Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983 by Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach, Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea 1983

Richard Misrach: Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983. Richard Misrach is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, California.

As a co-founder of the Prix Pictet, awarded since 2008 for images on the theme of sustainability, I have thought a lot about environmental photography. I know that Richard Misrach takes his place in a long line of predecessors, from Carleton Watkins through Ansel Adams and the New Topographics. I know that both irony and the sublime had been found in the landscape many times before him. I’m British, and know well that tradition of engaged landscape photography represented by Fay Godwin and before her by Bill Brandt. But somehow, for me, it always goes back to Misrach, who was born in Los Angeles in 1949. Nobody else has made such a sustained political enquiry into our maltreatment of the wilderness in a vocabulary of such exquisite beauty.

 

This 1983 view of a flooded campsite, “Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, California”, is so simple. Yet it goes so far. Misrach’s big subject for some 40 years of photography at the very highest level has been the complex relationship between man and the environment. Much of that work takes its place in his huge Desert Cantos, which is mainly a catalogue of dreadful abuse, although the occasional noble moment intervenes. As his projects accumulated, it began to seem that here we had someone whose scope and range were as monumental as the area he worked in, the deserts of the south-western US. As sustained serial works go, the Desert Cantos are on the scale of Balzac. One of the Cantos is on the subject of a mysterious pit in the desert, full of dead horses and cows. A nuclear accident? An epidemic of some sort? Misrach’s point (or one of them) is that the whole mythology of the West was centred on those beasts: the 1,000-strong herds of cattle driven to the railheads, the cowboys on horseback. Suddenly Misrach was looking down at John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, caricatured in a pit full of dead beasts. He photographed them with the twisted agony of Goya or Géricault.

 

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by bad management of irrigation waters from the Colorado River. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was substantially enlarged by more mismanagement. It is, in other words, both a part of the larger story of the struggle to bring water to the arid West, and a symbol of the chronic failure of that intervention. Misrach offers us this rare watery tourist spot in the desert, turned sour. Yet his camera is not so very different from the tourists’ cameras that would have pointed the same way before the water level changed. We gaze, as sightseers, at a sight no longer fit for sightseeing. There is blame to be ascribed, fault. Yet it is photographed with Misrach’s particular genius for light, caressingly.

Almost Forgotten by the Dwellers in Cities

The estuaries of rivers appeal strongly to an adventurous imagination.

Joseph Conrad, the Mirror of the Sea

N. Kander triptych from the Dark Line

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

You wouldn’t think it, but the Thames is a secret river.  Great sandbanks which stretch roughly North-East–South-West defend its mouth from anything of much greater draft than a Viking longship.  Those banks have hard names that sailors fear:  Galloper and Shipwash and Long Sand and Sunk Sand and Kentish Knock and Margate Hook and Shivering Sand …  Separated by narrow swatchways and gats, and with ferocious tides made worse in particular wind directions, those sandbanks are the real secret of London’s wealth.  There’s something like a 24-foot rise of the tide at springs at London Bridge.  Bretons can deal with that, but not many others can.  There are few higher tidal differences in the world. If jingoist British historians used to boast that no-one had successfully invaded England since 1066 (barring such trifling visits as that of 1688, for which they could find easier names than invasion), it is really those shoals they had to thank.   For a low-lying harbour in a broad estuary, the Thames is ferociously well defended.

That estuary, by the way, is ill defined. Take a sensible view on a large-scale map and the greater Thames mouth stretches from the North Foreland, where the Kent coast bends sharply south, to Bradwell-on-Sea, where the Blackwater curls out around the Dengie Marshes or even to Walton on the Naze beyond Colchester.  That larger Thames includes vast areas of marshland: at Tollesbury, for example, or around Canvey Island, which gives perspective to a landscape today populated with out-of-town industrial development of all kinds.  It’s not properly a secret landscape, since so many people live and work there. Yet enterprising film makers keep on finding that people don’t really recognize large parts of it.  Go for a walk around Dengie and you aren’t in the familiar suburban outer London at all. I imagined for years that Dengie was so wet and wild that it had given its name to its own virulent form of temperate-country malaria, but the fever is spelt Dengue. Although it is certainly true that there were fierce malaria-like agues in the Essex marshes, it seems implausible that the two words are in any way connected. Yet the very real wildness of the marshes remains another of the defences at the mouth of the Thames, and another of the secrets it holds from those who go no further east than the Tower.

Of course, men added to those defences: you can still go and spend a windswept hour on the boulevards of the fort at Tilbury, a wonderful Vauban-like design of pointed bastions more romantic by far than its unpromising location in the flat riverside Essex marsh.  The present fort was built in bolt-the-stable-door reaction to a humiliating Dutch invasion of the Medway by a fleet led by Cornelis De Witt in 1667. John Evelyn called that  “a dreadful spectacle as ever Englishman saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off”. It was at the earlier fort on the same site that Queen Elizabeth, in the press of the alarum of the announcement of the Armada, gave one of the lauded speeches in the language:

 “I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King — and of a King of England too — and think foul scorn that Parma of Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

How many modern readers know what stories lies concealed in the three words there – Parma of Spain?  Parma’s not in Spain; we still know that much.  Parma was in fact Alessandro Farnese, the greatest of a great condottiere family, who made his career in the service of Spain.  It was Farnese’s campaigns that secured the Southern provinces of the Netherlands for His most Catholic and Hapsburg Majesty, Philip II (Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece, King of the Two Sicilies, Archduke of Austria, Count Palatine of Burgundy…).  You could certainly say that it was thanks mainly to Farnese that Belgium remains a separate and Catholic country today.  As a historical figure, he’s extraordinary:  as a young man he fought at Lepanto; and as an old one was the nominal commander–in-chief of the Armada.

