A few months ago I was walking around Chelsea, looking for photographs. Red brick buildings, mews, alley ways, antique shops, bakeries. It is very lovely in there. I cannot remember what I looked at when I realised that I was photographing wealth. In that split second I saw the problem with the archive I was collecting. I was photographing a dream, that quaint idea of London and Britishness. It was a reality for some but not for many. Certainly not for me although I was privileged enough to walk around there and enjoy it without an inch of jealousy or anger. In that split second I remembered what else I knew of London, what else I had seen. The struggle to have a life, the council estates (I live in one), the struggle between the classes. Poverty in many levels of human life and how London is trampled by capitalism and consumerism, in many levels. I am often overwhelmed and this was definitely a moment of being so.
I realised that I would have to photograph more widely. Council estates and their surroundings. The trouble with this subject matter is that they are always portrayed in the same way. Dead pan, straight frontal shots. If there are any people in the images they always look the same. They pose and do so defiantly or disinterestedly. They stare at the camera. There is always text with the images telling the story of its context from a critical point of view. The assumption is that if I photograph council estates I am making political art. But unlike photographers like Walker Evans who documented poverty in North America during the recession in the 1930’s and unlike Charles Dickens who wrote about the poverty in London more than a century ago, this kind of political art doesn’t raise awareness and therefore call for a change. It serves the gallery going crowd and at its worst only provides a point of intellectual and self-righteous discussion. That is my problem with most political art, that their subjects wouldn’t feel welcome in the art galleries. From this point of view I understand the Arts Council’s insistence of funding only art that reaches out to parts of the community who wouldn’t normally engage with the arts.
I however felt that I couldn’t exclude this part of London from this project. (I think that at this time I started calling it ‘a project’ instead of an archive.) I have to admit though that despite the zeal I feel for socialism I wasn’t particularly looking forward to a stroll in Plumstead with my camera. But I would betray myself if I didn’t. I decided to keep to my original guidelines of taking photographs of anything that appeals to me but think twice before the taking the shot. There is such freedom in that which makes my wanderings around the town so rewarding. I would photograph those council estates and such in the very same way I would photograph Notting Hill and Hampstead; in the quiet light of the morning and late afternoon. I would look for details and views that appeal to me. I would grant them the same privilege as I would to Knightsbridge and the City: to be considered only aesthetically. Corners, lines, texture, colours and light.
I don’t know how I got so tied into the pressure of making a certain kind of a series, far from the equality of the approach that I had envisioned. I didn’t even realise that I was so tied up until I got the rejection email from the Arts Council. I had had to write to them in a certain way and answer questions like ‘How does your art benefit the audience and what long-lasting effect will it have on them?’ Jeez. Despite my bewilderment and amusement towards the Arts Council I lost my original idea somewhere in there. I thought that I could bluff it, talk about my work in that particular way which was alien to me but still be true to my vision, as inarticulate as it often is. It turned out that I cannot. Words matter. Vocabulary matters.
I am not able to ignore the Art School way of thinking entirely in search of a new, or my own, vocabulary. I would be deluding myself if I thought that I could find my way in a vacuum of some sort. In their view of the art my lack of 'critical thinking' and my emphasis on the aesthetic would be very 'problematic'. Their view of art however is not mine and I try to stay away from fighting a battle of words that is futile.
This photograph is taken of the council estate tower nearby where I live. I go past it every day I run and walk past it every time I come back from grocery shopping.
Preamble to the London Archive Essays
I asked a few friends and members of family to choose a photograph from the London Archive they would like to know more about. As this premise is my own devising, I have taken the artistic liberties necessary in answering this question. Bar a few exceptions, the result is a series of short essays combining a brief outline of historical information, consideration of photography as a medium as well as an account on how I ended up taking each particular photograph.