Posts tagged: England

No ordinary field

By , May 2, 2013 10:53 am

The great joy of being a photographer is the access to things and places you might not otherwise see. An associated pleasure comes from talking to people and listening to the little gems of information that they might pass on. I have to confess that I am not very good at listening – it is a skill I am constantly trying to improve, ever mindful of the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in equal measure!

Anyway, for the past few months I have been engaged in a commission, a side-effect of which is that I have discovered some fascinating things (largely as a result of chance conversations with people I have happened across) about the area in which my studio is based, including some places which I have passed on many occasions without a second glance. Which leads me nicely to this image here.

Sir Hiram Maxim and powered flight bexley

No ordinary field.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

We all know from our schooling that the first powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle took place at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December of 1903. Thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Flyer, aviation as we know it was born. Now consider this unremarkable cricket pitch at Baldwyn’s Park just outside Bexley in Greater London.

On July 31st, 1894, Hiram Maxim with a crew of three, piloted an aircraft of his own invention down a 1,800 foot test track sited where this cricket pitch now basks in the spring sun. The aircraft weighted about 8,000 lbs and was powered by two 360 horse power steam engines (yes, steam engines!). About half way down the track it took off and flew for a distance of about 100 feet before crashing back down to the ground again. It was only meant to be a test, and didn’t fly very high -  some two or three feet up. But despite its instability it proved that very heavy machines could indeed get off the ground and stay up. All that was needed was to understand and develop the means of controlling such craft.

Sadly Maxim did not really pursue his flying invention (although he did invent many other notable things, and is worthy of further investigation). Amercian born he became a naturalised British Subject in 1900, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. It is telling that he was asked towards the end of his life in 1916 about the lack of monument to his work at Baldwyns Park. His response was that the authorities had “demonstrated their appreciation by building the largest, finest and best-equipped lunatic asylum in the world there!”.

So the next time you’re boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world, think about this bit of green in South East London where a little bit of history was made nearly ten years before the Wright Brothers.

The threat to the monarchy

By , April 29, 2011 9:26 pm

All the recent polls suggest that around eighty per cent of the population are in favour of the monarchy, and certainly the reporting today appears to support that. The naysayers, on the other hand, are quick to point out that it is an anachronism, that it is unaccountable, that it is patently unfair for a person to gain such advantage purely through accident of birth.

So what can we learn on a day when all the world has turned to gaze upon the theatre of William and Catherine’s wedding? We learn that we do pagentry well because actually the whole institution of monarchy underpins everything we understand about ourselves in Britain; it is the foundation of our society. For all its failings, it has given us a remarkably stable and peaceful form of society, one that is by and large the envy of nations the world over.

Camden Grove street party. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Camden Grove street party. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Elizabeth II has been head of state for longer than anyone anywhere in the world, sixty years next year. Yet in all that time she has barely put a foot wrong, not something you can accuse most politicians of for 60 minutes let alone 60 years. The less charitable would say it was simple luck, but the truth is the Queen is driven by a profound sense of service. Yes, her’s is a position of extreme priviledge, but it is also one of stultifying restriction. Nevertheless Elizabeth has stayed true to the course of loyal duty and service. We might be her subjects, but it is she that serves us with unswerving dedication. That devotion to service is the high price she must pay for her privilege, and I have no doubt that she instills that sense of purpose and duty in her close family.

Think about it; from the moment you are born, your life is mapped. You have no choice in the matter. None. From the moment William was old enough to understand he knew that he was to be king, as did his father. At least Elizabeth began life with no such expectation; even so, at the age of ten, her fate was sealed because of Edward VIII’s abdication. For these royal children there was and is none of the opportunity to imagine what you might be when you grow up. How is that fair?

Bunting in the central aisle of Asda, Swanley. Only the prices seem to have changed in a scene out of the 70s. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Bunting in the central aisle of Asda, Swanley. Only the prices seem to have changed in a scene out of the 70s. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

When Edward VIII chose love over service it caused a constitutional crisis, and one wonders if it would survive such an event again. The support shown today for the renewal of the royal family that arises out of the marriage of William and Kate and their creation as Duke and Duchess of Cambridge indicates that Britain wants it to work. There is a palpable hope that the institution of monarchy can be renewing, can be relevant, can continue to be a cornerstone of our society.

