Background Noise


[Notes on photography]


1

On the way back to the main road, beneath a tangle of razor wire, the end wall of a terrace displays the half-heartedly crossed out slogan, No Islam Here. On the site of what was the adjacent, now demolished end terrace, two burnt out sofas, leatherette, in beige and black. The backdrop, Sarah is a Fucking Grass, and various now semi-legible, nonsensical scrawls. As soon as I lift the camera to shoot, “Who do you work for?” the why’s and what’s follow… “I’m a photographer,” … “For Who”… “ Me,” “ Why,” “It’s what I do.” Apparently in the 1970’s you could photograph around here, “No problem, everyone loved it,” “But now you’d get lynched.” So what the hell am I doing here?

2
My thirteenth Birthday coincided, thereabouts, with the UK release of Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind. Along with millions of others something I’d stumbled across in the pages of NME and Melody Maker. It’s not something that I’ve listened to for many years, and probably don’t need to ever again. It’s impression, at that specific time, in the context of my life as a small town, inexperienced teenager being that strong. It’s not really the music that’s of importance now either. The photography of the band on the inner sleeve exists as an ethereal memory, a half remembered ground zero that began my interest/obsession with images, their creation, power for self expression and facility to bluntly display truth. Who were these people? How did they get to do what they do? And what was it anyway? The subsequent pursuit of images and of the freedom that one image engendered has shaped my personal life in both positive and negative ways, both to the extreme. The aquisitive, aspirational life has subsequently never appealed, and left the very real, yawing gap of what do you do in it’s place?

Up until this point my relationship with photography was bound up with the often maudlin and heavily reflective relationship I have with my father, who is dead, but ever present in the copious amounts of tactile lustre, matte, and medium format chemists’ prints my mother has stashed away from the seventies. Mostly taken in Canada, the country where he lived for the best part of his short adult life. They leave the language of repression and the static comfort of nostalgia, a block to emotional development and activity but a rich language for the photograph and one I’m still trying to a shake off. But in their depiction of another place, they have also given me another language, one I wish to hold onto, that of other possibilities and exploration. Not the leisure of “Travel” but of movement and to keep doing so, however minutely at times, physically and psychologically and usually at a cost. The subsequent unfolding psychological paths becoming an unplanned exploratory life. Photography has stayed at my side, sometimes loosely, but throughout this, to record the denial of the static, “The frustrations of confinement,” and the comforts of repression and nostalgia. Wanderlust you might say.

3: Early Pastorals

At the heart of the Pastoral is the ideal of perfect harmony mixed with the constant threat of disaster. In 19th century landscape painting, natural beauty, the country idyll and it’s ways of life are threatened by the oncoming industrial revolution, the loss of the green land and agricultural community to the expansion of capitalist, industrialised cities. With it comes the bucolic, psychedelic romanticism of Samuel Palmer, and the loss of innocence in Blake. It is the poetry provided by this juxtaposition of the stable pasture, the industrial and their moral counterparts, that are the Pastoral image. In the 21st Century the revisiting of these ideas within eco-criticism and re-appraisals of early communes like the Diggers have given the unwittingly docile image of the pastoral a radical edge. For capitalism to continue it must maintain it’s expansion into the remaining green areas of both the physical and moral world. On a finite planet this is clearly problematic. Between 2008 and 2011, I began to make a body of work that would explore the radical possibilities of the Pastoral in the 21st Century. However, I quickly realised that it was the act of there pursuit that became empowering rather than the completed image; the exploration of the wilder and picturesque parts of the landscape led to a personal admission that I found the present state of things disturbing, the act of roaming became a political as well as an aesthetic pursuit. However, the creation of pastoral imagery as a kind of protest is problematic due to the debilitating fact that it’s Ideals, foremost, the retreat from society, are invariably liveable only by those whose lives are uncompromised by financial necessities or they remain the descriptive tools of academics. As with the Back to the Land movements of the sixties, pastoral visions rather than fulfilling their potential as catalysts for change become fashion, endless variations and –ism, as seen in contemporary trends of psychedelia and festival culture. All of which are of course market driven. From the failings of this process I found the power in the pastoral lies not in the depiction of the retreat from, but in the confrontation of the contemporary urban and the failings of progress. But such a shift in aesthetic would come later.

Before the Pastoral or the dystopian was of any interest to me I was living right in the middle of it; at the centre of a triangle marked out by the towns of Hull, York and Bridlington. An area made up of wealthy farmers land, poor farmers land and the landed Gentry. Now best known through the paintings of David Hockney. It is dull olive green and grey in winter, and a glowing patch-work of iridescent yellow oilseed and fluorescent green fields of grass in Summer. Add to this, rural and small town poverty, no work, neglected estates, several of the UK’s largest power stations and you have the perfect contemporary eulogy for a fading English Pastoral.

