Thursday, 25 March 2010

Monochrome lives

As my London journeys progress, it becomes increasingly evident to me that each trip seems to develop its own themes contrary to any conscious intention of mine.  This could be an effect of the particular terrain covered on the day or external factors such as weather, time of day etc, or it could be due entirely to chance.  Whatever the reason, I find that certain connections seem to form before my very eyes - as Peter Ackroyd wrote in the introduction to Faux Amis "We know everything in the city connects.  Nothing possesses a single or exclusive life."

I have already identified a sporting theme in this journey but running alongside this is a darker narrative dealing with remembrance and death.  At the entrance to a small park, I chance upon a war memorial laden with poppy wreaths.  Turning onto the main road shortly afterwards I come across a mountain of floral tributes heaped at the side of the road - the site of some unknown traffic accident involving a lover of Carlsberg lager.  Moments later I look up and spot a sign for a funeral director.....

Working my way up the map, at the top of the hill I turn off the road into Chingford Mount Cemetery, a gloriously over-the-top resting place for the dead of the parish, the serried rows of graves decked out in a riot of flowers, stuffed toys and associated memorabilia.  Many of the graves sport photographs of the dead, forever suspended in some moment from happier days, looking out accusingly at the living.  The whole effect is one of rampant sentimentality, touching at first - all those lives snuffed out or cut tragically short, still mourned.  All the outpouring of grief made concrete in words and objects.  But after a while, I begin to feel slightly uneasy, as though I am intruding on some private moment of grief, like a stranger at a funeral.

When I get home, I remember having read about this place before. In Lights Out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair's multi-layered, psychogeographic narrative of walking the streets of London, there is a chapter about the funeral of gangster Ronnie Kray and his subsequent burial in this very cemetery, accompanied by a grotesquely overblown and sentimental display of mourning

 "the sacrifice of thousands of carnations, pink and white and sclerotic.  Puce roses sweating with shame.  Eggy bundles of lilies, pinched at the waists by purple ribbons.  Wreaths like the wheels of articulated lorries.  Hearts and hoops and American flags....Monochrome lives recalled in hot flushes of colour"   

It was a relief to leave the cemetery and head back into the suburban streets, turning my gaze upwards for a change to take in the cleansing expanse of the sky......

Monday, 22 March 2010

Bringing the map to life

Continuing up page 35 of my A-Z and having by now abandoned any pretence at following my algorithmic directions, I settled into what I like to do best, which is just to go where my feet take me.  The beauty of aimlessly wandering an area that you don't know is that you don't have any preconceptions - whatever is round the corner is bound to be unexpected if you've never been there before. 

Having just written that, I immediately see that it is not the whole truth.  If you look at the map, as I did when selecting my page, you can't help but build a picture in your mind of what the features may look like.  I had always assumed, for no good reason, that this part of London was flat.  The A-Z gives no indication of contours, being just a pattern of streets strung across the page.  I was surprised to find that Chingford itself is situated at the top of a hill from which there are fine views back towards London.  The businesses on the main road are a bustling hotchpotch of utilitarian shop fronts and streamlined, faded art deco facades.  The map does not reveal those little details and nuances that differentiate one area or street from another:

"the sudden change of atmosphere in a street, the sharp division of a city into one of distinct psychological climates; the path of least resistance - wholly unrelated to the unevenness of the terrain - to be followed by the casual stroller, the character, attractive or repellant, of certain places."
Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography

Quiet terraces of brightly painted and well-maintained Edwardian houses give way to streets of more aspirational 1930's suburban semis, set back from the road and sporting ornamental gateposts and sub tropical palm trees....

I am probably guilty of what Debord terms 'exoticism which may arise from the fact that one is exploring a neighbourhood for the first time' which he deems to be 'unimportant and subjective, soon fading away'.  He emphasises rather the behavioral disorientation over the element of exploration.  I hold my hand up - guilty as charged.  Surely that is one the pleasures to be experienced from this sort of wandering - the fact that the area is different from one's normal environment cannot be discounted and leads to a more attentive frame of mind and a sharpening of the imagination.

The map showed a tantalising string of reservoirs all down one side - part of the Lee Valley reservoir chain, which supplies drinking water to London.  On the map they are edged with the dotted lines denoting a footpath but the terrain resisted all my attempts at exploring it.  Try as I might it remained out of bounds, one of those areas destined to remain unknoweable.  This part of the map at least, was not able to be brought to life - below is a photograph showing the fence bordering the reservoir on the horizon, the lone chair a metaphor for the absent view.....

