the photograph as document: assignment 1 – from idea to pictures

“This assignment is designed to give your tutor a feel for your work […] Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story. The aim of the assignment is to help you explore the convincing nature of documentary, even though what the viewer thinks they see may not in fact be true. Try to make both sets equally convincing so that it’s impossible to tell which version of the images is ‘true’. Choose a theme and aim for 5–7 images for each set, depending on your idea.” – C&A Coursebook

As the first assignment of each of the level 1 courses is intended as a benchmarking exercise, allowing your tutor to make an assessment of where you are at this (that) moment, it makes sense for it to follow on directly from the work I did for Assignment 5 of The Art of Photography where we constructed a narrative. My response to this tried to give enough information for a viewer to work out what had happened to a terraced row of houses in Walthamstow one December night in 1940, when a single bomb destroyed a chunk of the terrace. That space is now filled in with post-war housing that is quite different from the Victorian terraces on either side.

The pictures were heavily informed by Steffi Klenz’s Nummianus. For it, I took a series of pictures of the street-facing elevations, each showing two doors-worth of houses. These were then combined into a long concertina-folded strip that opened out to show the affected section of street.

At the time, I thought that it did more than simply show that there was bomb damage in Elmfield Road. There was a second narrative, showing how different owners had modified their houses, resulting in a small typography of variations in how identical houses had been personalised (mainly since the 1980s). There was also the seeds of an idea of how pictures taken in different streets could be combined to provide a fictional street of my own designing.

The Background:

I was working on this final assignment during the UK election and its immediate aftermath. There was a lot in the air about immigration from (Eastern) Europe, of being “swamped” and of the character of parts of England being changed. Usually for the worse in the eyes of those trying to make political capital from it.

I live in Walthamstow and the rhetoric around race and migration and being swamped didn’t latch with my day to day experience. My immediate neighbours at the time consisted of: a Danish man, his Japanese partner and their 1 year-old daughter; a West Indian family; an 89 year-old Londoner who had lived in his maisonette for over 50 years; a Chinese woman; and another West Indian family. Further down the road and across it there is an Irish man with his Ukrainian wife; a Gambian man with his Swedish wife and their son (who went to the same childminder as my daughter for a bit); there are Poles and Romanians and Bulgarians; there are hipsters priced out of Hackney.

The shop on the corner is run by Sri Lankans; there is a really very good family-owned Turkish restaurant at the end of the road. Some of these people don’t stay long, others have been here for years; some of us own, others rent. The school nearest primary school seems to be able to cope with all this and the kids and their parents – while disparate in origin – seem happy and to rub along very nicely thank you.

And of course, I am undeniably an economic migrant myself. Having failed to make a decent enough living freelancing, I came to London from Glasgow to do a job. I have prospered and made a life for myself. Admittedly, I have never sought out an ex-pat community or longed for a shop or restaurant that will provide me with a taste of home. I took quiet satisfaction that there was no Scottish quarter identified in a map of immigrant communities published in the Guardian in 2005 (which annoyingly no longer appears to be available online; the articles that went with it are though). But I would not be in London if it wasn’t for the freedom of movement offered to me by the United Kingdom and the economic opportunities to be found there.

Also, I like food and I like cooking. I grew up on a small island in an age when olive oil was bought from the chemist and garlic was exotic; I don’t remember the first aubergine or courgette being carried off a ferry, but I do remember a time when they did not exist as everyday things. In Glasgow, I remember seeking out fresh herbs to make a Madhur Jaffrey curry (a lot of coriander as I recall) and being shocked at how much the wieght I needed would cost; similarly okra from Roots and Fruits was more expensive than cod from the fishmonger on Byres Road.

When I moved to London this all changed. I lived in an area with a large Turkish population and many “International Supermarkets”. Ingredients – including great bouquets of fresh herbs and lovely, ripe, red tomatoes – were plentiful and cheap. The exotic became normal and I gained a working knowledge of Turkish cuisine. I traveled with work to what had been the Soviet Union and learnt to love herring with dark sweet rye bread and vodka; I moved to Walthamstow and found Baltika, a shop that did – amongst other things – great chorniy khleb (black bread). I could go on…

The project:

Walthamstow High Street runs east to west and is a long (more than a mile) street made up mostly of small boxy Victorian shop units. So could I make some pictures that could demonstrate on the one hand the high street being “swamped” by immigration from Eastern Europe and on the other a high street that derives its character from successive waves of immigrants moving into the area?

During the summer,I had visited the Eric Ravilious retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and – as well as enjoying the watercolours – had been taken with his illustrations for a book written by the architectural critic JM Richards, originally published in the 1930s that had acted as a typography of sorts for the sort of shops that could be found all over Britain at the time (and a few others that were much more London specific like a Clerical Outfit Shop). The etchings by Ravilious (the father of the photographer James Ravilious, one of the people I directed towards by my tutor during TAoP) showed single shops with their window’s contents clearly visible. Like some of the watercolours painted in the the English countryside, but taking a very unsentimental view of the subject including cars and trains and barbed wire and abandoned machinery , this work seemed to point towards Ravilious doing similar work to his contemporary, Walker Evans in the USA, even if his medium was different; I hope I’ll manage to look at this in more depth in a later post, here.

