I asked a few friends and family to pick a photograph from the London Archive they’d like to know more about. My sister wanted to know about the way the photographs are arranged. ‘...like the way one series started with images that are grey and ended in purple tones.’ I now wonder what I have gotten myself into. Part of what gives art is special status in our society is the mystery that surrounds it - and I’m about to dispel it from around my work.
There is a short and a long answer to this question. Male artists are trusted if they give short answers whereas female artists, such as myself, are not. I thought for a while about the way I ought to approach this as a feminist: should I do the extra work and present my knowledge, justifying my work and myself as a serious artist or should I simply state the short answer as a fact and wait for the comments, aiming to challenge my confidence? And after that, what would I do? Then I realised that as prevalent as these scenarios are, giving the gender biases so much weight was beside the point. It was my sister, a bright academic in Finnish literature and poetry turned coder, who had asked this question and she really wants to know. She expects me to discuss it honestly and earnestly.
When drawing an image of something, one does so by drawing a line, separating the object that is depicted and that what is outside of it, like a cast. In a similar fashion, when discussing what something is it can be equally relevant to discuss what it isn’t. As editing process is largely about including and excluding, choosing something over something else, I have decided to answer this question by discussing the some of the alternatives present when making this work.
The London Archive consists of over 600 photos which makes it an overwhelming experience to view in its entirety. Indeed, the process of editing the archive was an exercise in mastering repeating feelings of being overwhelmed when trying to create order out of chaos. Order, through categories, placement and sequence, is essential in art installations because, much like elsewhere in life, we are unable to make sense of the world, practically and philosophically without it. While it has, for justified reasons, become the norm within the contemporary Art World to emphasize the world in chaos, either explicitly or as an underlying worldview, I have chosen to embrace that innate quest for harmony and order. It is as much a practical as well as a conceptual choice. To say any more about the latter would be a subject of another essay.
There were several decisions or phases that took place prior to arranging the photographs as they are online. Some of the initial aspects to consider were the space in which the images are presented (for example, as in this case my website) its function (the website as my online portfolio), its technical limitations (and indeed those of mine in web design) as well as the attention span of the average viewer within that space (max 3 minutes).
When one goes to a gallery, the images tend to be on the walls and one follows the layout of the rooms when moving from one image to the other. The images are, therefore, on a horizontal line. Computer design, however, favours vertical layouts (scrolling up and down) to horizontal ones (scrolling left to right, as is the Western direction of writing) and for the sake of the ease, I have also opted for a vertical layout on my website. Another viable option would have been a slide show, showing single images one after the other but I didn’t want to dictate the length of time the viewer would see the images.
A photograph next to other photographs is interpreted differently than a photo on its own. A single image is read as it is, through the viewers’ pre-conceptions, associations and imagination whereas the same photo acquires different meanings when it is next to other images. They begin to bounce off each other so to speak. The interpretation is made up of the photographs’ differences and similarities, both in form and subject matters. This is something that I wanted to employ.
Within the space of an average computer screen, it was a choice between pairing up two, three or four images. I chose to form triptychs, rows of three images. Diptychs, pairings of two images, tend to create stark comparisons and contrasts which is not how I would like the Archive to be viewed. Forming quadriptychs on the other hand simply didn’t feel right. I formed a few but didn’t like them. Triptychs allowed for concise yet vague enough combination of images, in large enough size on the screen.
In line with the archive as a concept, I also, briefly, thought about grouping the images by categories, such as ‘street views’, ‘monuments’ and ‘council estates’ and/or adding cross references to sub-categories such as ‘brick’, ‘concrete’ and ‘wooden’. I quickly abandoned this approach though because it is too rigid; it would have imposed the kind of conceptual and socio-political emphasis or reading of the photos that I wished to avoid. I didn’t also want to make this into an archival performance.
After some consideration about the various ways London could be and has been partitioned geographically, I concluded that the south and north divide with the added historical category of the Square Mile was the most recognizable. The purpose of these three categories is clarity which I deemed necessary given that I attempt to present a poetic survey of the city.
I then began to form the triptychs based on visual combability. Some triptychs are based on a colour scheme and some because of an over-arching pattern, made of tree branches or forms in architecture for example, in the images. These often overlap. I have also used the rather banal rule of a ‘sandwich’ when I have put the image that differs the most in between the two others that are in this sense ‘stronger’. This is a simple trick and an essential one for the sake of visual balance.
Arranging the rows of triptychs is equally a somewhat intuitive process of which guiding principle is harmony and flow – and when and how that should be interrupted. On an average computer screen, two rows of images are visible simultaneously. Here what I looked at was the transition between two ‘sets’ of rows, again guided by similarities and differences as well as a sense of a journey through those areas.
Why, specifically, two of the series begin in grey tones and end in purple-lilac ones? The choice to begin the Square Mile and Around with photographs of the London Wall and Barbican was obvious because of the area’s historic value. This is where most of London’s Roman ruins are visible. Those images simply happened to be grey in tone. However, ending in shades of lilac and purple was as much as a result of my infatuation of the colours of the twilight hours as it was about the photos being of stations (London Bridge, Charing Cross, Blackfriars), alluding to people coming and going, to and from London, day after day and century after century.
I began building the South of the Thames based on the last image, ‘Statue of General James Wolfe, SE10’. I like the drama of that image: a statue of a man, long forgotten and long dead, looking over the newly built Canary Wharf, a scene of black, purple and flaming red. The series starts with photographs in west London, by Putney Bridge because the theme of this triptych is the many functions and faces of the River Thames, the river that is almost synonymous to London itself. In the first image there is construction underneath the bridge with its flamboyant lampposts (one of my favourites of London lampposts). The second image is by the mouth of River Wandle, flowing into the Thames nearby. Just about visible, there is a plastic chair underneath a barren tree branch. The third image is a scene of tranquil; a bench from where one might look over the river view whilst be surrounded by four tree trunks.
That is the long answer to this question and it could be even lengthier. The short answer is, of course, that photographs arranged in this way look good.
© Carita Silander