.....and the lengths they go to keep you out!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Follow the directions

My fourth journey earlier this week saw me vainly trying to follow a set of directions in order to disorientate myself and get lost.

The Rules

- Select a page at random from the A-Z
- Follow the directions 'second right, second right, first left'
- If you come to a dead end, retrace your steps and take the next turning
- If you come to a park or piece of open ground, cross it and continue following the directions
- Do not consult the map

This kind of approach to wandering is one that was practiced by the Situationists( in an attempt to defamiliarise themselves from their habitual methods of navigating the urban landscape.  Sometimes called an 'algorithm walk', it is characterised by a randomly generated set of repeated instructions, the idea being to break your normal destination or purpose-based motives for traversing the map - the so-called 'locomotion without a goal'. The idea is quite simple - choose a starting point and you're off.  In theory anyway.  The reality proved to be quite different and extremely frustrating!

The throw of the dice selected Page 35 of my A-Z which turned out to be Chingford - one of the far distant north eastern squares on the A-Z.  It proved to be quite a marathon just to reach it as there is no tube station on that page.  My journey involved a tube ride to Walthamstow Central and then a bus northwards.  On emerging from the tube into the bus station, I had completely lost my bearings and had to ask the lady bus driver if this bus was indeed going north as I hoped.  I might as well have been asking if it went to the moon for all she understood me.  I gave up and got on....

Walthamstow Greyhound Stadium at the bottom of my page of the map was the walk's point of departure.   A striking Art Deco building which was affectionately known as the Lord's of the Dogs, it sadly closed in 2008 and is now earmarked for housing development.  A good start to the walk but from then on it was anything but plain sailing.  My first 'second right' turned out to be a dead end - with a playing field at the bottom blocked off by a mesh fence.  Ditto the next turning.  Following turnings led to a school, or into a maze of suburban streets that just fed into eachother in a perpetual circle.  The next road was so long that by the time I got to the bottom of it, I couldn't remember if I was going left, right or just mad.  In a fit of pique I abandoned the process and just wandered aimlessly.  According to the rules - a total failure, but at least I had given it a go.

When I got home and sorted the through the day's photographic trawl, I noticed several themes emerging, as usual in a totally non-intentional way.  For a person totally disinterested in sport of all kinds, I seem to have taken quite a number of sport-themed photographs.....

                              .....and as for red, I just can't seem to avoid it.

To be continued

Friday, 12 March 2010

Photographs that never were

It often happens that the best photographs are the ones that were never taken.  Sometimes, things just happen too fast.  The eye sees and the moment has passed before you can even think of reaching for the camera. 

In his book Some Cities, photographer, film-maker and writer Victor Burgin describes a short scene in a jazz club,:

"The dress looks like silk. Tight. Her face is angular, the nose prominent.  She is leaving the table she shares with an older woman.  Don't Blame Me.  Now she is returning, striding past the chrysanthemums, through the thick smoke of cigarettes. One foot rests squarely on the ground; the other arrested in its forward motion, touches the ground only with the tips of the toes. The moment is gone.  No camera has recorded it."

We don't need the photograph to conjure up the image - we can colour in the missing details from our imaginations - the dress is red, the hair is dark and swept up, the shoes are high, the music plays in the background.  My picture will be different to yours, but no matter.

I used to feel a great sense of frustration about this catalogue of missed opportunities.   If only....the light hadn't changed....the subject hadn't moved out of the frame....I had been quicker...I had my camera with me.  Lately I have started thinking that perhaps it is no bad thing.  Let it go, relax....not every moment needs to be seized or captured.  It can be stored in the mind instead, and summoned up at will.  Of course, other people will not be able to see it, but that's what words are for - it can be described, conjured up to live again.  A picture is not always worth a thousand words.

Sometimes, now, I prefer just to look .  After hours of being alert to photographic possibilities, it can be a relief to lay aside the camera and just use my eyes, letting my attention wander, not thinking of anything in particular, not worrying about the 'perfect moment'.  Suddenly I see it and then it's gone, but it doesn't matter.

Some photographs I didn't take....

A woman in a red anorak and black backpack, her breath curling white in the foggy morning air

A carousel of red washing looming out of the fog, seen from a train window

A red bucket, glowing in the sunshine against the green of the grass, in the middle of  an avenue of tall trees

Suburban back gardens, three separate rows of washing one after the other, each with one red T shirt

A woman in a bright green jumper walking past a road sign 'Greenway'

A small figure in a bright red coat, glimpsed through a dense tangle of tree branches at the edge of a wood

One bright Moroccan blue house wall, in a sea of drab London brick under a lowering slate grey sky

A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but as this is a blog about photograpy, here are some which perhaps are.....

