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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

An interview with Rob Ball

all pictures copyright Rob Ball

 Different countries have different responses to inbetween suburban/semi-suburban landscapes - but it's something that figures large in contemporary photography. In North America, apparent expanses of space, urban sprawl and box architecture have a different set of planning laws and preconceptions of space than those in Germany or the Netherlands - the result is different photographic responses, strategies and histories - something we should pay more attention to.

Steve Bisson tells me the Italians call this kind inbetween landscape the Third Landscape. It used to be referred to more broadly in the UK as liminal space (inbetween space), but now the idea of Edgelands has become dominant - in the UK at least..

Marion Shoard writes about Edgelands here - she defines it as an "...unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory where town and country meet..."

There is also the book published last year Edgelands, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts., which celebrates Edgelands as urban wasteland - in quite a romantic way.

Perhaps the prime writer on Edgelands-type environments is Iain Sinclair. His London Orbital is about walking the M25 - I can't read it but lots of people can. More accessible is this article on the development of the site for the London Olympics. And if you're looking for the photographic equivalent of Iain Sinclair is Stephen Gill and his earlier Hackney Wick work.

Marion Shoard teaches at the University of Canterbury which is also where Rob Ball teaches on the photography course. Rob works a lot with the idea of Edgelands so I fired off some questions to him which he very kindly answered.

What are Edgelands?

For a while Edgelands were my home. I guess, most commonly, they would be described as being a space in between – neither urban nor rural.  Farley and Symmonds describe Edgelands as a place ‘looked at but not into’.   The Edgelands I am photographing are everyday places to many people, but to me they resonate strongly with my past – that’s why I’m working in them.

Why are so many photographers interested in photographing them?

Photographers are always looking for new stories to tell and this is a rich time for photographs of England. There is a renewed interest in our own landscape, whether that be urban, rural or somewhere in between. I became interested in the green areas where I used to play when our government attempted to sell them.

How successful are photographers in photographing Edgelands environments? What is the difference between insight and non-insight?  

I spent some time in the US a couple of years ago and understand the excitement of everything feeling new and alien – at these times its hard not to take pictures.

Working in my personal Edgelands is the opposite – I have to continually self-edit – how do I tell the story in the most succinct way? How do I make my (unremarkable) story, the Essex/London border, interesting and relevant to someone in the US for example?

The question of insight is echoed throughout photography. What do I bring by having this relationship with the environment? This project to me is more like writing a biography – but I think my story applies to others too.

I am interested in how someone like George Shaw works – we have to be bold - Tile Hill, my local park, or Yosemite – I’d like to offer them all equal importance. I’d like to see more photographers from different cultures working in our Edgelands – the idea that non-insight can be just as interesting.

For reference there is an interesting show coming up at the Hotshoe Gallery that addresses question of ‘I’ and ‘Other’ - http://www.hotshoegallery.com/upcomingexhibitions/other-i-alec-soth-wassinklundgren-viviane-sassen/

What do Edgelands say about us?

It’s a paradox: shocking town planning verses wonderful examples of the human spirit; dens, desire paths, and a willingness to interact with the landscape in such an interesting way.

How do Edgelands differ in countries? What is the UK v the US for example?
I guess the American equivalent would be the Urban Sprawl. Some wonderful work has been made over the years – often in the 70s. More recently I love the work of Jeff Brouws. Most things in America exist on a grander scale – the sense of space is epic in comparison. In my Edgelands you can see Canary Wharf in the distance – a reminder that we are never cut adrift. In a way though, there is something incredibly British about Edgelands. There’s nothing grand going on, mostly it’s home made and understated. That’s the attraction for me.

Why do you photograph Edgelands?

I think there’s a richness there, I can also record these places with some honesty, integrity and a real sense of history. These landscapes are mine and have been for 30 years. Upon revisiting them (I no longer live close by) I feel it all coming back; building dens, sitting under the bridge smoking, scouring the landscape for porno mags and most of all, hanging around because there’s nothing to do here. The park was our haven – the only place where we would be left alone.

Who are the artists doing interesting things with that kind of inbetween/Edgeland space?

There are many and I think we’re about to see more. Joni Sternbach, Beierle & Keijser, George Shaw, Farley & Symmonds, Mark Power.

Edgelands is a very landscape-oriented term with a sense of inbetweenness - do you think there are equivalents in other areas of photography - in portrait photography, or documentary photography for example?

I think the liminal space is really interesting in photography. I occasionally work with Wet Plate Collodion creating exposures over a period of 30 seconds, the images are intense and the camera seems to record something in-between.  I love the work or Richard Learoyd who does something similar with cibachrome paper.


f:lux said...

Might Hin Chua's 'After the Fall' also sit in this category?


colin pantall said...

Absolutely, right on the money - he says it's about "...the ongoing environmental struggle taking place beyond the boundaries of our cities, where the urban zoning system begins to blur and unravel."


Any more ideas.