assignment 5 – moving the idea forward

looking north; looking south - elmfield road, E17

looking north; looking south – elmfield road, E17

So, I had agreed during a phone tutorial to follow up the Elmfield Road Bomb Damage idea and to work it in a way which grew out of my understanding of Steffi Klenz’s Nummianus.

Right; onwards!
Elmfield Road is a fairly standard, Victorian terraced street in Walthamstow, the last before you get to the southernmost tip of the reservoirs that sit, obvious from the air or on a map, inside the A406 (the North Circular) as it curls round between Edmonton and Walthamstow. There are only odd numbers in the street with the west side of the road left open, with a wide stretch of grass before you get to a fence and a storm drain, there to cope with heavy rain over the waterworks, I lived in Elmfield Road from 2003 until 2009.

A few doors down from where I lived, the terracing stops and there are 6 much more blocky 50s or 60s houses; then the Victorian housing resumes.The terrace stops at number 47 and resumes at 65; 8 numbers are missing and 6 newer buildings have replaced them. You can see this quite clearly in the two pictures at the top of this post. Quite obviously, this is wartime bomb damage; there are similar gaps in the parallel roads to the east. They’re quite different from the larger splodges of post-war housing in the sites where larger, more powerful V-weapons fell on Walthamstow, or indeed further to the south, in the east end proper, where whole streets were flattened during the Blitz.

Beyond this though, it’s relatively difficult to get more detailed information. But that’s where research comes in, doesn’t it?


Background Research – When I lived in Elmfield Road, it had never crossed my mind that the six “wrong” houses could be the result of anything other than wartime bomb damage. When it came time to get something to bqck this up however, it proved remarkably difficult to get documentary evidence. My first effort had involved borrowing a copy of the book published by the London Archive, reproducing the bomb damage maps produced in 1945 by the LCC from the daily damage reports compiled during the blitz. But of course, Walthamstow was not part of London until some time in the late 40s, so the maps didn’t quite reach far enough. Presumably there were local records, which would be held in the Waltham Forest Archive at the Vestry House Museum, but so far I have not been able to find the time to make an appointment to view the material they have stored there.

What I did find through a google search (how else?) was a reference to an online map of London bomb-sites in an article in the Daily Telegraph, published after an unexploded bomb had been found and defuses (link). This map did include Walthamstow and shows a bomb was dropped on Elmfield Road (and also confirmed other sites, i’d notice nearby and also close to where I now live).
This was confirmation enough for this project, but it would have been nice to have more detail about the particular bomb (or bombs) that I was interested in. I finally got it when I was half-way up a stepladder making my third set of pictures in Elmfield Road. A man was taking some stuff out of his car and into number 47; he was glancing the sort of glances you make at someone up a ladder with a camera opposite your house and then came over. Fortunately he turned out to be interested rather than hostile and once I’d explained what I was doing, nipped back into the house and returned with a copy of a slim book published by the council called War over Walthamstow. It contained map and day by day records of bomb damage. It is of course out of print, but a search online to see if there were second-hand copies available turned up a site that reproduced the text in full, but not the map.
A single bomb fell on the 8th December 1940 at 11.45 pm. It killed 3 people and injured 18 others. 8 houses (47-61) were damaged. There had been a lot of bombing that day, but this was the last to be dropped on Walthamstow.

This gave me my title, referring back to Conflict-Time-Photography: 75 Years After. It also gave a number of links to things that hover around me and the pictures taken for this course. On the 8th of December 1940, my father – a conscientious objector, working with The Friends Ambulance Unit after his tribunal – would have been a 21 year-old, acting as a shelter warden near Bethnal Green; more bombs fell near there. Also that night, N minutes earlier, a bomb fell on Portland Place, damaging Broadcasting House (where I work) and knocking the tip off the spire of All Souls Church. The repair to the spire can be seen in photo 5 (diagonal) of Assignment 1 for this course. Many of the buildings on Flotta in Scapa Flow (Assignment 2) were being built at this time too…


Installation  – Over the last year, I have become increasingly aware of and interested in how photographs are altered by the way they are presented and of the details attached to their exhibition. I had already been struck both by just how small Lartigue’s pictures are and how large more modern prints by people like Gursky are or indeed very old prints like some of the pictures in the Muybridge exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago. Now I was looking as much at the sequencing and the juxtaposition of pictures, one with another, to add up to more than the sum of the parts.

I realise I quite like the intimacy of small prints – the way they draw you in to peer at them, and gaining a sense that you and you alone are looking. In this sense they become like a book. There is nothing grand about the Egglestons I have seen or most of the pictures in the Harry Callaghan rooms at Tate Modern last year. But you look at them and – despite being in a gallery – manage moments of being alone with the pictures. Again at Tate Modern, the way the Henry Wessels’ series Incidents was laid out – a series of 26 head-height 18 x 12 prints in plain black frames that you were meant to view working clockwise from the door – made links between the pictures in sequence and drew you in to look, and think, and wonder, and move on to the next; of course, you went round the room twice.

