Photography and Urban Change

Our second Landscape Surgery of 2019, titled ‘Photography and Urban Change’, was convened by Katherine Stansfeld, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. We were delighted to be joined by two guest speakers: Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil, a Lecturer of Social Geography at the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University, and Gill Golding, an urban photographer and Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Dr. Oli Mould, lecturer in Human Geography in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, responded to the two speakers as a discussant and encouraged further discussion from the rest of the room.

To commence the session, Katherine presented a screen capture video of her navigating the Woodbury Down Estate in Hackney, London, using Google Street View. When moving around the site, the views shown in the video changed drastically, as the Street View platform had stitched together images taken at different stages of the estate’s recent redevelopment. Katherine used the video to express the ambivalent relationship of visual technologies such as Google Maps towards urban change, asking the group to question what this means for the (re)production of spaces, and why it is important to document and engage with our changing cityscapes – a point which remained at the heart of later discussion.

The session moved swiftly to our first guest speaker, Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil, whose presentation was entitled ‘Visualizing the urban via polarized landscapes’. In the study of photography and urban change, Geoff proposed a critical and constructive visual approach, suggesting that we must not avoid the visual or take it for granted, as geographers have in the past (Rose, 2003; Driver, 2003), but think critically around visual data. For Geoff, images begin the conversation, not end it.  And indeed, in thinking beyond simply ‘what can be seen’, the urban visual is also about the invisible; that which hides in plain sight. The aim with Geoff’s photographic projects has been to start conversations, document and expose, raise questions and challenge assumptions through visual methods – a need that he claimed is greater than ever in the ‘Instagram’ era of today’s society.

Geoff’s work adopts a range of visual methods based on 25 years of photographing cities and their increasingly unequal and polarized landscapes, which he recognises as a form of ‘slow research’. This is a purposeful reaction to the current state of urban studies, Geoff’s disciplinary background, which he contends is characterised both by conceptual overreach and empirical modesty. For example, in response to the prevalence of theory deriving from the Global North in understanding cities, Geoff has curated carefully-selected picture collections from his portfolio that blur images from cities in the Global North and South. By highlighting their similarities as much as their differences, these collections illuminate how cities often do not adhere to Northern conceptions of urban life as much as scholars tend to believe.

Another interest of Geoff’s is in using image-driven methods to explore the landscapes of power that exist within what he calls urban ‘backwaters’. In his presentation, this centred on photographs that document processes of forgetting and remembering: such as African-American graveyards in the US that have become overgrown and untended, or the placing of painted bicycles in locations where cyclists have been killed on roads in European and North American cities. Linking these image collections with his interest in making the invisible visible, Geoff also presented photographs that seek to highlight the hidden labour that takes place in cities across the world – from people waiting for work, shoe shining and recycling in Global South cities, to window-washers on skyscrapers in Canary Wharf.

The final part of Geoff’s presentation considered photographs that engage directly with processes of urban change: images of the interstitial. In this regard, Geoff’s work makes particular use of time-series and juxtaposition. For the former, this has included images that document processes of redevelopment rather than the commonplace fetishization of urban decline; while elsewhere Geoff has photographed time-series where seemingly nothing has changed within the space of a year or multiple years.

For the latter, Geoff’s juxtapositions have studied the relationships between ‘power landscape’ and ‘backwater’, fixed and mobile in cities. In one particular example, Geoff illustrated this tension with a photograph of a large plane flying low over a nearby residential area close to Heathrow, which is under threat from the airport’s potential expansion. In the Global South, Geoff has explored the same tensions by photographing informal settlements, such as shanty towns, that are situated within a stone’s throw of skyscrapers that tower behind them.

geoff

Geoff presenting a photograph of the ‘gentrifying edge’, another of his juxtapositions, exposing the borderlines of urban redevelopment

Poignantly, Geoff finished by presenting photographs he had taken of Grenfell Tower after the June 2017 fire. Situated in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Geoff’s juxtaposition of the burnt skeleton of Grenfell Tower amidst a background of newly-built buildings illustrated the stark inequalities prevalent in processes of urban change.

Ultimately, Geoff intends to use his photography as a catalyst to continue conversations around visual urbanism as a way of doing research – of how to approach current debates in urban studies from a less distant and desktop approach, and visual methods from a more infused urban theoretical background.

Following Geoff’s presentation, our second invited speaker was Gill Golding. Her presentation discussed the process of making Welcome to the Fake, a series of photographs focusing on the recent redevelopment of King’s Cross in London, and its wider significance for diversity in spaces of urban regeneration.

Having taught in the King’s Cross area in the 70s, when it had a reputation for crime, dereliction and poverty, Gill was shocked to see the extent of change when she returned to London in 2012, and later in 2016. Describing what she witnessed as somehow lacking in reality, she began employing what she calls her ‘ground-based approach’ to photography: walking copiously in the locality over a long period of time, before eventually taking photographs that spoke to her experience of inhabiting environments that felt ‘simulated’.