The trappings of royalty may be responsible for the detail of events like today’s, but the spectacular itself is a function of the dynamic of monarchy. A republic has to happen according to timetable, but the events of monarchy are determined by life itself: the weddings, the funerals, the coronations. Many may come at once, then nothing for a generation. The flux of their lives mirrors that of ours, and that is what gives the perception of solidity and continuity. While prime ministers come and go, and one crisis is replaced by another, the monarchy is there as a focal point for society to measure itself by.

Children at Hextable Primary School have a "Street Party" in honour of the Royal Wedding. April 28, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Children at Hextable Primary School have a "Street Party" in honour of the Royal Wedding. April 28, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

So what is the threat to the monarchy from the republican opposition? Nothing of significance. The real threat comes from an heir apparent standing up for his or her inalienable right to determine their own future; a compelling case could be made at the European Court of Human Rights that being born the heir apparent is a form of slavery which is unlawful.

I started by recalling the cry of those anti-monarchists that it is unfair for a person to gain such advantage purely through an accident of birth. But we are all born into advantage or disadvantage. In a very real sense the accident of being born British is to be born into advantage that the vast majority of the world’s population can only dream of. It is not fair, and many are minded to do all they can to redress the imbalance of plenty and poverty. William, like Charles before him, has been born into advantage, but also into a closeted duty the rest of us can barely begin to imagine.

Camden Grove, Chislehurst. Only the alarm bell boxes and the parkign restriction sign put this image in the 21st century. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Camden Grove, Chislehurst. Only the alarm bell boxes and the parking restriction sign put this image in the 21st century. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

In the end, far from the monarchy existing because we the people allow it to continue, the monarchy continues for as long as those born into that destiny see fit to put duty and service ahead of personal freedom. The threat to the monarchy is greatest within the institution itself. It serves us well, and it is right that we use occasions like today’s to celebrate and maintain it.

The Election Project – Simon Roberts

By , September 16, 2010 11:20 pm

EXHIBITION REVIEW: The Election Project – Simon Roberts

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Ian Paisley Jnr, Democratic Unionist Party. Portglenone, 3 May 2010 (North Antrim constituency).

EXHIBITION REVIEW:

We have a tendency to look back on events from an elevated perspective – hindsight does, somehow, give our memories a lofty vantage point; a mental image that may not be physically accurate, but affords a detached, unobstructed panorama of what has unfolded. In real-time the truth is obfuscated by events, and it is only when the dust of events has settled that we are given a more objective summary of what has passed.

Given this premise, and considering his recent acclaimed body of work, We English, it is no surprise that Simon Roberts was approached by The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, and invited to submit a proposal to win the commission of Official Election Artist for the 2010 General Election. Roberts followed the two previous incumbents, Jonathan Yeo who painted portraits of the three party leaders in 2001, and David Godbold who made a series of illustrations in 2005.

We English, was an examination of the English at rest within their landscape, and drew on the principle of detached elevation to achieve its ends. But while the place of people within the landscape was central to the work, personality was not. It was the fact of people, rather than the people themselves, that created the context and told the story so effectively. But a commission to document the general election presented a problem: how to continue to work in the same vein, but make room for personality, something so central to modern elections?

Emma Gormley, the Assistant Curator at the Houses of Parliament said that Roberts was an obvious choice for the post, not simply because he is a good photographer, but rather because his enthusiasm and interest in the subject were so clear. They were struck from the first meeting by the sheer breadth of Simon’s understanding of British politics and its landscape. And there was no doubt that he could manage the logistics of such an undertaking.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Captain Beany, New Millennium Bean Party. Port Talbot, 23 April 2010 (Aberavon constituency).