The Armada didn’t do its work; thanks more to those winds and tides and sandbanks than to any great sailoring. The great fleet was scattered: a wreck from it is one of the attractions of Tobermory, on the island of Mull, and there are others dotted around Ireland.  England remained Protestant.

Various other invasions have been thwarted by the skin of English teeth.  As late as 1939, a chain was stretched from Shoeburyness to Sheerness across the estuary to rip the keel off unwelcome visitors – and that chain was seriously considered for replacement in the 1950s to deter any Cold War visitors by submarine.

It may be odd to start thinking about the Thames in military terms.  It’s a great trading river, one of the great ones of them all.  The John Company ships, the Australia clippers, the cogs of the Hansa…those are the ships one should really think about on the Thames. But the trade relied on its military strength.  The great warehouses of the Pool are all inland from the great shipyards, at Chatham and Deptford, with the huge arsenal at Woolwich:  the Thames has its defensive ring, all right.

I said it was a secret river.  Fairly recently, a sensitive and leisured generation has opened up the Thames path, not only down the length of the rural stream through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, but right through London, too.  The river bank is now accessible, perambulable.  Bikes and baby-buggies can take the air along it.  Londoners can lean on a wall and watch baulks of timber racing down the tide.  Until recently, that was unthinkable, certainly in the great port city itself.  Every inch of frontage was a warehouse; with only the narrowest alleys between down to the foreshore.  You can still get a hint of what it must have been like in some relict streets of Wapping and of Rotherhithe and of Bermondsey.  The Thames was a filthy stream, and crowded beyond anything that we know of it today.  Only on exceptional occasions (the waterborne jubilee of the present Queen Elizabeth, the celebrations for the millennium…) has the river anything like the press of shipping it had every day until recently.

The Thames had the peculiarity – because of those same tides – of not being a city of quaysides.  Only in the nineteenth century, when the great docks were dug out (bigger and deeper and more recent, in proportion as they are further downstream from the city) did quays come to be a London thing as they are almost everywhere else.  The London docks were industrial spaces, working areas, and even had they not been hedged about with tall walls to keep goods in and pilferers out, they were neither respectable nor safe; no flâneurs there, and because there were no quays, no flâneurs closer to town, either. Until containerization and a series of dock strikes closed the inner docks and moved the trade to Tilbury (where the container port is on private land and therefore protected by laws of trespass as much against unsanctioned union activity as against theft) dockers used sometimes to walk from one side of the Pool to the other across the decks of ships: quicker than walking around by the bridge if there was work to be had.  But ordinary Londoners knew nothing of that, as they knew nothing of the lanes of Dockhead or Pierhead.

When Conan Doyle wanted to hide a Londoner in plain sight, as Poe hid his letter upon the mantle, he hid him as a beggar.  In The Man with the Twisted Lip, a seemingly respectable gentleman from Lee, in Kent, hides his true occupation from his family by going up to town every day and getting changed and made up into the appearance of a disfigured beggar, in which guise he makes more than £700 a year – a lot of money, then.  Where else to make his transformation but in the secret alleys of the riverside, less known to respectable persons than many places thousands of miles away?

Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.

One odd consequence of all this this secrecy is that every Londoner has his or her own private gazetteer of the Thames. It has opened up a great deal. The Clean Air Acts have blown away the smoke and smog which used to be its daily cover and the water itself is much cleaner than it was. Seals are regularly seen at least as far as the Isle of Dogs in London, although the attempt to restock salmon seems to have failed so far. Salmon were once abundant in the Thames: eighteenth-century London apprentices went on strike demanding they be fed salmon no more than five times a week. Yet the Thames is still hardly a place of great public water frontages or promenades.  For every great palace on the river, for each of Greenwich and Somerset House and the South Bank opposite it and Hampton Court and the mother of Parliaments, there are miles and miles of undistinguished workaday frontage, still today.  Brentford Dock is a very Thames-typical place, to me.  The canal comes out there, quite far upstream of the twin cities of London and Westminster, through an untidy copse of boatyards and boatsheds, under a main road.  The towpath of the Grand Union canal, which has run all the way from Birmingham and beyond, stops a few hundred yards short of the Thames: a messy little bit of navigation for the commercial boatmen from the river to the first lock.  One of the last regular cargoes, once a week by water until the early 1970s, was the order of Seville oranges for the chocolate factory at Bournville.  So Brentford, surprisingly, for it is miles inland, was once a port of disembarkation – and there are still improbable Customs notices on the wharf to greet those touching UK soil for the first time there.

Thames lighters look like huge floating skips, really.  There survive a few, docilely towed by engined craft and picturesque enough in their way.  But the lighters used to be one of the great menaces of the London river. When carrying down the canal system from inland, it was quicker to continue down the canal to Brentford than to turn at Bull’s Bridge onto the Paddington Branch and the Regent’s Canal through north London. Cargoes were transshipped from canal narrowboats into lighters which drifted down on the tide to the seagoing vessels in the docks or the Pool of London.  The lighters had no engine, often had no means of steering beyond a huge steering quant; even when they did have a tiller and a rudder, without an engine they were helpless for anything but the stateliest of changes of course.  Going upstream, they were grouped and towed as we know today when they couldn’t ride up on the tide.  Downstream, they drifted singly, each bouncing its way through whatever shipping might be in the way. Lightermen acquired a reputation for exceptional toughness and the worst language, and small wonder.

