Tag Archives: Photography

The River Don Corridor, Sheffield’s Twin Religions

Here are some thoughts and development images from my trip to Sheffield in January

Across Britain new marina developments are springing up and waterfront flats have tempted ‘urban professional’ to move back to the heart of their hometowns. I’d seen on my journey how from Glasgow to Plymouth, cities have begun to fall back in love with their once neglected riversides. Regeneration of the waterfront has undoubtedly been one of the major changes to our cities.
Concretopia, by John Grindrod (2013)

This is only partly true for Sheffield, once you leave the confines of the city centre with it’s new hotels and cladding covered flats. You are confronted by a still inhabited industrial belt, complete with steel works, gently hugging the course of the River Don.

Sheffield River Don 01, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 01, Simon Robinson 2014

From the twelfth floor of Sheffield University’s ‘Arts Tower’, the tight corridor of warehouses, recycling works, scaffolders, and the inevitable dodgy car body shop, is clear to see snaking through the cities heart. All the way to the pinnacle of man existence, Meadowhall Shopping Centre. Which like all true regenerative cathedrals of commerce can hold the claim to have once been the largest in the country, and far grander than Sheffield’s true centre of religion, the Cathedral, tucked between shops on the city centres main concourse.

Sheffield River Don 04, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 04, Simon Robinson 2014

An excellent book on the regeneration of Sheffield, including the building of Meadowhall is by John Darwell and is available from Café Royal Books.

Cover of Sheffield Meadowhall, Hyde Park, Ponds Forge, by John Darwell published by Cafe Royal Books (2013)
Cover of Sheffield Meadowhall, Hyde Park, Ponds Forge, by John Darwell published by Cafe Royal Books (2013)
Double page spread from Sheffield Meadowhall, Hyde Park, Ponds Forge, by John Darwell published by Cafe Royal Books (2013)
Double page spread from Sheffield Meadowhall, Hyde Park, Ponds Forge, by John Darwell published by Cafe Royal Books (2013)
Regeneration 01, by John Darwell, the closure of one of Sheffield's largest steel works and the redevelopment of the surrounding area. Commissioned by Untitled Gallery, Sheffield (1988-90)
Regeneration 01, by John Darwell, the closure of one of Sheffield’s largest steel works and the redevelopment of the surrounding area.
Commissioned by Untitled Gallery, Sheffield (1988-90)
Regeneration 05, by John Darwell, the closure of one of Sheffield's largest steel works and the redevelopment of the surrounding area. Commissioned by Untitled Gallery, Sheffield (1988-90)
Regeneration 05, by John Darwell, the closure of one of Sheffield’s largest steel works and the redevelopment of the surrounding area.
Commissioned by Untitled Gallery, Sheffield (1988-90)

The reason for Sheffield’s reluctance to embrace the waterfront may have to do with the floods of 2007, when a large section of the Rive Don Burst it’s banks, leaving part of the city underwater. This lead to a hug amount of tidy of the river by the environment agency to alleviate the risk of future flooding and creating an area on calmness at the heart of the city.

2007 Flood
2007 Flood

The week from Monday 25th of June 2007 will be forever remembered by the People of the Sheffield and Rotherham. Two People sadly died and many had the stress of getting home, worrying about loved ones that were stranded or just late in returning home. RAF air crews were scrambled to winch stranded workers of Factory roofs as the River Don burst it’s banks and reclaiming it’s flood Plain. Meadowhall became flooded, Railways flooded and public transport suspended. In Brightside, a rescue boat was used to rescue stranded workers. Steering past abandoned cars that were being washed away during it’s journey.

