Sunday, January 14, 2018

HS2. The Wrecking Begins

Reverend Anne Stevens and local resident Jo Hurford, Euston Square Gardens

On Friday the Reverend Anne Stevens, vicar of St.Pancras Church, spent two hours chained to a 100 year-old plane tree outside Euston station, whilst local residents handed out leaflets to passing commuters. Work has already started around the planned London end of the HS2 high speed rail link to Birmingham, but the protest marked a significant escalation in the disruption which will turn the area into a building site for an estimated 17 years. On Monday Euston Square Gardens will be fenced off, and the felling of its century-old trees will begin, clearing the park to make way for construction vehicles, expected to average 650 trucks a day.

As many have pointed out, HS2 as planned is seriously flawed. It is extremely expensive (and getting pricier by the week), poorly integrated with the existing network, and its London terminal is in the wrong place, a densely populated area already home to three of the capital's principal railway stations. To cap it all comes news that Carillion, one of the major contractors involved in construction of the new line, is in serious financial difficulty.

Whilst all taxpayers will be forking out the cash for this, local residents have the added nightmare of living through it, windows closed, day in day out for almost two decades.  More pictures here.  More words and pictures here and here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

An Archival Impulse

Committee Meeting, 510 Centre, North Paddington 1978
In the spirit of archivism, I'm making accessible an article I wrote for the British Journal of Photography in 2010 to mark the demise of Photoworks Westminster (formerly North Paddington Community Darkroom), a community-based photography project that I set up in the 510 Centre, a busy grant-funded advice and community centre at 510 Harrow Road, in 1976. A PDF of the piece can be downloaded here.

This archival impulse has been prompted by a request from the Four Corners project in Bethnal Green which, in addition to documenting the heritage of its own film work, is creating a new archive exploring the photographic practice of its onetime neighbour, the Half Moon Photography Workshop (later Camerawork), from its creation in 1972 to its closure in 2004.

The travelling exhibitions, workshops and, above all, the roughly quarterly issues of Camerawork magazine (1976-85), were hugely influential at a time when a wave of community-based photography projects were springing up in various parts of the capital and elsewhere. As a self-taught photographer working in uncharted territory, the opportunity to read about and discuss the work of those with greater knowledge and experience was invaluable. I contributed what I could, but learned a lot more.

For those wishing to explore this bygone world further, there is now also a North Paddington Community Darkroom Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, which includes a collection of laminated exhibition panels dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Meanwhile Gardens, North Paddington 1983
Dominica Democratic Association meeting, 510 Centre, 1977

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Dustbin of History: Kodachromes

It feels like sacrilege, but I am in the process of binning large numbers of Kodachromes.

In the days of colour film, Kodachrome was the gold standard. It's what the National Geographic photographers used, despite its now unthinkably slow speed (64 ASA, unless you were a masochist and went for the 25). It had other drawbacks: it had to be sent back to Kodak for processing, so couldn't be used on jobs that required a fast turnaround, and, to get the best out of it, accurate exposure was essential. But, correctly exposed, it produced transparencies with great colour, contrast and sharpness, and reputedly better archival stability than any other film. I used it on virtually all my foreign trips through the 1980s and 1990s.

It was only when picture desks started going digital, and image distribution switched from Royal Mail or motorcycle courier to FTP and email, that another disadvantage was revealed: Kodachrome's unique emulsion structure made it quite tricky to scan. Getting the colour and contrast right was not straightforward, and Digital ICE automated dust-removal, which worked well on other colour film stocks, could not be used. That meant dust and scratches had to be removed by hand in Photoshop. Scanning Kodachromes was hard work.

However, that's not why they're in the bin. Distributing images shot on colour transparency film to multiple publications meant shooting multiple frames, or making duplicates after the event.  After each trip one set went into my own filing cabinet, and selections of 'similars' went off to the various picture libraries that also distributed my work. Over the last few years they have all come back, like long lost homing pigeons: many agencies have closed, and those that haven't no longer deal in hard copies.

