Exercise 1.9: Social contrasts

As one of my ideas for assignment one is to look at how we present the exterior of houses for sale, I thought that for this exercise I would compare the perspective of my town as represented by estate agents with other perspectives, my expectation of course being that the estate agents and tourist agencies would present a positive, picturesque viewpoint whereas newspapers and other outlets would present a less positive picture.

agent1

This triptych from a local estate agent (1) presents three different positive aspects of the town. The first is both picturesque and highlights the history and character of the town – obviously sunny and unspoilt by people. The second points out the good transport links, but does so not with an image of the unsightly station but of a heritage style railway sign (I confess I have no idea where this is, it certainly isn’t in a prominent location). The hints at heritage link to the first image, and give the impression of a quaint typically “English” town; of all the images this is the most calculated and disingenuous to anyone who knows the town. The final image shows a bustling High Street, full of people having a good day out – there is plenty of space, sunshine (again), greenery and characterful buildings. Where is the ugly 70’s Lidl building, the car parks, the rain, the narrow pavements? Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this?

An equally quaint and positive perspective can be seen on the Visit Kent website (2). Appealing this time to visitors rather than prospective residents, we see a fete in front of the castle – the quintessential British summer day out. Sadly no maypole in sight, but the effect is very much of a wholesome event, a place where real life need not intrude. (Incidentally this isn’t just about photography, there is in fact jousting on the castle lawn twice a year, the performance of traditional England is carried through by the residents).

It is surprisingly difficult to find images depicting an alternative perspective on Tonbridge, particularly anything showing social differences. This week’s edition of the free local newspaper shows easter fetes and bluebells, sporting successes and homes for sale – the negative articles (which are few and far between) are not illustrated, or are accompanied by a single portrait of an activist or politician. The paper is advertising led so hard-hitting journalism is off the table. The “proper” local paper tends towards more documentary style images, but there are very few negative articles about Tonbridge (which on any other occasion I would consider very positively!)  One article about poor food standards ratings including this image (taken from Google Maps):

Kebab Express in Quarry Hill

This is without doubt a different perspective on the town; cheap kebab shop, roads, empty pavement. One might guess at this part of town serving a slightly different social make-up to the more positive images above – though in fact this isn’t particularly true – but even here the buildings themselves (above the shop fronts) hint at a history, and the clean street, tree and empty road all give a semi-rural rather than urban feel to the scene.

This image from the Green Party’s website (3) shows a very different perspective:

traffic-in-tonbridge

The emphasis here is of course on the traffic – it is a politically motivated image. Here Tonbridge is very much an urban area – not just traffic but street clutter and very little greenery to lighten the scene.

I realised half way through this exercise that the reason I find it so difficult to find images relating specifically to social contrasts is that there are very few social contrasts here – although there is a wide range of income levels and backgrounds, broadly speaking there is little to distinguish these factors when looking at people on the High Street. One could of course photograph the Big Issue seller and contrast him with the Master of Tonbridge School, but whilst they represent different sections of society there is fundamentaly little to distinguish them visually. I do not live in an area of social contrasts – indeed I suspect that such contrasts don’t exist in this country in quite the way they did fifty years ago. One has to make a concerted effort to represent particular sectors of society.

With that in mind I decided to change tack. Thinking of Tonbridge School (a very expensive public school) made me wonder whether there are contrasting series of images dealing with public and state schools. Finding series focusing on public schools was easy, several photographers have specifically approached the subject and many more have included a few images in their work. However, I struggled to find images of “ordinary” schools – as usual the photographer is only interested in the “other” and not in the experiences of the majority.

My final idea was to look more towards my transitions subject, a rundown building in the centre of Tonbridge. Buildings like this can represent differing social perspectives – they can be seen as derelict due to poverty, lack of investment, a symbol of an area in decline. Or they can be romanticised, seen as symbolic of the transcience of mankind and the success of nature in reclaiming its dominance over the manmade. I need to think more about which of these aspects I want to present in my assignment, but for present purposes I decided to look for images of derelict buildings which represent these two contrasting perspectives.

Jon Savage’s “Uninhabited London” (4) is a good example of dereliction as a social comment – the emptiness in his images, combined with the title of the series, presents dereliction as wasted space, as buildings unloved and unwanted but full of potential. To me the images don’t feel entirely negative, this isn’t abject poverty being presented to the viewer, they simply feel sad. There is certainly nothing beautiful about the images; in some ways they remind me of Atget’s work in that they have a straight, documentary feel about them, focused on buildings rather than people, though the stillness and notable absence of life makes it clear that this is not a documentary work, it is a carefully chosen and calculated series of images.

A similar message can be seen in Paul Talling’s extensive archive: “Derelict London” (5). These images feel more documentary in style than Savage’s work, there is less artisanship and more of a snapshot aesthetic which gives a gritty realism to the images. Yet the overall feel is again a sad one – of wasted spaces and resources. That said, I find myself beginning to romanticise some of the images, for example those of abandoned Victorian/Edwardian public swimming pools. It is interesting that it is not the images themselves that present a romantic scene – it is my imagination, my longing for a past of grand art deco spaces. I think this is why it is so easy for artists to romanticise dereliction, because it plays upon our attachment to times gone by.

Moving to images which do deliberately romanticise dereliction, works by Gina Soden are a good example (6). Her images are saturated with colour, which both highlights the textures of the decay and emphasizes the previous grandeur of the buildings being photographed. Even where her subjects are industrial buildings, she focuses on texture and detail, together with pleasing compositions using symmetry, leading lines etc which makes the viewer comfortable and the experience of viewing a positive one. Unlike the images discussed above, where I want the buildings to be found a more practical use, for the waste to end, Soden’s images make me want the dereliction to be preserved, its beauty retained rather than destroyed. Interestingly I don’t want the buildings to be restored to their former glory, I don’t find myself chasing after a bygone era, I simply want to look at the buildings as they are preserved in these images.

We are challenged to find an image which represents social contrasts within itself. For some reason I immediately thought of the film Batteries not Included, in which families (helped by small robots) fight to avoid the demolition of their old apartments to make space for modern skyscrapers.

batteriesnotincluded12

Of course this is not a genuine image, it has been created using special effects, and as such it is a stylised representation of social contrasts, but nevertheless it is a dramatic visual which has stayed with me though I haven’t watched this film for many years. (I believe a similar visual impact is created in the Pixar film “Up”, another film about demolishing the little people to make way for social change). Looking at this image we can romanticise the little old building in the centre, despite its dereliction, but at the same time we may feel a need for the progress represented by the skyscrapers.

I am reminded of a letter I once read written by a young child in response to proposals for demolition of housing in Liverpool. There was much objection to the proposals, even though the houses in question were largely unfit for human habitation and would be replaced by good quality modern housing. Paraphrasing slightly, she said “please don’t demolish my home, I love it here, but please do something about the rats”. Somehow we can romanticise even the most awful of buildings when presented with the choice between dereliction and modernity.

 

(1) http://www.howardcundey.com/branch/tonbridge/ (accessed 25th April 2017)

(2) http://www.visitkent.co.uk/destinations/tonbridge/6327 (accessed 25th April 2017)

(3) https://westkent.greenparty.org.uk/air-quality-in-tonbridge-and-malling.html (accessed 25th April 2017)

(4) Example here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/savage-uninhabited-london-p79851 (accessed 1st May 2017)

(5) http://www.derelictlondon.com/ (accessed 1st May 2017)

(6) https://www.ginasoden.co.uk/gina-soden-artworks/incremento/ (accessed 1st May 2017)

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