I have been struck by things as different as the three huge typographical light boxes that formed the centre of Subotzky and Waterhouse’s Ponte City installation in the Photographer’s Gallery (and made a note that 6cm x 9cm transparencies are really a very fine thing) and also the collaged pictures taking found images and then placing them over new photographs of either the room they were found in or of the room where they had been taken; equally the collaged wall combining a large background picture, writing and smaller framed pictures of Jim Goldberg and Kamel Khalif presented as Open See (Democratic Republic of Congo) in one of the rooms at Conflict-Time-Photography was good for literal laying of meaning – you read the wall rather than just looking at it; I like the way the pictures are arranged into three panels (a bloodline; an explanation; footnotes) in Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead (which I’ve seen bits of a couple of times now);  it all adds up, it all helps the pictures tell a cumulative story rather than just show “a thing” and then “another thing”.

And then there is Nummianus by Steffi Klenz. As soon as David mentioned this body of work, I remembered the three pictures(the last two house of a terrace; one and a half terraced houses with the second mid demolition and a third of the cleared land visible to the right of the second picture)  reproduced in the first chapter of Behind the Image. When he sent me a link to Klenz’s site where there are more examples, I was greatly taken by the gallery views, with long lines of  – possibly fictitious – terraces constructed from print after print, some going round corners.

I saw how a bombed terrace could be presented as a series of pictures with the story coming out of the differences in between houses (and types of houses). The story began to take on physical properties and led me to start thinking of those series of concertina-folded postcards you can get. I am still somewhat at a loss as to how to present something long and thing and horizontal on a screen, but suspect that it can be done. The main version of this assignment however, will be physical.

There were other details I should have noticed at this point – most notably around how shallow the houses front facade was in each of Klenz’s pictures; there are no gardens and no cars parked beyond the pavement; the only thing interrupting the plane of the terraces are lamposts – but of course, I didn’t.


Practice as Research – It took me several goes to get something that worked. Some of this was down to not looking closely enough at the Nummianus pictures before I had my first try at approximating the feel of Klenz’s series, but a fair bit of it comes down to something as unsubtle as how taking pictures of a row of houses is much more difficult than it would at first appear!

  • If you shoot from pavement level you get quite a lot of convergent lines from looking up at even a two-story building
  • You don’t want straight lines to be distorted towards the edges either, so you don’t want to use too wide a lens
  • You are limited in how long a lens you can use by how far away you can get from the facades of the houses opposite by the width of the street.

And all this is before you start to try and link two or more pictures together into some sort of sequence, at which point errors or inaccuracies become compounded.

I started off by trying to get an idea of what it would take to get a good, straight shot of part of a terrace. I tried to take a shot across the street outside my front door using my Nikon D50:

Firstly I was able to get around the converging line issue by taking out a folding step-ladder and climbing to the top. The camera was somewhere between the top of the doors and the first floor windows; not quite level with the centre of everything when you take the roof into account, but not bad.

The D50’s 1.5 crop factor meant that my 35mm lens was still too tight from a far back as I could get and not feel I was going to break my neck falling off the ladder (fig 1). But a 24mm lens (equivalent to a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera) got in enough of the houses to show everything from the road up to the top of the chimneys (fig 2). There was enough space around the focus of the image to crop down to a nice, symmetrical composition (fig 3) and also to correct the effect of not quite getting the camera parallel to the front of the building, the small amount of vertical distortion that still I got even with being up a ladder and the slight bulginess caused by the short lens. Generally it seemed fine and I set out to take a test sequence of another bomb damaged row around the corner.

This threw up further problems that needed overcoming:

Foreground objects are a pest; trees and lampposts either get in the way or force you out into the road. This is not good photographically (you are closer to the other side of the street, so all the bad things of using a wider lens are compounded, even if you don’t need to go even wider) or from a personal point of view (before you get onto being up a ladder on a cambered surface, there is the question of cars using the road even on a quiet side street).

Parked cars are a pain. In the foreground they won’t block you if you’re up a ladder, but vans will. On the other side of the road, they change their position relative to the building further away making it really hard to get anything even approaching a clean composite if you are trying to build up a row of houses seamlessly from a number of pictures, as I was at this stage.

I had partly hoped I’d be able to use this street for the final assignment as this would mean I didn’t have to lug a ladder with me the mile or so to Elmfield Road when I needed to do the inevitable retakes, but there were simply too many vans on the wrong side of the street, trees and lampposts getting in the way for it to really work. Elmfield Road (as you can see from the two pictures at the top of this post) is one-sided, with a patch of grass running back from the road quite a way opposite the built side. There are no lampposts or trees on the unbuilt side either. I should have gone inside and had a good look at Nummianus at this point, but instead, I loaded the ladder into the car and headed up the road…



References:

  • Basics Creative Photography 03: Behind the Image: Research in Photography – Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana (AVA Publishing, 2012)
  • The War Over Walthamstow – 1939-45  – Ross Wyld. (Walthamstow Borough Council, 1945)
  • Nummianus – Steffi Klenz (Exhibitions – New Art Museum Walsall, 2009; Street Level Glasgow, 2010)
  • Ponte City  – Mikhael Subotzky & Partick Waterhouse (Steidl, 2014); installation viewed at the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize Exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery, London (April – June 2015).

All links accessed 30/06/15

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3 thoughts on “assignment 5 – moving the idea forward

  1. Catherine

    I have a vivid picture in my mind of you carrying a ladder whilst walking up the street – maybe head down and with a bit of a sigh!. You paint such a vivid picture.

    Reply
    1. schirgwin Post author

      Thank you Catherine! The only thing you miss out is my worried scanning of the horizon in order to spot any gathering of photo-phobes carrying burning brands and pitchforks. Forturnately the angry mob never materialised…

      Reply

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