When my friend John Cronk got divorced and wanted to stay near his children he bought a workaday houseboat moored by Kew Bridge. It had been a brothel at some point, and had far too many bedrooms, each in cheap pine cladding with a tele on a bracket up near the deckhead.  There was a bar, either presumably for the gentlemen to wait until their particular friend was available, or for them to muster up the grim cock-courage of liquor.   John got to know a lot of secret Thames people living there, some of them as established as land-dwellers, but many not: a curious shifting population of people unsettled in both senses, restless people, people up one minute and down the next, like the tides.

That great flat–bottomed converted steel barge needed maintenance every year or two; I can’t remember if they actually scraped its bottom, but I think that was the sort of thing.  De-rusting and re-waterproofing.  To do it, the boat had to be cumbrously unbolted from the side, floated off the steel cradle on a concrete bed that normally kept it level, and towed by a hired tug (or a dragooned friend) across to a Brentford boat-yard.  One year, a man working under her was killed when the boat shifted while this work was going on.  John, as the owner, seemed plausibly to be technically responsible even though the work was being done by a boatyard he had contracted with.  For quite a while he was worried that he might have to face some kind of charges. I don’t know how the story was resolved: an agreement between insurers, most likely.

That’s one of my secret places.  Eel Pie Island is another, with the ghost of its Eel Pie Hotel, one of the high places of British rhythm ‘n’ blues.  I never went there – it burnt down before I was old enough; but I went often to its less-louche cousin, the Bull’s Head in Barnes.  Eel Pie is hardly a great island.  Old maps call it an ait, which is more like it.  It still has an artist community, not exactly seedy, but definitely on the Bohemian side. As joke-Bohemian places like the mudflat moorings at Cheyne Walk became ridiculous (in price; in pretension; in people), a genuine London Boho would move upstream to Eel Pie if he could. I once ruined the engine in a Volvo 480ES by driving it along the tide-flooded length of Chiswick Mall.  I was in a queue of traffic, slowly wading through shallow water behind many other cars doing just the same.  Every other car made it just fine; but I didn’t know that the air intake of those cars was very low, between the front wheels.  I do, now.  So Chiswick Mall became a secret place of mine that day.  The Isle of Sheppey is a secret place of a different sort, a curiously beautiful little hill above the mudflats.  I used to like the stumpy surviving arm of the Grosvenor canal, under the distinctive chimney of the pumping station by the railway tracks into Victoria.  Pimlico Boating Station; the Dove at Hammersmith; the terraces of St. Thomas’ Hospital, Barking Creek and the Bow Back rivers, the Gallions Hotel…

All Londoners have associations of this kind with the river.  They may not see it for many weeks on end – because one can cross it on the tube without knowing it’s there.  But that sudden catch in the breath from the sheer breadth of sky above the water is familiar to all.  It’s not just Wordsworth who found the river startlingly beautiful when the smoke cleared by chance.  Monet did, too, and his studies of the light changing over the Houses of Parliament are ‘secret memories’ of many of us.  Bill Brandt’s seagull wheeling past the shipping is one of mine, too, and so are the long thin Whistler sketches.  Not all secret memories of the river are simply of actual places. Snatches of song count, too.  (When Ian Dury died, his family threw his leg-iron and one of his walking sticks into the Thames off Hammersmith Bridge). Books make plenty of memories, too: Magwitch out on the marshes.

Many generations before the canal system was built, the river had always been alive with small craft.  Quicker for almost any London journey of any length to go north or south to the river, take boat, and then go south or north from the nearest stair to the destination.  Read Pepys and he’s forever leaping into a boat – and not just because of his job.  He was a great naval administrator, and probably took a few more rides on the Thames than most, but everybody above the breadline did it from time to time. Now, in addition to the tourist boats, the fast connections to the investment bankers at Canary Wharf signal the reopening of a long history of the Thames as an efficient internal highway as well as the great external highway of the world.

The few surviving oarsmen, with their boathouses at Putney and elsewhere, are the last traces of one of the great outdoor leisure crazes, when late-Victorian and Edwardian Londoners flocked to the nicer bits of the river to learn the muscular habits of the watermen. If the Head of the River and the Boat Race are more or less absurd today, it’s peculiar to recall that they once drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands, when the river shed its working clothes and became an animated playground for the day. In the same way, the nearest London ground for the illegal bare-knuckle prize fights was at Moulsey Hurst, south of Hounslow, and Pierce Egan, the great pioneer sportswriter, often describes the crowds pushing their way down there to see Jem Belcher or Tom Cribb. Egan’s long written commentary (‘Key to the Picture of the Fancy Going to a Fight at Moulsey-Hurst‘) on Robert Cruikshank’s twelve-foot caricature of the crowd going down for one such match is a kind of early nineteenth century reality show. It’s there to entertain and to inform, but it is essentially true. The famous Globe theatre within a few yards of the river on Bankside was next to a bear-baiting ground, now less famous. Vauxhall Gardens, like the boxing grounds, was home-from-home to scallywags as well to fine gentry. The Thames ran through the middle of London’s entertainment as well as its trade; and every Londoner to this day has some association there, even if it is only an office party on a rented steamer.