In the early nineties at the end of our small estate was a five acre patch of waste land, “ The Field,” [now houses,] to the left another estate, to the right impenetrable hawthorn hedges, beyond that more farmers’ fields. At the far end from the houses a drainage ditch marked the end of “The Field.” Over the other side, a patch of overgrown scrub land, beyond that the railway line running from Hull to Bridlington.
For my fifteenth birthday I got an Olympus instant compact camera. You could set it to indoor mode, outdoor mode, sports-mode (never used) and flash on or off. A few photos exist from this time, one of the chalk quarry (on the edge of town) a self-portrait and a shot of the scrub and copse of trees where we used to drink and smoke. They are used for the basis of the work, Prospects ’94 made in 2016. Naïve, badly executed but like all good punk, art and literature they have sustained the vitality of their honesty over the years. The act of photography became part of the performance of been a teenager and left a record for us to look back on, evidence that we existed and were doing something to shape our future. We were making somewhere out of nowhere.
The semi-rural, semi-Industrial landscapes from this period have formed the basis for all my subsequent work in one form or another. They provided the clashes of wealth and poverty, the industrial and the rural, and the romanticism of open spaces for the mind to envision another way of doing things and making your way in the world. When the wanderlust has faded and the comforts of nostalgia and denial mix with a desire for a fixed sense of home it is to here that I return, to re-centre myself amidst the images of my own personal nostalgia. I walk for miles, photograph some more, relive the past, note the changes, and thankfully leave.


4: Snow in Tokyo

On January 14, 2013, I found myself walking across Shinjuku-Koen. A huge park at the centre of perhaps Tokyo’s most famous commercial centre. I was on my way to the opening of my own exhibition at Diado Moriyama’s exhibition space, Place M. The exhibition was entitled, B-Types, [Photography Will Eat Itself.] Later that evening it would snow heavily, stopping the JR rail network for several hours. Five, very kind, cold, people came to the opening. Over the next week though, there were a couple of hundred visitors and I gave an awkward bi-lingual Q&A session for students at the centre.

On arriving in Japan a year earlier, all my own personal, cultural and linguistic references had disappeared by the time I had left Narita airport. Here my personal and cultural history was of no relevance and the traditions in which I had made work were of little use. But what they did give me was photography as a way of deconstructing, and re-articulating the world around me, however alien that may be.
I worked as an English teacher in a Junior High School in Yokohama, but struggled with insomnia and anxiety pitched to a level I didn’t know existed and dumped the contract after six months.
Thankfully, I was here with my wife Tomoko, aka anti-cool, a performance artist from, Yokosuka City at the South end of Tokyo Bay, [We met two years earlier in, Cardiff] otherwise I would have left. Over the following year I used the money from teaching to live simply and explore the southern area of Yokohama where we lived, downtown Tokyo, and made several trips across country, shooting pretty much everything.
For the Japanese photographer It’s the book rather than the exhibition that is the aim. The history of this has been well covered, specifically the period of the late sixties and early seventies, known as the Provoke era, a period of rapid Americanisation, both spiritual and physical of Japanese cities, the Zengakuren student movements and the activist struggles surrounding the development of Narita airport. At the centre of this was the former editor, essayist, Takuma Nakahira, of the magazine, Gendai No Me, The Contemporary eye. After meeting Daido Moriyama, he turned his attentions to photography as a vehicle for articulating the highly political urban environment of early 70’s Tokyo, and the shift from one state of being, Japanese, to Americanised Japanese. In his early masterpiece, For a Language to Come, he took all this apart from the inside, and in heavy black photogravure presented the alienation of cultural displacement, colonisation and the dark psychological states of encroaching capitalism. It is a reductionist world with no release or room for nostalgia. Following an alcohol related breakdown in the mid 70’s, from which he suffered memory loss affecting his speech and language recall, he continued to photograph in his local area. He was largely ignored for the next thirty years. He died in 2015, aged 77, in Yokohama.