In stark contrast to the deprivation Gill recounted from a few decades ago, King’s Cross is now being marketed as London’s ‘hottest’ area – a vibrant hub for young professionals and creatives, supported by a host of brands that people typically associate with wealth. This is evident from the types of hoardings that surround the site. Gill explained that she often photographs hoardings because they tell you a great deal about imagination – how we envision places to be. These imaginations can be derived from the use of language, with words such as ‘unique’ implying a certain exclusivity – that you are ‘special’ in some way for being there – but also in how people are represented in their images. In this case, the hoardings depicted mainly white, younger people; but most strikingly for Gill, she remarked that you never see images of young people just ‘hanging out’. They were always doing something purposeful, as if their presence in the space were tightly choreographed, contributing to the sense of unreality that Gill detected from walking around the development.

As an artist, Gill’s response to this feeling was to take photos that mimicked the simulated images the developers displayed on hoardings at King’s Cross, such that they were effectively indistinguishable from the site’s promotional material. This took no small effort on her part. She had to wait a long time for moments when just the right number of people occupied the space, all behaving ‘appropriately’ in the manner you would expect to see in approved images of the development – walking calmly through the space, using street furniture, on-site businesses and amenities, and not doing anything to contradict the intended purposes of the space.

View Gill’s photographs for Welcome to the Fake here.

Through this process, Gill’s photographs demonstrated how the regenerated spaces of King’s Cross really do operate in the ways that their developers imagined – which is to say, in a highly choreographed, ordered and functional manner that leaves little room for behaviours and events that deviate from the simulations.

Asserting that cities are characterised by spaces of surprise and spontaneity, Gill claimed that the redeveloped areas of King’s Cross are, in contrast, spaces characterised by micromanagement. Being privately-owned spaces, security employees are always on-hand to keep the ‘wrong’ type of people out; the water fountains shoot water in highly coordinated patterns; the architecture is bland and uninspiring; the trees are manicured with precision; and even the grass is fake. The entertainments provided in the ‘public’ areas of the development are carefully vetted, whether it is live acts or televised films and events being shown on big screens. In line with the world portrayed on the hoardings, these really aren’t spaces where young people feel they can just hang out – and all of this has significant implications for diversity in what is one of London’s most diverse boroughs. For ultimately, what types of entertainment are shown and what behaviours are allowed say a lot about how welcoming the site’s spaces are to different kinds of people.

Gill concluded her presentation by arguing that gentrification, following Anna Minton (2017), is not a strong enough word to describe the nature of urban change that is taking place at locations such as King’s Cross. It is a transformation marked by inequality and socio-spatial polarisation, pervasive and undemocratic control by private corporations, a lack of social diversity, and a choreography of the space that is fundamentally different from the spontaneity we typically associate with urban public spaces.

Following the presentations from Geoff and Gill, Dr. Oli Mould responded to the two speakers as a discussant.

Oli began his discussion by using Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) triad of the production of space as a framework for thinking about the presenters’ work on urban photography: representations of space, representational spaces and spatial practices. In Geoff and Gill’s talks, Oli suggested, representations of space denote the ways that the city is visualised; particularly the ‘utopian’ simulated images that create certain imaginations of the city, such as those appearing on the hoardings described by Gill. Representational spaces of urban photography are the surfaces that we project such images onto. The two presentations drew particular attention to the borders and barriers between different zones of development, such as Geoff’s juxtapositions, and the boundaries between what is visible and invisible. As Gill’s discussion of the diversity portrayed in redevelopment imagery highlights, photography can both reveal and mask the power relationships that shape urban landscapes. Lastly, spatial practices here referred to creative acts of photography and the materialities associated with these practices, such as the technologies used to produce the images, or the particular methods undertaken as part of the process.

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Oli using the whiteboard to explain Henri Lefebvre’s triad of the production of space

With this theoretical approach in mind, what can Geoff and Gill’s visual work help us to understand about how urban space is (re)produced?

What Oli gleaned from their presentations was the ability of photography to bring the unknowable to the fore; finding creative ways to illustrate how certain spaces are produced through interrelationships of distinct representations of space, representational spaces and spatial practices that are not always obvious to us. Yet Oli also warned that we are experiencing the loss of the right to create the city in this way, especially through the fetishization of the urban image. Connecting to Gillian Rose’s talk in Egham the day before this session on ‘seeing the city in digital times’, he remarked upon the proliferation of urban images as a result of digital media, which have enabled us to create and share photographs instantaneously and en masse. The images we produce on a daily basis can easily get lost in the overwhelming quantity of visual data communicated digitally, meaning that the political power of taking a photograph has become more difficult to extract. For example, images of homeless people have become canon in urban photography, and this expectation has served to normalise the occurrence of homelessness in cities.

The challenge that Oli identifies for urban photography, then, is to find ways to reclaim the emancipatory potential of urban photo-taking. In what ways might photography enact a democratic method of engaging with the city, and what possibilities could this entail for urban futures?

We’d like to thank our two presenters Geoff and Gill for sharing their innovative and important work with us, and Oli Mould for directing what was a lively and insightful discussion, delving into the possibilities and pitfalls of photography as both a method and object of study for making sense of urban change.

References

Driver, F. (2003) “On Geography as a Visual Discipline” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 35(2): 227-231.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital: Who’s London For?. London: Penguin.

Rose, G. (2003) “On the Need to Ask How, Exactly, Is Geography “Visual”?” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 35(2): 212-221.

Written by Jack Lowe and Alice Reynolds

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