2007 Flood
2007 Flood

Up Market Apartments on Nursery Street and Corporation Street became down market in a matter of hours as flood water swept through them. The journey home for some took hours if it could be completed at all. If not, emergency accommodation was set up in places like Hallam University. Hillsborough flooded and a substation blew plunging the area into darkness. Over night the Ulley Reservoir wall was damaged. The flood waters leading to fears of collapse and people having to be rushed to safety. The nearby Motorway the M1 had to closed while the nearby Power cables meant Sheffield and the local area could plunge into darkness. As the flood waters moved downstream other rivers burst their banks possibly claiming another life in Doncaster.
press quote about the 2007 flood

Hillsborough 2007 Flood
Hillsborough 2007 Flood

At two other ends of the cities river network stand Sheffield’s other two religious icons, Bramall Lane, Hillsbury.

OS map detial of sheffield, with Hillsborough, Bramall Lane and Meadowhall
OS map detial of sheffield, with Hillsborough, Bramall Lane and Meadowhall

Football is Sheffield’s true religion as I have been reminded by films like When Saturday Comes (1996) and from my trip into the Millennium Museum, which proudly sold a range of t-shirts displaying Sheffield importance to the beautiful game.

Sheffield, Football’s First City
Sheffield, Football’s First City
Sheffield Football Club, The Original Rules and Innovations
Sheffield Football Club, The Original Rules and Innovations

Sheffield is home to the two oldest clubs in the world, the home of the first derby, and the home to the original rules to the sport.

Sheffield FC’s contribution to the modern game cannot be overstated. It is the first and oldest football club that sought to bring order from chaos. The original rules for the world’s most popular sport were written by ‘The Club’ at the height of the industrial revolution. The City of Sheffield’s backdrop was that of forges, smoke and molten steel.

Established on October 24th 1857 in the industrial north of England, Sheffield FC is the birth place of the most popular game in the world.

Not only are SFC recognised by the English FA as the oldest football club in the world, they are also one of only two clubs to be honoured,  along with Real Madrid, by FIFA with an Order of Merit Award. Both clubs received this recognition as part of FIFA’s Centennial Celebrations in Paris 2004.

‘Sheffield FC is a symbol of the role of football as a common denominator in the community and society.’
FIFA 

Hallam FC founded in 1860 (the world’s second oldest club). Hallam still play on their original ground, Sandygate Road, which is officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as ‘The Oldest Ground in the World’.

In 1860, Hallam first played Sheffield in a local derby which is still contested today. This ‘Rules Derby’ is considered the oldest, still-contested derby of any football code in the world, and is probably one of the oldest organised team-sport derbies in the world (besides those found in cricket).

Bramall Lane is the oldest stadium in the world which still hosts professional football matches. It opened on the 30th of April 1855 as a cricket ground and was, in its first 7 years, only used for cricket purposes. The first football match at the ground was played on the 29th of December 1862 when Sheffield FC took on Hallam FC (the match lasted three hours and resulted in a goalless draw). As Sheffield’s main sporting stadium of the time, it held all the most important local matches.

Bramall Lane
Bramall Lane

In 1867, Hallam FC made football history when they won The Youdan Cup; the world’s first ever organised football tournament, beating fellow Sheffield club Norfolk in the final at Bramall Lane. They still possess this historic trophy.

This was followed by the Cromwell Cup a year later, which was won by a newly formed team called ‘The Wednesday’. By 1877, a crowd of 8,000 watched The Wednesday beat Hallam FC in the Sheffield Challenge Cup. Bramall Lane effectively became The Wednesday’s permanent home between 1880 and the opening of their new stadium at Olive Grove in 1887, but since 1889 it has been the home of Sheffield United FC.

The following images were taken in January on a Canon DSLR as development images. I walked the River Don path from the city centre to Meadowhall, while killing time waiting for my train back to Norwich (as a student I’m too cheap to buy a ticket to travel during normal hours, so spend my life waiting till after 7pm to get a cheap fare).

one of the things that really struck me was how alive the city was in terms of small industry, the big steel works might be all but gone but it has open the way for smaller enterprises. One of the things I’m intrigued about is exploring some of these businesses and the people that work there.

