.

I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of spectacular locations over the years, including several monumental industrial spaces.  As an example, in 2009 I went to a ferro-alloy plant in Zestaponi, in (former Soviet) Georgia.  In terms of spectacularity (if there is such a word… and if there isn’t there should be) this was a good one.  Molten metal swung in vats above our heads and the noise was little short of deafening.  I didn’t see those pictures, made with my trusty 5×4, for at least two weeks, and when I finally did I was ready to accept they would be a pale imitation of the reality of the experience.

A Life Off-Screen, Mark Power (2013)

This is a different experience from Jem’s,  about how he felt the iPad had freed him up to experiment, without the crippling costs of film etc. He also spoke how he felt it was a natural continuation of his 10”x8” ground glass screen. The screen presents you with a large representation of the world you are trying to capture. The device itself is somewhat difficult to hold and shoot with. He also spoke of the brilliant immediacy of the image, he could go for a walk, come home and upload the images to his Twitter account. His audience were able to experience his latest images almost as soon as he shot them, no editing, raw. To come back to the earlier point we all have to find a system that works for us, part of the reason I have held off on purchasing a better digital system. While it would definitely help with the project, it wouldn’t feel the same.

Jem’s new work, while being on a new medium and curated space still contains much of his personal interests and visaul language, be it an obsession with certain locations over a period of time.

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Or based on his local football team, Exeter City.

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he also uses the 140 character caption to small sequences of images, within the larger body of work. whether that is based on the weather,

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or the number of birds he has spotted or heard on his walk

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The above image from his kitchen window is a clear connection to previous bodies of work.

Taken from Landscape Stories, Jem Southam
Taken from Landscape Stories, Jem Southam

While Jem has created a series of rules for his work, as he told me, if they are yours, then you are free to break them, alter them as you see fit. Hence the detour to Boston during a teaching engagement.

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The visual style of the Still Life images has changed over the seasons.

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various images

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After a break for a few months, Jem started posted new work again last week to correspond with the one year anniversary of the start of the project. I am really intrigued to see how it progresses and whether it will cross over into a physical exhibition, if not then keep following him on twitter.

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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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.

Nation Builders, BBC 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unite D'Habitation
Unite D’Habitation

described by the BBC as a;

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

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

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

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

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