I like the urban myth that the tidal flood alarm rings when the water level goes into the mouths of enough of the decorative lion’s-head mooring rings.  When it was originally told me, it was as an actual alarm of some kind.  Since then, I find no circuitry but a rhyme:

“When the lions drink, London will sink;
When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains;
When the water is sucked, you can be sure we’re all … in trouble.”

It sounds like an ancient vulgar London nursery rhyme – yet the lions can only have been put there after the Thames was Embanked by Joseph Bazalgette late in the nineteenth century.  And the thought of Bazalgette, of course, brings up the thought of the great sewerage system he built, with its magnificent cathedrals of shit at Abbey Mills and Crossness, still there in all their cod-Byzantine glory.  Bazalgette built the Embankment, essentially a hollow dam from Tothill Fields downstream.  The District Line trains run within it; and when fibre-optic cables were new, a company hired space through the hollow to run speedy connections to the city.

T.S. Eliot knew all about the secrets of the Thames.  In the Waste Land he talks of how ‘it sweats oil and tar.’  The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, begins with a rich passage about the Mississippi, which Eliot would have known as a child growing up in St. Louis, and which is very Thames-like as he describes it:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities – ever, however implacable,

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of

What men chose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The river is within us….

 

Londoners will recognize that.  The river is within us. Perhaps the way to describe it as the subconscious of Londoners.  You don’t have to know of the buried rivers, the Neckinger and the Effra and Counters’ Creek and the Fleet which flow down to the Thames to understand how the river acts on Londoners as a mix of the individual and the shared. All Fulham fans know about the Thames at their backs; all Millwall and Charlton fans, too — although their bits of the river may not be quite so intimately close. Everybody whose car is lifted high on the giant QEII bridge between Queenhithe and Purfleet gets the view of the skyscrapers far to the west and the tankers moored almost on the mud below. Yet those very public vistas, the obvious ones, are not the ones that make up our own maps.

There is a story I like very much in Conrad. (There are lots of stories I like very much in Conrad, but it’s of this one that I’m thinking.) I’m sorry that it’s long, but Conrad likes to get his pipe well in between his teeth when he tells a story, even such a little one as this.

Behind the growth of the London waterside the docks of London spread out unsuspected, smooth, and placid, lost amongst the buildings like dark lagoons hidden in a thick forest. They lie concealed in the intricate growth of houses with a few stalks of mastheads here and there overtopping the roof of some four-story warehouse.

It is a strange conjunction this of roofs and mastheads, of walls and yard-arms. I remember once having the incongruity of the relation brought home to me in a practical way. I was the chief officer of a fine ship, just docked with a cargo of wool from Sydney, after a ninety days’ passage. In fact, we had not been in more than half an hour and I was still busy making her fast to the stone posts of a very narrow quay in front of a lofty warehouse. An old man with a gray whisker under the chin and brass buttons on his pilot-cloth jacket, hurried up along the quay hailing my ship by name. He was one of those officials called berthing-masters — not the one who had berthed us, but another, who, apparently, had been busy securing a steamer at the other end of the dock. I could see from afar his hard blue eyes staring at us, as if fascinated, with a queer sort of absorption. I wondered what that worthy sea-dog had found to criticise in my ship’s rigging. And I, too, glanced aloft anxiously. I could see nothing wrong there. But perhaps that superannuated fellow-craftsman was simply admiring the ship’s perfect order aloft, I thought, with some secret pride; for the chief officer is responsible for his ship’s appearance, and as to her outward condition, he is the man open to praise or blame. Meantime the old salt (“ex-coasting skipper” was writ large all over his person) had hobbled up alongside in his bumpy, shiny boots, and, waving an arm, short and thick like the flipper of a seal, terminated by a paw red as an uncooked beef-steak, addressed the poop in a muffled, faint, roaring voice, as if a sample of every North-Sea fog of his life had been permanently lodged in his throat: “Haul ’em round, Mr. Mate!” were his words. “If you don’t look sharp, you’ll have your topgallant yards through the windows of that ’ere warehouse presently!” This was the only cause of his interest in the ship’s beautiful spars. I own that for a time I was struck dumb by the bizarre associations of yard-arms and window-panes. To break windows is the last thing one would think of in connection with a ship’s topgallant yard, unless, indeed, one were an experienced berthing-master in one of the London docks. […] I answered him pettishly, I fear, and as if I had known all about it before.

“All right, all right! can’t do everything at once.”

It’s a properly London vision. Ninety days out of Australia, presumably with real danger to avoid. Conrad loved ships, and respected that a high spar goes around in a dancing circle of huge diameter on the sea. Half an hour in a London dock, and he’d forgotten. He might have knocked some panes out of a warehouse.

Well, I could go on but I’m warned away. Hilaire Belloc was a wonderful writer about water and the sea. His description in the Cruise of the Nona of sailing through the Portland Race is one of the great passages of descriptive prose that I know. Yet Belloc was dull about the Thames, his book about it no more than a piece of hack-writing. My own unconscious Thames sounds ponderous when dredged like this and brought to light. But what brought about this fit of river-gazing?