Leaving Yokohama on the Southbound, Kehin-tohoku line, you head into suburban Japan, an area made up of independently governed local wards, Negishi, Isogo, Konandai, etc all a labyrinth of nameless side streets known by confusing combinations of numbers. The train line weaves in and out from the coast of Tokyo Bay and takes you through the densely populated jigsaw puzzle that is local Japan. At Isogo this is interrupted by heavy industry; an enormous power station, that, in post Fukushima, Japan, adds an intimidating aspect to the landscape. In the foreground a three storey road network that converges to take you back north toward, Kawasaki and Tokyo. Along side this runs the ubiquitous, wood framed, plastic clad housing in browns and creams that dominate the hillsides and line the mazes of streets. A facade broken by the neon signage of Toys ‘R’ Us and Mr Donut. Sakae-Ku is the most southerly ward of Yokohama. Leaving the train here at Hongodai station and heading across the forecourt you’ll see the Handsome Barber, Dotour [Japanese Coffee Shop, favourite among salarymen], a small Manga shop, KFC, McDonalds and a couple of local grocers shops. Turn left and you’ll see a bicycle parking lot, Fuji Supermarket, and next door the World Peace Community Centre where I learned Japanese every Thursday night for free. The peace centre is the community hub, where young families and older generations hang out, take workshops on Ikebana, learn languages and volunteer community groups organise street cleaning, gardening and local maintenance projects. It contains a small library focusing on ecology and themes of world community. It also contains a large and truly horrific collection of oversized books documenting the atrocities of the 2nd World War. Images depicting the effects of the American fire bombing of Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The landscapes of suburban Japan can be extreme in their functionality and contradictory disordered micro-street systems. The houses are plastic not paper and wood, and it’s common to see row upon row of what look like communist state housing projects of grey concrete. The rivers are lined with more concrete and take on the look of large overflow drains, but surprisingly, are often full of golden carp and terrapins. Overhead the streets are a spider web of incomprehensible electric wiring and electrical connection-units. However, if you live their long enough, you realise this is all for a reason. Most of Japan’s interior is mountainous and uninhabitable on a large scale, which means a 160 million people are crammed into the lowlands around the edge of the islands, the majority of these around Tokyo Bay. Add to this the constant threat of earthquakes and a street system that has developed out of a network of small villages, and you have your answers to the abundance of concrete and exposed, easily accessible, electricity supply and a preference for light easily replaceable materials. It’s amidst this that you find ancient trees bound in thick handmade ropes marking the presence of a local God and the small red shrines of Shinto. The Japan specific religion that imbues its landscapes with the spiritual energies of nature. Approach the shrine, ring the bell, clap twice and say your prayer.

In Japan, the words changed. Time, place, memory and nostalgia became, The Record. Raw images relaying direct experience, printed in the most rudimentary harsh black and white. Graphic representations from a life in constant movement, quickly produced and describing the psychology of the experience as abstract journeys of the Self. The images were edited, printed, laid out, re-shot, layered, ripped, stuck together and burned. One process was destroying another, the outcome unknown.

An extract from the B-Types exhibition text reads:

The work explores the performative nature of the photographer in an alien landscape and how photography can be used as a tool for finding and establishing an identity in that unfamiliar environment. Thinking of the work as traces from such activity the images become a document of what it’s like to be alive and aware in a process of constant change, uncertainty and renewal.

5: The Big Society

Under the cloud of extensive visa issues which would separate my wife and me for over a year, and still effect us today, I returned to the UK and drifted for a while back at my Mother’s home and the landscapes of my childhood. I made a series of aesthetically successful pastorals during this period, entitled Block Social, but the energy was gone, they said nothing of my current circumstances, offering only the option of hiding in the past. I subsequently produced a book of the B-types work. Another two, Cockroach and Sunless quickly followed made up from the remnance of my B-Types work and new imagery from a further trip to the west coast and southern Islands of Japan made in 2013. My Life was now split between two cultures and restricted by new immigration policies that continue to divide the rights of the rich and poor, separating families and children from parents. The insomnia was back and I was wide-awake for the process of separation and the realisation that what you are told, brought up to believe and what is reality are entirely different things, that certain presumed realities are actually only paper thin.

All of this was taking place while the news was talking about the government’s policies of inclusion and equality of representation for the poor and the wealthy, supposedly to be delivered through its programme of reforms. They called it the Big Society. What happened to it I don’t know, it just kind of faded out of sight and stopped been mentioned.

6:

If you walk everywhere taking photos, and for long enough, you reach a state similar to the feeling of a long-haul flight. All you are left looking at are the workings of your own mind. You are reflected back on your self, all the fears and defects of character magnified. Walking from the old shopping centre in Stratford, East London, to the West End, taking the straightest route: Stratford Road, Mile End Road, Cheapside, High Holborn, Centre point, Oxford Street, Hyde Park… you experience the widening gaps of wealth and poverty written in the architecture and shifting environments of the contemporary city. The same city, different worlds. Differences that are integral to the basic structure of a city, but after years of talk about bridge building, regeneration and sustainable economies, plus the recent experiences of the banking crisis, they are differences that seem ever more grotesque and harder to accept.