Another thing I spotted is how many of these business seem to be built on the foundation of previous establishments, recycling building fragments into parts of their properties.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as you can see from the earlier OS map the industrial corridor covers a wide area between the Don and the canal on the other side of the Don Valley Stadium complex and entertainment park. I look forward to returning in the future with my large format camera to really get to know the area. As well as hopefully spending less time swearing about out of focus images (I didn’t have my tripod with me).

Sheffield River Don 03, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 03, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 02, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 02, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 05, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 05, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 06, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 06, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 07, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 07, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 08, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 08, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 09, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 09, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 10, Simon Robinson 2014
Sheffield River Don 10, Simon Robinson 2014
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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

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

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

Owen Hatherley describes the journey down the Thames estuary as

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 20.14.19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 physical location, just like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899);

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

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

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

Inside The Circle of Fire- A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson

A couple of weeks ago I was in Sheffield to see Dr Anna Jorgensen from Sheffield University’s Landscape Architecture department to discuss her work on urban wildscapes. In my down time I not only had an excellent burger and Pulled pork fries at the Twisted Burger Company, but I also went to see Inside the Circle of Fire at Sheffield Millennium Museum.

Co-founding member of electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield-born Chris Watson has nurtured an enduring fascination with sound.

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and traveling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city. Recorded over the past 18 months at locations in and around the city, the sound map will use the latest technology to create a sound which changes throughout the gallery, depending on the listener’s location. By truly hearing the sounds of the city, perhaps for the first time, we hope that visitors will gain a new perspective on Sheffield in 2013.

You walk in to be confronted by 4 sofas set around a square rug, with 3 projectors behind you. The whole space is ringed by speakers, including some hung from the ceiling .

The exhibition space
The exhibition space

The projections show a slowly evolving series of black and white photos, mainly depicting the industrial decline of the city, inhabited by ghosts of it’s glorious past. Photos of the bell casting works, are accented by the harmonious peel of their creations, while in the background the foundry siren screams. This is even more evocative having walked past a series of Sheffield bells on the way into the gallery.

At times photos compete with each other on two opposite walls, either conflicting or in harmony with the aural motif.

In my opinion the main themes of the piece, apart from the industry, are the rivers and the football. Pictures of Hillsborough and Bramall Lane are devoid of people, but the ghosts of matches live on in the chanting and singing of ‘High-ho Sheffield Wednesday.’

Recording the sounds of the urban river
Recording the sounds of the urban river

It’s a real shame that sound work is such a hard sell with the general public, with many people walking in; realising there isn’t anything to look at and leaving. For those who take the time to sit and let themselves be enveloped in the sounds of the city, find they leave with a richer experience of the city’s personality.

Chris records audio for the exhibition
Chris records audio for the exhibition

The sounds had an ability to wash over you, and in fact I’m not sure if the photography actually took something away from the experience. When I lay back and shut my eyes I was transported to an image of the spaces.

Interview excerpt from The Quietus

How did you decide on using photographs to accompany the piece?
CW: I don’t often use visuals in my work and I was concerned, putting a sound piece in a public gallery, what I was interested in doing, of course, was engaging people. I thought one way to do this was to use visual aspects, apart from the lighting, apart from the comfy seating, so Alan, this great photographer who works at the gallery, came out with me and documented lots of the recording trips I did, and then we put this series of images together which were black and white, so it’s not too distracting. I mean people can go in and close their eyes and just choose to listen, [but] I know some people like that sense of being able to engage with an image, so we used a series of non-synchronised images. What I didn’t want was to have a slideshow – everywhere you see is a place that you hear in the piece, but not necessarily at the same time.

The early beginnings of Sheffield’s electronic scene in the 80s are readily apparent, with the mixture of field recordings echoing cabaret Voltaire’s first recordings. The sounds of Sheffield have always been informed by its industrial legacy.

Recording the industrial soundscape
Recording the industrial soundscape

Something that was documented in Eve Woods excellent film Pulp: The Beat Is The Law – Fanfare For The Common People.

“Watson captures sounds that we take for granted and illuminates them to art form level.”

The Guardian, click for full interview