Nadav Kander has made a new series on the estuary, and part of it, at least, touches that same collision between private and secret with what appears to all. It is plausible to say that Kander’s greatest series so far is the one that won the Pictet Prize, on the Yangtze. It was a marvellous set of landscape photographs, but that was only its substratum. What the Long River is really about is how the little people are left behind in the new giant China, world power. Picture after picture shows huge infrastructure that the ordinary people cannot reach. A man washes a motorbike under a vast bridge with no possible way for him to ride along the top of it. There’s splendour; but also a fierce contrast between China, connected and powerful on the global scale; and its people, not yet riding the information superhighways even though they themselves are building them. It was a lot to get into a travel series, and not many photographers could have done it. But Kander did; he was already well-known by then, and for many interlinking skills; but his series on the Yangtze took him up another level. Complex thoughtful understanding expressed with great control and great harmony: it was fine photography by any standards. 

Kander St Michel 2002

Nadav Kander; Mont St.Michel, 2002

There’s another picture of Kander’s which carries a weight in this context, too. In 2002 he made a picture of the Mont St Michel which managed the amazing trick of seeing this much-photographed monument freshly. Kander’s St Michel rises in the distance above a flat wet plain, more like an illustration of John Bunyan than anything else. It’s a goal to be reached, almost a mirage. A drain winds toward it that might take us there; but it curls uncomfortably away and might not. It’s a mental vision more than a physical one, shimmering, almost at the edge of sight itself. For most of its history, this is quite precisely how Christianity has been seen. The church was almost always the highest building around, often the only one. It dominated, to be aspired to or feared. Le Corbusier cheekily noticed that grain silos in the US rose above the plain with the same kind of psychic dominance that churches used to have, and since then, buildings of many different sorts have grown far taller than any church.

In the new series, partnered with lower glances into the underbrush and into blurs of motion, Kander has done the same thing again. He has made quite a few pictures in which the vast skies of the outer Thames isolate but don’t quite crush the various buildings of the urban spread at its fringe. If I’m not quite convinced by Kander’s more nearly abstract pictures in this series nor by the companion studies of woodland, nor by his fairly routine studies of the big blocks of erosion protection – they have become fairly standard tropes of ‘accidental sculpture’ and were anyway done much better by Koudelka in panoramic format when he worked on the Transmanche Project all those years ago – then by contrast I find his pictures of buildings just on the edge of perception extraordinary.

N Kander, from a Dark Line 4

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from the Dark Line 2

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from the Dark Line

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from A Dark Line 6

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from a Dark Line 5

Nadav Kander; from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

You can think of these in the trendy vocabulary of the Anthropocene if you like – the name for the era in which the marks of man’s occupation have been left on the planet, slight at first, but more marked since roughly the start of the Industrial Revolution – but it may be better to think of them in terms of the subconscious of London. These are pictures where the superficial knowledge we have of the places we live – shared and mapped, and apparently perfectly logical – is challenged by a deeper knowledge which is personal and barely articulated: felt rather than thought. That buildings, big buildings on the scale of power stations, can disappear under huge skies is a subtle reminder of something we dare not forget, that for all the urban human history of the place, nature is still strong in the estuary, only a few miles from the city, even if sometimes our awareness of it is no stronger than the cry of a harrier far away on the marsh.

 

David Bailey – Still Troubling After All These Years

The Rio Club 1968

As you take the Docklands Light Railway back to London from David Bailey’s new exhibition it is all too easy to fall into pools of irony as deep and as dank as the great docks themselves. Bailey was born in Leytonstone, in the east of London. As he once put it, “we were posh East End, if that’s possible, but I had cardboard in my shoes and was at the bottom of this cheap private school; some of the parents had tobacconists’ shops, which was a bit posher.” London seen from the DLR is a wasteland. It wasn’t wrecked only by the bombs; they didn’t help, but they were only one element in an ungodly soup of unfettered industrial development in the early days, abysmal social housing and forced movements of people, the dock strike, the late unlamented Docklands Development Corporation, incompetent and venal borough government… The Olympics, without which there would certainly have been no exhibition here, are touted as providing ‘regeneration’ and perhaps to a minuscule extent they do. But an awful lot of lipstick has been applied to sows in the name of the Olympics, and precious few of them will look any better when it wears off.

David Bailey has an OBE, but I wonder if he turned down a knighthood at some time in the past?  It would be just like him.  But we should offer him one anyway.  Now well into his seventies, and still as passionate about photography as he ever was, Bailey has upped his game again to produce a top-notch exhibition in a former Compressor House on a blighted bit of dockside in the former Royal Docks.

I asked Bailey what used to be compressed there, and he answered off-hand, meat from Argentina. I had visions of corned beef squashed into cans. It turns out not to be quite right: it’s a big building, but it housed just the refrigeration plant. There used to be a pond on the roof to hold the water needed to circulate through the machinery. The meat from Argentina was in literally acres of cooled sheds which no longer stand next door.  It’s curiously typical of Bailey that he knew the answer, but not precisely.  He’s a considerable scholar, and a technician of the highest order. He’s meticulous about cameras and film, but he’s also impulsive and imaginative and blessed with the most astonishing reflexes.

Bailey’s exhibition takes place under the umbrella of the ‘cultural Olympiad’ with a view to leaving a cultural legacy in Newham (a particularly blighted East London borough). It was ‘produced’ by something called Create – principal sponsor, the Deutsche Bank – and the Arts Council are claiming a piece of the action, too. It would be interesting to see the real books for this farrago. It is all too easy to imagine how much less the productions of the ‘cultural Olympiad’ will have done for their putative clients than for the armies of arts administrators and other employees who have been on good or very good salaries in their name. Bailey claimed to me that he was out of pocket for the show, and I’m sure that he is, although whether that includes abstractions such as his time freely given while he spent months in the darkroom making brilliant black and white prints I have no means of telling. But I suspect from something else that he said that he had to pay for the frames. If he did, what does that say about the level of help from the Deutsche Bank? The same Deutsche Bank whose world class art collection certainly doesn’t go short of a few frames?

