Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Brown's Folly and Bicycle Mountains: Altered Landscapes







I don't think these places around Bath are quite Edgelands but they do resonate with a historicity that connects to Bath, the West Country and Georgian and Victorian history. The top picture is an informal BMX track (that nobody has used for a couple of years due to England's appalling summers). It sits between the River Avon and the Bath-London Railway. In the background is Grosvenor Place, a terrace of late regency houses which were to form one side of a huge pleasure garden that would form the entrance to Bath from the east. The land on which the jumps track was worked by engineers building Brunel's Great Western Railway in the 19th Century. Walk along the river a bit and you come to a row of terraces where the workers who did the digging used to live. Now, on the banks of the river, a little town of benders has cropped up.

The other pictures are from Brown's Folly, former Bath stone quarry and home to Boris, the world's second oldest bat. There is a network of caves under Brown's Folly. In the fifties the Ministry of Defence used the caves and mines to store explosives. In the nineties (I think) they pulled them out and burned the cordite, then collapsed the biggest of the caves - you can see the entrance in the bottom picture. The empty explosive casings used to fill the valley in the bottom picture. Now they have mostly rotted away, but new ones always come to the surface - old explosives in one of my very favourite landscapes.

Monday, 24 October 2011

"A pole is just a pole"





The new electricity pylons for the UK have been chosen. Designed by Bystrup, they are a delicate T-shape. They don't have the industrial presence of the old ones which were standardised in 1928 and have been strutting their electical stuff all over the UK landscape since that date. You can read all about the old designs here.


If you really like the old pylons, you can join the Pylon Appreciation Society here. The founder of the society, Flash Wilson Bristow, says of the new design, "The winning design is OK, but it’s a pole and not a pylon. They frame views of the landscape. They're special, but a pole is just a pole."

Full report here.

Below are some of the designs that didn't win.

Also check out  Paul Cabuts Powerlines (not pylons).


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Klaus Pichler's Viennese Allotments



all pictures copyright Klaus Pichler

I have posted previously on Andrew Buurman's lovely book, Allotments. It ties in with my own experience of allotments and growing vegetables and flowers (Cosmos mostly - millions of them, in great big fecking bunches!). 

So it was with some fascination that I saw Klaus Pichler's wonderful series on Viennese allotments - a very different story with dashes of claustrophobia, solitude and paranoia.

It was with that in mind that I asked Klaus a few questions. Below are his excellent answers. 

See also his Urbanautica interview here.


Klaus will be in the November edition of the BJP in an artcile of mine that features 7 different photographers and their collaboration - don't miss it. It's absolutely fascinating. . 

1. Who uses allotments in Austria:

This is a very good question, because in the last few years a major change in the social structures and population in those garden colonies was noticeable. At the moment, there are 26.000 allotments in Vienna (where most of my project took place), which is a quite high amount compared to the population of Vienna (2 million people). Initially the gardens were invented to create space for a subsistence economy and the question of living in the colonies had no relevance or it was forbidden to live there permanently. In the past 15 years the law that regulated the usage of the gardens was changed, and now it is possible to build bigger houses and to live in the colonies throughout the whole year. Before that most of the users came from a working class background, using the gardens for growing vegetables and fruits, and as a retreat from their small flats in community buildings. Within the last 15 to 20 years, the population has changed a lot and the 'old' users now more and more get replaced by younger people or even families who live there throughout the whole year. They combine the two advantages of the gardens – living in 'green'  surroundings within an urban area. Besides that, some of the older people that were using 'their' allotment over the last decades are still there, but now living in compact houses and enjoying their retirement in the gardens. I visited the 'Allotment Fair' in Vienna last year, expecting to see a variety of garden gnome designers and seed producers, but surprisingly instead of that, most of the exhibitors were architects or companies that have something to do with construction – which was an indicator for me that allotments indeed are a market and that a massive change is going on in the usage and population.


2. What are they used for:

As I said above, there was and is a major change in the population, and with that also the usage of the gardens is changing. The spaces for growing vegetables and food, formerly the biggest part of the gardens, have almost disappeared and now there are mostly spaces for recreational purposes or for cultivating flower gardens. I always describe them as some kind of outdoor living rooms (at least in summer), bearing a lot of recreational functions (pool, deck chairs, suites) and a lot of adornment and flowers.   


There are a lot of hedges and boundaries - does this say something about the Austrian psyche?

Haha, maybe, although I don't think that this is a specifically 'Austrian' thing. I think it is some kind of a (not only) human elemental need to set boundaries, to claim a territory as one's 'own'. And since the space of the allotments is limited and people are living really close to each other, the hedges are somehow 'necessary' to feel private.
One strange thing I noticed is that the height of the hedges definitely says something about the personality of the people who live behind it: the higher the hedge, the less the chance to find people behind it who were interested in taking part in my project. And vice versa: if I noticed a garden without high boundaries, I was almost sure that I would meet a person with an open mind.