More importantly though, Roberts is an assiduous researcher who knows better than most that the secret to telling a story is understanding the detail intuitively. Roberts “gets” democracy, and in particular he gets the peculiarities of British parliamentary democracy. This is not the grand set piece theatre of US presidential elections, but it is theatre nonetheless: the theatre of amateurs. That is not to denigrate it, or to disparage those who hold or seek to hold the office of MP. Rather it is a statement of fact, and it is one of those truths that make the British system so endearing, so utterly democratic and to many so utterly chaotic and frustrating. While other systems require patronage or money, our system of representation is egalitarian: whether you are the sitting Prime Minister in Downing Street, or an over-tangoed Captain Beanie in Port Talbot, the hurdles to stand for election are the same. Roberts’ innate understanding of this was in no small part responsible for his gaining the commission, as was his desire to build on the experience of public participation from We English by encouraging people to send in their own photographs depicting the election.

Roberts’ approach was to use the technique that had served him so well for We English, but to come in just a little closer, just enough to allow the personality to form a part of the image without overpowering it. To work, the balance had to be perfect, as the images need to play to two audiences: the contemporary audience, and the audience of tomorrow: those for whom the names Brown, Cameron and Clegg will be vague historical footnotes. That audience will be concerned more with what Britain was, and what it became as a result of the election, than with the characters themselves. Indeed, although the three party leaders made the final edit, most of the rest of the candidates depicted are unfamiliar to the average voter even today. If the pictures had allowed personality to become overbearing their resonance as historical documents would have been diluted. Would that have mattered? In short, yes. This commission was about creating art not for its own sake, but for its capacity to inform, educate and entertain future generations of Britains. It is now, and was always meant to be part of the historical record. As it turns out, if Mr Clegg gets his way, Roberts’ work may come to define the last election to use the only system we have ever known until now. If for no other reason it will inevitably be of great interest to commentators and public alike in a future we cannot even imagine.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative. Salford Priors, 26 April 2010 (Stratford on Avon constituency).

Roberts said at the outset that he wanted to demonstrate just how mundane and lonely canvassing for votes could be, and it was equally important for him that the finished work reflect the full range of political views that exist in Britain today, so he paid as much attention to the independents and smaller parties as he did to the three heavyweights.

But the beauty of the work is in how much it tells us about the Britain of 2010. On the one hand there are the tower blocks, the boarded up terraces in the shadow of a football stadium, the caravans and post war housing, the modern executive homes trying to blend into rural England. On the other we have Woolworths – a metaphor for an election fought on the back of the deepest recession in living memory – and the market stalls of Whitechapel, the everyman trying to maintain his livelihood.

And the everyman is what British elections are all about. Each candidate has to appeal to the everyman. It is the grind of pressing the flesh, pounding the streets, knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, listening to the concerns of everyman that make the election such a hard and frequently thankless slog for the candidates, a fact captured with eloquence and irony in each image. The electioneering process is the same irrespective of the set in which it is played, and makes clear that while between the polls we the public must do the bidding of our political masters, the theatre of election is that moment when the tables are turned, and the politicians must come to us cap in hand, and beg for a chance, or another chance as the case may be. With the scandal of expenses so fresh, many of the candidates cut a lonely dash.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Pete Wishart, Scottish National Party. Perth, 21 April 2010 (Perth and Perthshire North constituency).

As with We English, The Election Project was shot on film on a 5”x4” sheet film camera, with every detail precise and ready for the viewer’s inspection. All the images can be seen on the website, or indeed in the wonderfully ephemeral limited edition newspaper-as-catalogue designed by FUEL (the same people who have designed both Motherland and We English – and the essence of brand continuity is clear to see). But the only way to truely appreciate these photographs is as they are intended to be seen: glorious 120x90cm prints, full of detail and subtlety that draw you in with the many, many layers that exist within them.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency).

There are elements that are poignant and serious, but there are just as many that are funny, and ironic. Gordon Brown facing the press with the now famous Gillian Duffy watching on – behind the Prime Minister (displaying what must be the last genuine smile he gave on the election trail) a man oversees prisoners working in the community, his fluorescent tabard says “Probation Supervisor”, while a signboard announces “offenders working for the community”. Or there is the juxtaposition of Ian Paisley Sr and two megaphones, and all the redolence of the voice of Unionism from a time gone by.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Coalition talks, Liberal Democrat HQ, Westminster, 7 May 2010.