After more than a year, but not indefinitely, Tomoko had been allowed to return to the UK and with Tareq, Jana, Richard, Jamal, Rachel, Stuart, [Together we covered four continents] we found ourselves squeezed into an overpriced three bedroom, one bathroom house in the immigrant commuter belt of East London. All highly educated and all getting by, just, on zero hour, minimum, and sub-minimum wage illegal contracts, transported to and fro on over crowded night-buses and the first trains of the day to work 10 or 12 hour shifts in the service industries that support the commerce of the West End. Working anti social hours, living in shared rooms in shared houses, disillusionment crept in about pretty much everything I’d taken for granted politically, the country I lived in and most worryingly, spiritually. A process of erasure was in place that would change not only my perspectives about society, but me, and with it the fundamental purposes of producing art and images.


7

While still in Japan my wife had begun making a film, now entitled, Plena Rondo: Leaving language [Plena Rondo meaning Full Circle in Esperanto.] It’s a documentary about the power of language to divide and create hierarchies within a globalised society and the invented language Esperanto. The aim of which is a borderless society united through a universal language. In 2014 she received a grant to document the 99th annual convention of Esperanto, held at the Pan American Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The theme of that year’s convention was how to actively pursue a more inclusive, and greener future.

Outside the hotel window on the, 9 de Julio Avenue, the drums were beating, the riot police lining up behind their shields, and a large group of locals were unrolling flags displaying slogans and the graphic emblem of two entwined black fists. They were here to protest the living conditions they had to endure in the poverty ridden slum area of north Buenos Aires, as opposed to the south, a city of open parks and European style boulevards reminiscent of Madrid. Apparently the council’s promise of reliable electricity and water supplies had never appeared. From the crowd an old man of Indian descent walked towards me. He was carrying a flag in one hand and pointing to his chest with the other, I take his photo; he says nothing, turns around and disappears back into the crowd. A twenty storey high image of Eva Peron, covering the upper part of an apartment block provided the backdrop to this scene.
Two days later, at the far end of the Plaza de Mayo is the Ministerio de Economia, outside of which, crowds were gathering and awaiting news about the US decision to sure up the longstanding loans that were keeping the Argentine economy solvent. It is also where mothers sit in dignified silent protest in memory of their sons lost to the disappearances of the 1970’s.

On the first of May, 2015, I followed row upon row of organised union marches, defending the rights of workers from various sections of public industry across Athens. Many of the protesters hadn’t been paid for months and when they did get paid couldn’t access their money that wasn’t really worth anything anyway. I followed them from the left wing district of Exarchia, to Syntagma Square, the seat of Athenian government. The streets we passed through were so densely covered in graffiti it was hard to distinguish the function of one building from the next. It appeared a mad collage of frustration, resentment and boredom. The inevitable aesthetic of grinding poverty, accompanying crime, addiction and violence. The protests were peaceful well organised and often celebratory. Two weeks later the streets would be furthered scarred by petrol bombs and brutality as yet another round of promised political reforms and bailouts failed to bring any changes. Since then Athens has faded from our screens and papers. Presumably it’s exactly the same for the people who live there.

8

Soon after our return to the UK we quit London. The atmosphere was becoming unbearable and it crept into everything. The art I liked looked unworldly, commercial even when it claimed otherwise, the photography I saw, like my earlier work, looked learned and overly dependent on theory and expensive presentation. Put simply it said nothing about my current life.

The fractured, transitory nature of recent years has sharpened the desire for settlement and consistency. Linking the conflicting states of movement and settlement are the photographs. The images offering a consistent record of the elusive self as it passes between the two. A record of the ego, bread crumbs marking the trail from the supposed sense of Home to the peripheries of the uncertain, unsettled self; projected onto an ever changing series of environments and reflected back again through the lens. The act of photography practiced over time becoming Security itself, the familiar process, that long sort consistency.
With demands of the transitory the presentation of the work has changed from the singular framed image to tightly edited collections of work displayed in books magazines and collections of cheap machine prints and photocopies arranged in thematic chapters. The recent work can be seen as an aesthetic challenge to the ideas of progress and equally as an ongoing archive of snapshots and ephemera from a life in transit. The most recent chapters in this process, The River and the City and The Big Society shot 2016 in Liverpool, are explorations of the aesthetics of urban degeneration/ regeneration. A harder aesthetic focusing on the architecture of poverty at the edges of society where the myths and securities of progress disappear.

Its 5:30 am, it’s raining heavily, I’m walking to work. A woman, highly agitated and wearing pajamas crosses the street to ask where the nearest 24 hr garage is. “ I don’t know.” In response she makes some arm gestures as if she’s crazy and runs on. I head on down by the E-cigarette shop and cut through Asda car park, think about the people we lived with in London and keep walking.

Tim freeman,
Picton Library, Liverpool, 3-2016
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