Why did you choose to photograph allotments?

I have always been fascinated by the somehow surreal and picturesque world of the garden colonies. I originally grew up in a small village in the countryside and always loved being in the woods and enjoying nature. When I moved to Vienna in the mid-90s I began to discover these allotments and was intrigued by them for, in my opinion, being an attempt to create an artificial 'nature' within an urban area. The mixture of cultivated garden idylls, depicting a petty bourgeois ideal of 'green living', and the strange mood of calmness and, somehow, paranoia always caught my attention. Over the years it has always been clear for me that I will make a series about these colonies one time, and in 2010 I felt ready for realizing this idea and to capture allotment life throughout a whole year.



What specific features did you choose to focus on?

There are certainly more series that focus on allotment gardens done by other photographers from other countries, and when I began to prepare my own work there, I noticed that one thing was, in most of the cases, missing: the work and effort it takes to cultivate a garden. So this was a major point for me, to capture the permanent work that has to be done to put nature in her place. This never-ending work sometimes felt like an end in itself to me, like a therapeutic approach to fight against inner unrest. This is maybe also a reason why so many gardens look like outdoor living-rooms, styled and trimmed over the top.

The other thing was a more emotional thing: I noticed that I felt something whenever I entered the gated world of the garden colonies: some feelings of paranoia, reclusiveness, perfectionism and sometimes also loneliness. This didn't fit to the perfect idylls and I began to take these feelings more seriously and to include them in the basic concept of the series. The pictures of the series are to a good amount staged pictures, but not in a way where you notice at first sight that it is a staged picture. I tried to combine the appearance of the allotments, the permanent work of the inhabitants and my personal feelings towards the gardens into the pictures- this all with a little exaggeration to capture the absurdity of garden life. My way of working was to walk through the colonies and to get in contact with people who were working in the gardens. I explained my project to them and, if they were willing to take part in it, we together began to develop ideas for the picture – sometimes the persons came up with their own idea how the picture should look like, sometimes it was my idea, sometimes a cooperation. As soon as it was clear what the picture idea was all about, we realized it together. And, surprisingly, almost everyone who was photographed liked the photo of himself – although the appearances in which the persons are depicted definitely aren't the most flattering ones...

What are the difficulties of photographing allotments?
I maybe say nothing new, since this is probably the major issue with all photo series that focus on people, but: the main difficulty was to find people who were willing to take part in the project. I didn't contact any of the community administrations in advance, because I wanted to find people at work, unprepared and out of their everyday life to work with. This was a tricky situation, because it was hard to convince people that I didn't want to see their Sunday dress, but to capture them in their everyday actions. Of course, there were plenty of people I met who were not interested at all, some telling me about that in a quite harsh way, but on average around 15% of the people asked were interested. One thing that made work difficult was that there are lots of housebreakings and I was more than once mistaken for a burglar. This led to sometimes quite annoying situations where I got threatened and treated not so well.

One other thing was that getting in contact with the inhabitants was not so easy because of the amount of hedges and other boundaries – I just heard that there was someone behind the boundaries, but I didn't see anyone. I didn't want to seem obtrusive, so I just contacted people I was seeing and didn't ring any bell or open any door to get in contact, so this was kind of inherent to the concept.
All in all it was a really interesting experience to spend so much time in the gardens, meeting some nice people as well as some really strange or nasty ones (which was an experience for itself), getting to know a lot about everyday needs in garden life and, sometimes, also being a substitute (kitchen) psychologist for some of the people I have met there.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

James Mollison and Nuruddin Farah



I enjoyed seeing James Mollison talking about his Dadaab refugee camp (population 370,000 and rising) pictures and the portraits he made of Somalis in the camp - all with an Avedonesque white backdrop to isolate the figures. Which reminds me of Paul Close's fabulous Snakebox Odyssey - even if that is completely different.

Mollison touches on why he has a white backdrop and raises questions of if we should show the normality, show the horror, show the backdrop, don't show the backdrop? Which way should it go? Or should it go all ways?

Show the complexity maybe? I liked seeing the camp best of all in the video, the shops, the restaurant and the guy who was getting married. What is his story I wonder? What happens at night, what are the politics of the camp? Does anyone ever leave?

And at the same time I'm enjoying Nuruddin Farah's tremendous From a Crooked Rib, a Somali man's eye view of a Somali woman's eye view.




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.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Life on Mars - Issuu



Here is a link to a pdf of my Life on Mars on Issuu. It's a series on childhood, the British landscape and reinventing the local environment. Do let me know what you think.

Monday, 3 October 2011



Elaine Duigenan (who, amongst other things, makes photograms of old nylons and hairnets and pictures of snail trails) is taking part in the Orange Dot Gallery 2 to the Power 10 Postcard Art Project. She very kindly sent me a Micro Mundi Snail Trail card for me to have my way with - that's it up there. Sorry John Heartfield, I couldn't help myself.


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