It is an exhibition of brilliant photography, no doubt about that at all, wide ranging and varied in both subject-matter and style, and sharp as Cockney banter for tone. It is so rich in types of photography for which Bailey has been less known – magazine-style reportage stories, topographical views, contemporary street photography – that it rewrites his reputation at a stroke. Bailey used to be known for portraits of celebrities, for horny fashion photography, and for commercial videos. Now, in his seventies, he looks much more like an acute and anxious social commentator.

Newham residents get in to Bailey’s show for free. No scope for irony there: that’s good. If one of them eventually becomes a photographer or a social scientist or a fashion maven as a result of an impetus originally found in front of a picture of the Kray twins seen in the former Compressor House of the refrigerator for the meat sheds of the Royal Albert Dock, that will be a tangible ‘Olympic legacy’.

As a matter of fact, I got in for free, too. I’m a critic and the publicity machine for ‘cultural regeneration’ needs the press. I may therefore represent a tiny irony among others. But the big ironies are there, too. As you reach the elevated sections of that ride away, on the train that was meant to be the principal infrastructure investment for the entire East London region, you see the shining towers of the cities of the plain, the Sodom of the Isle of Dogs and the Gomorrah of the City of London. You see them above a blightscape of cheap industrial units scattered around the original low-lying marshland. Bailey’s show is on the other side of the same huge dock as the City Airport. Not a single sea-going vessel is in there, not one, in what used to be one of the busy ports of the world. On the dockside, a piece of international-crap architecture, a Newham prayer for attention from the incoming jets, stands ready to be rented to corporations who just aren’t coming. It’s within a couple of miles from those great financial centres, yet there’s nothing. The people who work at the tops of those towers get their free papers from air lounges, not from among those abandoned on the seats of the Docklands Light Railway.

Kray Brothers’ Gambling Club, 1968

A framed black and white portrait hangs in a hallway.  Two children, familiar.  The little girl is hooting with laughter, the little boy solemn. The colours of the hallway are muted, the colours of old Land Rovers, army surplus colours.  A cheap paper dado rail divides the lower grey-blue (harder wearing, vaguely institutional, shows the dirt less) from the custardy cream above (futile attempt to reflect more light).  The furniture is cheap, the light bulb such a weak orange it’s almost brown.  Austerity Britain in a passageway.  Then recognition: those children are Princess Anne and Prince Charles.  And a final clue in the caption: the hallway is in the Krays’ gambling club.  Remember that TV sketch in which John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett stood in a line of diminishing height and explained about class?  You can find it on YouTube. Bailey is like that at best: pleasantly witty but hard and true and cutting underneath. And we never really knew. Here’s a portrait of an East End lady drinking a beer.  It’s in colour, but it comes straight from Bill Brandt.  More than that: it has the social sharpness of Martin Parr long before Parr himself.  This is a London that we’ve been asked to forget.  But Bailey hasn’t forgotten.

In Paris, Atget used to photograph in what was called la Zone, the area cleared of housing just outside the city wall to make a field of fire. Who was intended to be aimed at is not always so clear: it might have been the Germans after 1870; or it might (at exactly the same time) have been working Parisians after the Commune. La Zone, by the time Atget came to it, was repopulated by unofficial Paris: shanty construction, dubious trades. East London looks like la Zone, and feels like it, too. There is meant to be a new city in all this, yet to rise very far, which is Stratford, the city reborn of the Olympics. It has a large shopping centre to which people come from far and wide, to buy consumer goods with their borrowed money. The new symbol of Stratford may be the worst-conceived monument ever built in London, the gnarled knot of the ArcelorMittal tower. It’s an insane postmodernist joke, a piece of self-flagellation. It’s meant to be a brand new Eiffel tower for the Olympic park. The Eiffel tower was built for a trade fair, too, and it, too, was widely disliked at the outset. But the Eiffel tower remains stiff and proud and nothing in Paris can be built to obscure the lines of sight to it now. The Stratford tower is an Eiffel tower with brewer’s droop. It’s hard to know whether to applaud the optimism of the people who believe in the regenerative power of the Olympics, or whether to curse their naivety.

Marc Reisner wrote in the mid-1980s a searing book called Cadillac Desert, about the great US irrigation projects. He shows huge public investment in making water available in areas of the Western United States that are essentially dry was transformed into profit for private corporations. The scale of state investment was prodigious. It was a real Socialist enterprise: bringing water to Southern California almost drained the Colorado River dry. And the beneficiaries? Citrus growers. It’s the story of the film Chinatown, in which the corruption is on such a huge scale that it’s hard to see it from close up. I wonder if the same will not in the end prove to be true of the great ‘regeneration’ projects. How different will Newham really be, once the great Olympic circus has moved out of town?

Bailey knows all this. His exhibition is anything but naïve. The cumulative view of the East End that he provides is one of loss, not gain. In one picture, Abbey Mills Pumping Station, the pivot point of Bazalgette’s great north London sewage network, is given a kind of smokey glory of a Eugene Smith kind.