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Surveillance tactics

To shadow someone has the whiff of surveillance about it.  The irony is that as I was surreptiously playing out my surveillance role, I was also the subject of surveillance.  In every city nowadays our passage through the streets is marked and recorded by CCTV cameras.  They have become such a part of modern life these days that we hardly notice them, but pause and look up, and chances are you will find your glance returned by the blank gaze of the camera's all-seeing eye.

Artist Jill Magid addresses issues of the surveillance society in her work Evidence Locker (2004).  This work was made for the Liverpool Biennial and involved the cooperation of the city's CCTV surveillance system.  All footage in these systems is stored for 31 days - one cycle of CCTV memory - and then deleted unless it reveals a crime being committed.  However, as a member of the public and on payment of a £10 fee, you can request any footage involving yourself be put aside and securely stored for 7 years in an official 'evidence locker' situated in the CCTV control station's main computer.   In collaboration with the police who operate the system, Magid directed the observers to her whereabouts on the tapes by filling out 31 Subject Access Request Forms - the legal document necessary to outline to the police details of how and when an 'incident' occurred. The forms were completed in the guise of a love letter and diary and as the project progressed it feels as though a relationship develops between Magid and her unseen observers. To facilitate her identification on the tapes, she wears a bright red coat.  You can see the whole series of letters and some of the video footage by visiting her website and electing to have them sent to you via email - one arrives each hour.

Evidence Locker - Jill Magid

Although done with the cooperation of the police, it is still a chilling indictment of how far our privacy is invaded on a daily basis, and puts into perspective my strategy for following in the footsteps of others - we are all already being photographed hundreds of times daily without our permission.  What difference do a few more photographs make in the sea of images in circulation? 

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Haphazard paths

The notion of following in the footsteps of another has many precedents in art and literature.  The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Man of the Crowd is idly spending time in a café watching the crowds pass by when he suddenly spots a man whom he feels compelled to follow for miles through the London streets.  'Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view - to know more of him.'  New York performance artist Vito Acconci's famous 1969 work, Following Piece deals with a similar concept.  During the course of a month he selected random passers-by on the streets of Manhattan and shadowed them until they disappeared into a private space where he could no longer follow.  The work was documented in a series of photographs as well as text detailing the subjects' movements, which reads like a private detective's report:

'Oct 6, 10.36am: 14St & 6th Ave, NE corner: Man in red jacket ..he walks N on 6th, W side of street. 10.38am: he stops at 15St, SW corner, and hails cab. 10.44am: he gets into cab'

Vito Acconci - Following Piece

His work demonstrates how the urban public space is defined by these random encounters between strangers.  During the act of following, the artist's subjective will is submitted to the movements of the person being followed and becomes an activity where, as he himself described it, "I am almost not an 'I' anymore; I put myself in the service of this scheme."

A decade later, French photographer Sophie Calle embarked on a similar project entitled Suite Vénitienne, when she decided on a whim to follow a stranger she first saw on the street in Paris and later met at a party.  On hearing that the man was about to visit Venice, she elected to go there too, and set about finding out where he was staying.  For two weeks she trailed the man wherever he went, photographing the sights that he photographed, questioning people he came across to discover his plans for the day, adopting the disguise of a blonde wig and sunglasses in the best tradition of the private detective.

Suite Vénitienne - Sophie Calle

At first glance it might appear that these examples of shadowing are merely voyeuristic in nature but in fact retracing another person's steps can be seen as a particular kind of chance tactic, a strategy for getting lost and abandoning one's will rather than any particular interest in the life of the person being followed. It can be viewed as a kind of depaysement - that Situationist tactic where one is 'taken out of one's element and misled'. The act of following can be seen as a game which has its own rules and rituals. It is a kind of mimicry or role-play in which the subject may forget or temporarily shed his personality to take on another. As such it becomes a method of escape from oneself, and also encompasses the make-believe aspect of game-playing, which is accompanied by a special awareness of a different reality as opposed to real, everyday life. It serves to distance you from the familiar and make you scrutinise the mundane, overlooked aspects of your environment as though looking at the world through a stranger's gaze.

It can also be looked upon as a sort of seduction. In his introductory essay to Suite Vénitienne, entitled Please Follow Me, philosopher Jean Baudrillard asserts that the desire to penetrate the secrets of another is a kind of possession which requires a ritual.  He maintains that "people's lives are haphazard paths that have no meaning and lead nowhere and which, for that very reason, are curious."  By following in someone else's tracks you are "distancing yourself from your own self, you exist only in the trace of the other, but without his being aware of it" and that you are in a way following your own tracks without realising it.  In effect it becomes an act of possession which is reciprocal "shadowing implies this surprise, the possibility of reversal is necessary to it" - the idea that the person being followed can suddenly sense that their space has been invaded, turn round and challenge the follower.