Once an image has been digitised, identical copies can be made effortlessly, with no loss in quality. There's no need for 'seconds' or spares. So, although I can't bring myself to throw away the original of anything worth scanning, I've finally got round to trawling through the stacks of returned suspension files, comparing 'similars', keeping the best, and dumping the rest.  What I'm doing is completely logical - it just feels like an unforgivable sin.

Pictured above is a binful of hundreds of slides from two trips to the Dominican Republic, for Christian Aid in 1983, and Oxfam in 1991. Scans of some of those I've kept are here.

Dominican Republic 1991

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Rodney Bickerstaffe, 1945-2017

NUPE Conference 1988
For most of the 1980s the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) was one of my most regular, and most enjoyable, sources of work. Its members were the unsung heroes of our public services – ambulance drivers, cleaners, carers, caretakers, cooks, dustmen, home helps, hospital porters and other NHS ancillary staff, street cleaners and more – and my commissions for the NUPE Journal gave me the opportunity to visit a huge variety of workplaces and meet the people who worked in them (more about that here).

The monthly assignments also meant I frequently photographed the union's General Secretary, Rodney Bickerstaffe, whose untimely passing was announced this week. It was always a pleasure. He was wise, witty, warm and, above all, a fantastic public speaker. He will be sorely missed.

Speaking for a national minimum wage at the TUC 1986

Thursday, May 04, 2017

No Resting Place

At the beginning of this year, prompted by what seemed to be a recent significant rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough in central London, I set about documenting some of the many dark doorways and uninviting corners in which anxious, disturbed or destitute men and women now spend their days and nights.

I decided to focus on the places, rather than the people who use them, in order to highlight the harsh locations in which rough sleepers find themselves, without identifying the often vulnerable individuals who use them.  Not all the photographs succeed in doing this - parts of faces are visible in one or two. 

The pictures were taken on and off from January through March, and now the Greater London Authority has released figures for the numbers of rough sleepers recorded in the capital during that time. I was not surprised. They showed an increase of 7% on the same period last year - to 2,751 individuals over the three months. Nationally, rough sleeping has risen by 37% since 2010.

Each person has their own story, but together the bodies trying to keep warm on cold hard pavements are the most visible symptoms of the current crises in housing and adult social care provision in one of the richest countries in the world.  Shameful.  More pictures here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Waste Land

 End of the day on London Bridge 2016
Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent,were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street...
(from The Waste Land, 1922)

These pictures, recent additions to my London in 50 project, were inspired by TS Eliot's description of commuters crossing London Bridge and dragging themselves to their deathly work in the City of London.  Re-reading The Waste Land, written in 1922, I imagine them in black & white, ghostly shadows in the "brown fog".  But although my pictures were taken on a sunny evening as the financiers and their clerks walked in the opposite direction, their day's work done, nothing much seems to have changed in almost a century.  They still look miserable.

 End of the day on London Bridge 2016

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Bringing It All Back Home

In the National Gallery it's Van Gogh's Sunflowers. In the Louvre it's the Mona Lisa. And in Florence it's Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (above). It seems that every major gallery has one iconic work that is the principal focus of selfie attention.

Around these 'trophy' artworks the hushed reverence that was once the default gallery mode has been swept away by smartphone-toting tourists elbowing their way to a clear view on their screens or, even worse, blocking everyone else's by posing for a selfie. Anyone wishing to peacefully contemplate the actual painting in front of them is in for a hard time.

Collecting such photographs is one of the more explicable idiocies of tourism. Perhaps what I have been doing - taking pictures of people taking those pictures – is idiocy squared, but tourism and its idiocies fascinate and repel me in equal measure. Being a tourist traipsing around Europe's big cities, with no connection to anyone who lives there, carefully channeled through a string of 'must-see' landmarks to which no native gives a second glance, can be a deathly experience. Suddenly alighting on something recognisable, both to the viewer and to their Facebook friends back home, makes a connection between the real world and this transient state of novelty and boredom. Maybe that's what photography is all about. 

Florence 2016