Stratford 1961

Abbey Mills probably quite literally saved London. Without it, London was drowning in its own shit. A huge and ambitious piece of underground engineering pumped the effluent away and one or two glorious buildings – Crossness south of the river, Abbey Mills to the North – marked the achievement. Abbey Mills, built in a splendid Victorian Byzantine style, used to have four huge minarets at its corners, but they were taken down as making it too easy for the Luftwaffe to steer by. Abbey Mils, Bailey seems to be saying, that was then; when capital contributed to cities. Further along, a picture of a cheap blue hoarding.

Stratford 2007

It blocks out the sky. It’s brighter than the sky. I don’t think it’s actually the infamous Blue Wall that locked Londoners out of the Olympic site and divided the places that would receive fancy new terrazzo surfaces from those condemned to remain in London Stock and Engineers’ Blue. This one is just a hoarding, I think, peeling. Behind it, rivetted water tanks wait to be dismantled next time the price of scrap metal goes high enough to justify it. This is now. Inadequate investment, and profit made only from money spent long ago.

Stratford, 2007

Stepney Green 2005

A sylvan river? A rural cottage? Stratford and Stepney Green respectively. Is Bailey laughing at the culture of the glamorous holiday, the city break, the Maldives and the Seychelles? You didn’t get them when you came from Leytonstone. Or is he more plainly simply showing us that cities are never just concrete and steel?

East End 1968

Some of the portraits in the show are pure Bill Brandt. A craggy drinker in a pub waves his pint high above us. It’s close to the camera, so is bigger than his head. In his other hand, at the diagonally opposite corner of the picture, his roll-up, still in pieces. Both pint and fag are expertly clutched without spillage. His hair is floppily long, not because of fashion but because it costs money to get it cut. He is of the generation that used to do even rough work in a suit: an older man behind is still in working tweed, although the hero of the picture is in some kind of decommissioned double-breasted number. I even wonder if it might not be a demob suit, almost the only thanks you got for leaving the Army at the end of the war. This picture dates from 1968, so the suit would be twenty years old if it were so, a goodish time for a suit to come down in the world. He wears a tightly knotted but not very ironed scarf around his neck, and instead of a waistcoat a brown knitted cardigan, open. He reminds me of something, but it takes me a while to place it: if he had only the wide leather belt, he would look for all the world like a member of one of the greatest of all the industrial tribes, the canal navigators.

The great boom in canal building was in the 1790s, a generation before photography. There are pictures of the canal men, though, because habits changed slowly as long the canals still functioned properly. Eric de Maré was a prince among canal photographers, and the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) gave him a long-overdue show not that long ago. Somehow Bailey seems to have read that old industrial heritage in this one man waving his pint at the camera; it’s a million miles from the other Sixties that Bailey was working at the same time. In Carnaby Street, Bailey was making a world, or helping to. In the East End, he was trying to understand the one it was replacing.

There’s great beauty in Bailey’s view of the despoliation process: he prints black and white like a silversmith chases metal. A woman in profile – headscarf and fag – in front of a wall of price tags is fully worth its predecessors by Walker Evans.

East End 2007

By the time he gets to working fast in the street with digital equipment and in colour, he finds beauty another way. A woman in a wheelchair (with a stack of Blockbuster videos hung in a bag from the handles) passes a woman in a shalwar kameez. Neither acknowledges the other, but the earthy solidity of the textiles of the wheelchair rider is pointedly contrasted against the gossamer translucence of the floating drapery. Just in case you didn’t get it first time, a lens flare acts as a miniature point of starlight. “Shh ! “, this picture says, as our grandmothers used to, “in that silence an angel passed”. In an older picture, a curiously cartoony doorway somewhere like Bethnal Green has white paint daubed next to it. So do all the other doors in the street. Lot 13. It’s an auction. Winner takes the whole street.

What to make of a show like this?
One, that the stories that Bailey has to tell are different to but no less substantial than the fashion and portraiture from which he made his name. This is a sustained and highly successful exposition of the lack of care that has been found acceptable for a substantial swathe of London and for the people who live there. The Krays are in the show, brilliantly photographed. They’re the only gangsters named, but they’re not the only gangsters present.

Two, that David Bailey has had insufficient attention. That sounds absurd. One of the most famous photographers we have? Certainly, but he’s almost never had a public show – one big one at the Barbican (and the Barbican is oddly funded, it’s not really a national venue) otherwise scraps. It is impossible to imagine a German photographer of equivalent status, a French or a Dutch, to have received so little public confirmation. Our curators really haven’t been doing their work if Bailey can unearth treasures on this scale in a few months of trawling his own files. There’s colour work here of spellbinding subtlety and control, as well as the glorious silver printing. As a little bonus, there’s a wonderful early self-portrait of Bailey as a mod, surrounded by jazz instruments.
Lots of people won’t go to this show because it’s far out on the Docklands Light Railway; well, it’s there for good reasons. And one of those reasons is that Bailey sees to it that – for any viewer with eyes in his head – the trip back will be freighted with irony.

One final footnote. I see that the show is dedicated to the late Claire de Rouen, bookseller of the Charing Cross Road, and a person whose enthusiasm for photography was the engine for an entire generation of UK practitioners. It’s an elegant gesture of Bailey’s to lift his hat to her in that way.

Sir Cecil Beaton – Earning a Royalty

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The Victoria and Albert Museum has put on a show of Sir Cecil Beaton’s royal portraits as a contribution to the diamond jubilee celebration of HM the Queen, and it has been met with predictable enthusiasm.  Lots of crowns!  Lots of gowns!

