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Monday, 6 July 2015

Dark, Claustrophobic and Grey!

Gerry Badger is the man who writes the words for the Photobook Histories. But he's also a photographer and It was a Grey Day (Photographs of Berlin) is his first photobook. And it's a really good one, a depiction of unpeopled greyness that captures a city on the brink of a change. It's the kind of change that will transform Badger's studies in grey into pictures of nostalgia that people will look back on with affection and wonder. It was a Grey Day is a study in the marginalia of a city, and it does a fantastic job.

Badger's a writer and a photographer. But he's also an architect and in the book he brings his architect's eye to a city where he is drawn to the spaces between buildings, to the gaps and the temporary structures that inhabit the city, that in Badger's eye almost define the city. Because of this, there's a formality to the pictures but at the same time they are not cold. They speak of spaces that are deserted but have life all around them.

This is Berlin's Terrain Vague, although it's not always of a large enough scale to be called that. It's more of an opportunistic seizing of space and repurposing of it through graffiti, sculpture, and a placing of rubbish and junk that is almost installation-like in its purposefulness. Are these spaces beautiful or ugly, Badger asks? And why is he so drawn to them? Badger concludes that it's not ruin or splendour he's photographing, but change, layer upon layer of change.

The book starts with a picture of a small supermarket. Above the window a line of graffiti reads, 'This is not America (Here is not Everywhere).' Just in case you didn't know, there's a manifesto for you.

The book continues into a grey claustrophobia. It's more than overcast (there's a corner of sky in almost every picture) and the concrete of the city is complete leaden. There are fences, there are trees and there is a sense of history that adds a certain gravity to the book.

There are repeated references to Atget's Terrain Vague pictures and there are nods to John Gossage's Berlin In the Time of the Wall, there are pictures of the Wall, but ultimately this is Badger's book and it settles into a pattern of images of different forms of dereliction and untidiness mixed with urban escapism; impromptu corners where Berliners escape the concrete and sit outside in these little pockets of human comfort. There's a checked sofa with a barbecue in front, benches of varying degrees of decrepitude and a courtyard with a sign saying 'Refugees Welcome, Tourists Piss Off!'

So it's not that comfortable, but it's not uncomfortable either. It's just messy and weighty, with link chains and fences creating a hierarchy of marginal landscapes. And that's what the book is, a kind of hierarchy of non-empty empty spaces; a book where you can unpick the subtle differences between Third Landscapes, Edgelands and Terrain Vague with concrete parking places, pathways, steel doors, stairways to nowhere and communal courtyards thrown into the mix. There's destruction mixed with collapse and decay and a sense that construction (and another kind of destruction) are not too far away. These are urban spaces that are up-for-grabs but aren't being grabbed because that is not the nature of the place. 'Smash Capitalism!' proclaims one sign, and in a sense that is what is being shown here because there's nothing here to be smashed.

In the afterword Badger writes 'In the normal course of events I spend my time writing about photographs - the photographs of others. Now, faced with a a group of my own photographs, I feel stuck for words.... I feel disembodied by them... they baffle me. I find them obtuse and quite mysterious.'

He writes about how he sees his pictures of Berlin and wonders at how downbeat they appear. On the surface this is a very dismal Berlin. But at the same time it's not. It's a Berlin that is of itself and by itself. For now. The dismal Berlin will come later, when the hand sculpture (which is already gone) and the gentrification of the city 'continues apace'.

Buy the book here.

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