Perhaps my favourite, though, is from the extra image – the one that Simon made to reflect the no man’s land of the coalition talks. Outside the Liberal Democrat HQ the massed ranks of the press wait for news. By the door a cameraman stands by his equipment. On the back of his T-shirt it reads: “It could happen at any time”. Never a truer word said, and that is what The Election Project is all about. Don’t miss it.

All images © Simon Roberts 2010

The first opportunity to view the exhibition will be this Saturday and Sunday (18th-19th Sept) during the Open House Weekend when Portcullis House will be open from 10am-5pm (last entry: 4.30pm). Enter via the building’s main entrance on Victoria Embankment. As well as the 25 prints created by Simon, there is a fifteen metre installation showing all of the 1696 images submitted online by the general public, many of which offer a wry, surreal or acerbic commentary on the election, and are well worth closer inspection. 3000 copies of the FUEL designed newspaper are available free to those quick enough to get them.

For those unable to make the exhibition then, public access to the exhibition is by free guided tours offered on a first come first serve basis. You can find out more details here.

And the battle begins

By , April 6, 2010 10:49 am

Well the starting gun has been fired and the contest begins. Many have a very negative view on whether anything positive will come from the general election, but photographers can take heart, thanks to the Houses of Parliament and Simon Roberts, there will be at least one good thing to come from it:

We English – Simon Roberts

By , October 28, 2009 2:25 am

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Roberts – We English.

Being away from home for any length of time usually results in a longing for the familiar, but for Simon Roberts his marathon trip round Russia in 2005 (resulting in the critically acclaimed Motherland) raised questions rather than longings. As he explored what it means to be Russian and the relationships Russians have with their landscape, he found himself increasingly considering what his relationship was with his own country and nationality.

Roberts is about as middle English as it is possible to be. Brought up in the the Surrey commuter belt, the son of a Cumbrian woman and a London man, his childhood was one that would be recognisable to most middle class Middle Englanders growing up in the 70s and 80s. His recollections of childhood holidays in the Lake District and at the seaside informed much of his appreciation of the English landscape, inevitably leading to his questioning how much this shaped his own sense of nationality. Indeed, what does it mean to be English, as distinct from Welsh, Scottish, or the more general British?

Cover of We English by Simon Roberts

Cover of We English by Simon Roberts

Facing the sight of Russians at play in the Siberian landscape he began to examine the nature of the relationship we English have with our homeland, and before he had finished shooting Motherland his sights were set on the next project. Thus two years later, with Russia well behind him he persuaded wife Sarah and daughter Jemima to join him in a camper van on a ten month journey around England to observe the English in their environment, and possibly find out who he was in the process.

One of the curious things about this body of work is that it is intrinsically more distant than Motherland; how is it that an English photographer could feel more intimate with foreigners in a foreign land than with his own countrymen at home? An obvious consideration is that we are all drawn inexorably to the exotic, it holds greater fascination for us and paradoxically our very closeness to “home” can make photographic intimacy that much harder to achieve. Indeed, Simon has drawn attention to the fact that virtually nothing has been produced on England in the last ten years by British photographers; cheap flights and myriad conflicts having proven a stronger draw for his contemporaries as they set out to make their mark as photographers elsewhere. The strength of We English comes from his determination not to battle that awkward closeness, choosing instead to embrace the distance and make it an intrinsic part of the work. He employed the questions he had regarding his own national identity to give a level of objectivity to his work that is arresting. It is perhaps worth noting that Simon is a human geography graduate, and although the artistic approach of We English is very different to Motherland, it seems clear when taken together with the breadth of his earlier more photojournalistic output where his interests and natural inclinations lie.

In his research Roberts considered the rich history of visual documentary that exists about England, both photographically through the likes of Tony Ray Jones, Bill Brandt and Martin Parr, and in the work of painters like Turner and Constable; he also took inspiration from further afield, and the influence of the Flemish masters Bruegel and Avercamp is hard to ignore. To his credit he used this research not so much to provide inspiration for his own objectives, but to gain a deeper understanding of the narratives that different artists have employed. The danger – of which he was all too aware – of setting out on this kind of project is that the work you produce can become either a pastiche or a derivative of what has already gone before.

