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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

London, a City Paved in Grey

There is a lot of photography of London but somehow it doesn't quite seem to be as photographic a city as Paris or New York for example. Maybe that's because nowhere has been so consistently photographed as Paris or New York. Even in projects that are very different the visual symptoms of stress, romance, aggression or cuisine are still there to link in to an overriding visual idea of what a city is.

You have to go out of your way to make Paris not look like Paris and New York not look like New York. It's difficult to do. That's why books like Paul Graham's The Present is such an interesting idea of a book. It's pictures of a New York that doesn't look like New York. Except that maybe it does; a New York that is a bit unglamorous really, and more like the rest of America than some would like to imagine.

So what about London. That's still kind of stuck in some 1960s Austin Powers/Blow Up image. It's a city of villages, of cliches, class gets in the way. Maybe there is a lot of London photography, it just doesn't seem that way given the size and self-importance of the place.

Lots of foreign photographers have photographed the city. Recently, Lorenzo Vitturi captured a small slice of the city and the changes it is going through in Dalston Anatomy. A lot of people, including myself, really love that book for its colour, energy and sense of place. Some people have a real antipathy to it, because of its colour, energy and sense of place seen through non-purist, Dalston eyes. Which is interesting in itself.

Then there is Anthony Cairn's LDN2,  published by the Archive of Modern Conflict. Here process is everything. The pictures were made on 35mm transparencies which were developed, solarised, developed some more and then printed onto aluminium sheets before heading for the printed page. So what comes out is a bunch of messed up metallic prints with flaws, fingerprints and scratches.

The book is an oversized loose leaf affair ( and it looks and feels great - here's the original small edition that is long sold out). The budget isn't in question here. We're not talking about a publisher struggling to make ends meet by the look of LDN2. You slip it out of it's wrapping and grab the black cover with your grubby hands and hey presto, the processing and printing flaws are suddenly mirrored by the touch of your greasy palms on the near-black cover. And then the dust settles. And then you notice a little nick and then suddenly you mint edition isn't so mint anymore, an effect that seems to be somehow built into all of their books, by psychological accident if not design.

The London of the book also match the processing. This is a London of neutralised and defensive space; it's grey tarmac with bollards, post and lights. There's a dull sheen to this London, its walls, alleys, office blocks and car parks. No people, just anonymous places where bureaucracy and business happens. And even when a place is recognisable, it's still anonymous; this is a London that has been stripped of life, that has fallen victim to a corporate social cleansing.

It's a post-apocalyptic London, but you with an apocalypse that has crept up on the city, that has been constructed around London  by stealth. One minute this was a city with a soul and a heart and a life, the next it is a globalized city state in which all signs of non-corporate, non-consuming life are swept away at night by some kind of urban social cleansing.

The pictures look like they are part of that cleansing. The processing flaws give them a forensic feel. They look like surveillance pictures on which disallowed ways of being, of moving, of thinking register. @And once they register they need to be removed. But they never can because that is not the nature of either people or places, even the non-places that feature in LDN2.

Thepictures are depressing and that's where their heritage kicks in. They have a Japanese feel to them, reminding the viewer of Nakahira's For a Language to Come; pictures where the city almost collapses in on its high contrast self. In that sense they connect to other photographers working with extreme processing - Daisuke Yokota for example - and so bring the psychological language of 1970s Japan back to London.

So LDN2 is a globalised photography working in a globalised city with traditional techniques. It's contradictory and it's not pretty. But it does make sense, and for work that is operating in such marginal places it has a remarkable sense of place. More importantly, it gives us a feeling of the ideology that has made that place.

1 comment:

microcord said...

Maybe they have a Japanese flavour to them but to me they (together with Yokota's work) have a Lithuanian flavour to them: Algirdas Šeškus, Vytautas Balčytis, Remigijus Treigys....