There is something very seductive about the idea of putting yourself in someone else's shoes and completely abdicating all responsibility for your movements.  As I traversed the parts of the city that I knew well, the fact that my usual itinerary had been subverted by someone else's was a strange experience. Familiar sights took on an unusual aspect and my awareness of my surroundings quickened. After watching my elderly couple disappear down the platform at Charing X, I turned and headed for the Underground where I immediately latched onto a young couple, the man wearing a bright red rucksack on his back.  As they emerged from Bank tube station, it soon became obvious they were tourists and had little idea where they were going, stopping every few moments to consult their map and walking at a snail's pace.  It was all I could do to stop myself going up to them to set them on the right path! 

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Red rules

On this week's journey into London the dice decided on chance tactic number two - my day was to be under the influence of the colour red.  Anyone who knows me, knows that my favourite colour is red - the colour of passion, danger, anger; red - love it or hate it, impossible to ignore, anyone wearing red incites attention.  I decided to let red take me by the hand and lead me wherever it would take me.....

The Rules
- Follow someone wearing an item of red clothing
- Photograph them when you can
- Follow them until they enter a building or you lose them
- Photograph other red subjects on the way
- Repeat the process

I had expected that it would take some time to find someone suitable to follow, but on emerging onto the street, my eyes were assaulted by a deluge of red - red coats, hats, bags, scarves, ties, shoes.  The difficulty was in choosing which red subject.... I lost several while waiting for the lights to change when crossing the road but eventually plumped for a lady in a bright red coat escorted by her elderly companion.  They promptly got on a Number 13 bus headed for Aldwych......

I thought perhaps my couple were heading for the end of the route, but they got off at Trafalgar Square and went into Charing X station.  Once inside, I observed them go through the barrier and board the Dartford train - the same train I used to catch day in, day out, when I lived in London 30 years ago.  Chance seems determined to drag me back to my old haunts - but they say 'never go back'.  I toyed with the notion of following them further, but my ticket wasn't valid on this line, and besides, I didn't know which station they were getting off at.  I regretfully turned away.

Strangely, I felt little curiosity about them - I didn't know where they were coming from or where they were going to.  Our paths crossed briefly for approximately 30 minutes of our lives and we are unlikely ever to come into contact again.  Yet here they are existing in another dimension on my blog.  French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard maintained that 'to shadow another is to give him a double life, a parallel existence'.  I hope they would not mind too much to discover their alter egos on these pages!

To be continued......

In the meantime, here is a souvenir from London.......

Monday, 1 March 2010

The liquidity of things

The liquidity of things could be a metaphor for the flow of life unfolding around you, your perception of it as you move from one occurrence to the next, noticing everything, being immersed in the most insignificant details.  In a discussion about his films, Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco - painter, photographer, film-maker, sculptor - refers to:

"...the liquidity of things, how one thing leads you on to the next.  The films take place in very ordinary urban settings.  I'm not concerned with spectacular events or frantic rhythms.  The works are about concentration, intention and paths of thought:  the flow of totality in our perception, the fragmentation of the 'river of phenomena', which takes place all the time."

In this 'river of phenomena' he makes connections between these fragmented instances, a kind of contiguity, moving from one thing to another.  The 'being next to eachother' is important, things being related 'through proximity rather than narrative'.  This is something which I am becoming more and more aware of - I walk down the street and see something quite mundane, and moments after, something else will catch my eye which just seems to follow on from the first thing, like this..... (if you are of a sensitive disposition, look away now!)

Orozco maintains that his work is not so much the result of chance or lack of control, but more due to 'tracing certain intentions with the camera.'  This is a mode of working which I can relate to, but for me it is more or less unconscious.  Although I am allowing chance to dictate my whereabouts and relinquishing a certain amount of control, what I choose to photograph is very much under my direction.  Perhaps subconsciously my choice of subject matter is influenced by what I see during the day, but I don't set out with defined intentions.  I let the camera have its head and see where it takes me.

He likens his narrative to 'a series of punctums' or focal points of attention, the result of  'a day of awareness'.  That is precisely how I would define my modus operandi.  I can think of no better way of spending a day, being inspired by what is going on around me, following my intuition.  And so another 'day of awareness' beckons tomorrow.....