Roberts was determined that his work should stand on its own merits even if it inevitably alludes to the work of those in whose paths he has walked. Frequently referred to as “this green and pleasant land”, a photographic examination of England as landscape alone could easily degenerate to chocolate box sentimentality, but We English is not simply about landscape, it is about the place of the English within it. While he chose to stay away from individuals, people are a vital part of the pictures Roberts has made, but the personality portrayed is of the English as a whole, a portrait that is at times touching, curious and barmy. But it is neither critical nor saccharine, only observational.

Much of the imagery is about borders and margins; those places where one thing ends and another begins, and how these delineations make statements not only about the landscape and its uses, but also about the people we are. Sometimes the resulting photographs are inherently beautiful, but more often the beauty lies deeper, in a quiet understanding that while we are each to our own in pursuit of happiness, collectively we are English.

The more you contemplate We English the clearer it becomes that Roberts’ real artistic allusion is rather clever. He could have pursued the immediacy and reportage style of Kate Schermerhorn and her brilliant work America’s Idea of a Good Time, but instead chose the more considered approach of large format photography to reflect on the leisure activities that define who the English are within the landscape, rather than who they are forced to be. To put it another way, most of us work to live, and the work we do is often happenstance. But our leisure time, chosen by us as individuals and being so precious, compels us unwittingly to make a personal rather than forced connection with the landscape we inhabit. To that end the work he has produced has more in common with L S Lowry than some of the artists Roberts has been compared to. But whereas Lowry was intrigued by the social revolution that was industrialisation, Roberts’ “matchstick men” are drawn to whatever green they can find in the name of unwinding. It is here that the fine detail of the large format comes into its own, each image a tableaux depicting numerous events and encounters: each part significant, each image greater than the sum of these parts. A whole play, a whole commentary within an instant. And yet these works are less the decisive moment of Cartier-Bresson fame, and more the essence of a people and place inextricably linked. What Roberts shows us is that England is only what it is by virtue of the people that we are.

Mad Maldon Mud Race, River Blackwater, Maldon, Essex, 30th December 2007

Mad Maldon Mud Race, River Blackwater, Maldon, Essex, 30th December 2007

There is another thing that makes We English different, and that is the word “we”. Roberts wanted his work to be a collaboration, and while it inevitably reflects his view of things – nothing artistic can ever be truely objective – he knew from the outset that if his journey was to produce anything of substance it would need to draw on the knowledge, whims, and character of the English themselves. Through his blog and brilliant use of The Times, the BBC and many local newspapers, Simon encouraged people to tell him about their England, and the events that shape their lives. As a result We English is a collaboration; a genuine reflection of the English at the start of the 21st century.

We English has all the hallmarks of a great body of work by a photographer of considerable depth. It shuns the flashy “in-yer-face” tactics so commonplace in favour of quiet thought and subtle observation. It is work that repays the reader through frequent reexamination: full of humour, but more subtle than Erwitt; full of commentary, but less judgemental than Parr; full of beauty, but without cliché.

The book is large format and elegantly produced (although my copy sadly has a production fault across my favourite image – it must be someone else’s favourite too!), with exquistely detailed bordered images set for the most part one to a double page spread, with an insightful introduction by Stephen Daniels. But if you really want to get the most from this body of work you need to view the prints at exhibition (the first major exhibition of We English in the UK will be at the National Media Museum in Bradford from March 12th to September 5th 2010) and just as importantly spend a lot of time absorbing the wealth of detail and background information on the We English website.

For all his innate Englishness, Roberts chose to view the English in their landscape from the perspective of an outsider in large part because he was, and remains, uncertain of what it means to be English himself. In short a road trip at home is about discovery of oneself as much as it is about discovery of place. His continuing journey of self-discovery will undoubtedly be welcomed by many, and deservedly so.

We English – Simon Roberts, Chris Boot Publishing, 56 colour photographs, 112pp, Hardback, £40.00, ISBN 978-1905712144. www.chrisboot.com

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