I started noting down shops that would fit into one of my three categories: trad English, “old” immigrant and (Eastern) European Union as I walked home, down the high street, from the Tube Station. I began to match types from group to group: butchers’ shops, food shops, cafes and coffee shops, banks (Barclay’s is an English bank; Santander is Spanish; stretching it, HSBC is asian), cross cultural places like newsagents and the post office, bakers and charity shops (although this last seems only to fit into the English category.

I took some sketch-type photographs with the Fujifilm 100s that normally lives in my work bag. Looking at them at home, I realised that a “normal” 6 x 4 landscape didn’t work at all with the shops’ shape and that, while a portrait shot wasn’t bad, you needed to be quite a long way back to get round the need to tilt up and then do a lot of perspective correction in Lightroom.
I’d cut down the terraced houses in Elmfield road to 5×4 landscapes,but here – given the shape of the shops – square seemed the obvious choice. In the same way that I have some sort of block about desaturating colour I don’t really like cutting down rectangles into squares (probably it’s something to do with needing to centre the image to avoid effects from moving closer tho the edge of the image). So, I needed a camera that took square pictures.

Although the pictures I took for TAoP were almost exclusively taken with a pair of digital cameras (A Nikon D50 and the Fujifilm) so I could get some sort of quick turnaround and not break the bank while taking a lot of pictures, during the 10 years before I signed up with the OCA most of the pictures I’d taken had been on film. This seemed like a good moment to introduce medium format film into my OCA workflow. The pictures for this assignment would all (except one) be taken using a Hasselblad sold to me by a colleague at work, when he left to go back to Poland, with a 50mm (wide, on a medium format camera) lens. As well as giving me the right shape of picture to match the subject, it would limit the number of pictures I would take, and hopefully make the editing process easier.

The high street runs East-West so it was less obvious what time of day would suit the pictures best than working in a location that ran North to South where either morning or evening would give relatively flat lighting without too much contrast between the sky and the buildings. I reckoned the cloudier (and so less contrasty) day the better, but had to wait for October until the skies clouded over at all during times when I could get out with a camera.

I was further restricted by the fact that, four days a week, the market shares the high street with the shops. While this is interesting from a “street” point of view, the stalls definitely get in the way of taking pictures of the permanent shops behind them. I wanted the shops to be open while I was taking the pictures, but only having Sunday through to Tuesday for market free pictures and having a job to do from Monday to Friday meant that the bulk of my pictures were taken on a Sunday morning in the middle of October. Some of the shops I wanted (Percy Ingle, the bakers and the Post Office) were very definitely shut, but I took pictures anyway, to help me get more of an idea of what I was doing.

As I worked down the street, I was noting down which of my three groups the pictures could be fitted into while also making sure that I had a left and a right block corner to start and finish each of the three sets when laid out online as a gallery or as a set of prints on a wall.

I tried to give some space around the shops, in part to get far enough back to avoid tilting up too much and also so that there would be an idea of space around the shop cut off, hopefully giving a sense of this being a particular view with a chosen, restrictive frame, hinting at different truths being available at the shop next door.

I got the two films developed the next week and scanned them right away. Having worked out what was missing  – the Polish hairdresser and the Romanian grocers’ – or might be improved – shops with awnings which made it very difficult to get an even exposure of what shaded in the window – the non-Halal butchers’ was particularly poor in this respect –  I went out and did a second shoot ten days after the first on a Wednesday lunchtime when I was working for the day from home. The market was going on, but I managed to work around the stalls.

Kodak Portra 400 120 - roll 3

3: Kodak Portra 400 120 – roll 3

I progressed onto editing the pictures down into 3 sets of 6 images, cropping the images closer to the square of the shop fronts and making corrections to how square they were to the film plane

(I thought I had managed to get myself much more perpendicular to the shop fronts at the time of shooting than was actually the case; I don’t know it this is to do with the alignment of the viewfinder or losing concentration and drifting off line before taking the picture as people passed to and fro between me and the shops. Either way, any further reshoot will involve a tripod.)

So here are the three sets, each showing a block of shop units:

1: A ‘traditional’ block made up of indiginous businesses

2: A block consisting entirely of recently opened shops catering Eastern European tastes

3: A block made up of shops owned and run by previous waves of immigrants 

Then, to complete the assignment, it only remained to work out how to lay out the sets to create some idea of  firstly a “swamped” high street and then a high street made rich by a diversity of shops, building up over time through the efforts of each set of people moving into Walthamstow.

I tried doing this electronically on the screen, but realised finally that the only way to go about this was by placing physical prints next to one another and moving them about to get the right combinations. After much shuffling of paper, the final result of the assignment was ready…b



5 thoughts on “the photograph as document: assignment 1 – from idea to pictures

  1. Pingback: Constructed Realities: Project 1 – Crewdson, Beauty and Depth | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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