It’s actually a disappointment. Although he was almost crippled by snobbery, Beaton was capable of technical skill and imagination.  He was a charming (if slight) draughtsman, a fine designer (notably of stage sets) and his writing is shrewd as well as waspish, and often gracefully put together, too. He was a sufficiently versatile photographer. Fashion, of course, he took to as the natural milieu of the visually oriented queen, but his best portraits of artists drip with a kind of jealous scrutiny and his war photographs were by no means negligible.  One can see how the jubilee demanded a certain kind of treatment, but this is a fawning exhibition which does no favours at all to a photographer who might be more interesting than the one-dimensional view of him presented here.

Beaton was born in 1904, in the same year as Bill Brandt, and it is not absurd to compare them. Peter Conrad did just that (The Observer, Sunday 25th January 2004) at the time of their mutual centenary, when two shows allowed him to think of them side by side.  Conrad picked up on Beaton’s ‘lofty responsibility’. His job, as he put it, was ‘to stage an apotheosis’. With its ‘silvery magic’, the camera bestowed ‘a glorious halo’ on the people it portrayed.  Never mind that some of that halo, when its address was Buckingham Palace, conveniently reflected on the photographer.  It is too easy to think of Brandt as a dark European intellectual to Beaton’s childish British vampery – too easy but not inaccurate.

Brandt was born to considerable privilege, secretive and shy, interested in the poor and the dispossessed (a socialist in his photographs, even if his politics in life were less plain than that), not much appreciated in his lifetime.  Beaton came from a modest background of which he was embarrassed, was a moth, attracted to Hollywood and country house parties and all that glistered – including, it goes without saying, the royal family.  He was certainly a Tory in his photographs although he, too, was more complicated than that. He was absolutely obsessed with being appreciated.  Beaton’s natural tone was absurd: think Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films.  In a little snippet of a documentary David Bailey made on him which is screened in the V&A show, he is asked what he says to people while photographing them: “I coo like a bloody dove,” he says, camp as a row of tents.

This exhibition is designed to make a serious point, that Beaton’s pictures were one element in the campaign to modernize and stabilize the monarchy in the Windsor mould: a family business, hard at work in the service of the nation, certainly not swanning around ankle-deep in privilege.  Fair enough.  The present Queen has overseen a steadying of the monarchy at a time when it is much easier to make a name twitchily demanding change of any kind than working for stability in the long term.  Part of that steadying was to supply a steady image. Beaton contributed to that, and was happy to do so.  “ Today”, he wrote in 1953, “ members of the Royal Family realise that, the demands from the public and the Press becoming ever more voracious, being photographed is one of the serious obligations to which they must submit at increasingly frequent intervals.” It is on record that Beaton was not pleased when Anthony Armstrong-Jones became what Beaton felt he had the right to be, the senior photographer-courtier, and was ennobled in the process.

Every regime puts out official pictures, and we in Britain are luckier than some in that we don’t feel obliged to have them over every official desk in the land. Pumping out a number of reassuring pictures of Windsors at work and if necessary at home has hardly been a shocking abuse of power, and we could easily have left it at that.  The show reveals a large number of prosperous people leaning on heavy furniture in interiors with very high ceilings.  It is feeble to try to illustrate a story of the monarchy being modernised with such very conventional photography.  But still… No surprise, no  great insight, no problem.

Too much is made of Beaton’s inventiveness.  He once put the Queen in an Admiral’s cloak, for statuesque simplicity. It looks rather coarsely borrowed from Rodin’s Balzac, as though he’d found it in a book the day before the shoot. He made some ‘contemporary’ and ‘relaxed’ portraits from time to time, notably of the royal children.  There are some small signs of a photographer tying to do his best, including a charming seized moment of Princess Anne walking on ermine during a pause in the Coronation sittings, and one or two attempts to strip out background.  But this is ‘contemporary’ in the same way that any routine wedding photography business can offer you Contemporary as opposed to Traditional, just another set of rules to apply for a predictable outcome.

Many of the best pictures are a small selection of portraits of Beaton by others – patently added to flesh out a show in sore need of a lift.  Curtis Moffat, Paul Tanqueray, Erich Salomon, Irving Penn and a hilariously stagey rendition by David Bailey: this is quite a nice show within a show.  There are also some interesting mounted series of pictures approved by the Palace.  It is thin gruel, though, for a major exhibition at the V&A, far too thin.  The V&A holds some 18,000 royal pictures by Beaton. There are about a hundred in the exhibition.  If these really are the strongest we could have seen, then the holdings are a disaster.

There floats in the background a question. Beaton’s archive is somewhat messy, and there is lack of clarity about who owns exactly what copyright. Beaton worked a great deal for Vogue, and many of his pictures have a Condé Nast copyright. Condé Nast pushes out a steady stream of books on Beaton to exploit that fact. Sotheby’s also commercializes a holding of Beaton material, not very effectively, sometimes in co-production with Condé Nast and sometimes independently.  But the royal archive was a specific gift to the V&A, and the V&A benefits materially from the reproduction of every royal Beaton, although not of Beaton’s images on other subjects. Is it possible that one of the motives for this really quite poor exhibition was simply that the increased circulation of royal Beaton imagery could make a windfall for a museum which (like every other) struggles to finance its operations?

Brandt By Bailey 1982

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Brandt By Bailey 1982

A generous and technically brilliant tribute to one British photographer from another.
Here David Bailey has laid aside his own more usual style to make a portrait of Bill Brandt in something approximating Brandt’s own manner.
Result? A grand salute both to the person and to his work.