Thursday, 20 August 2009

Panic on the Streets of London: 1. Southwark

One of the photographers I have tried hard to copy most slavishly is Steve Diet Goedde. His last name is pronounced "Geddy", like Geddy Lee from the progressive rock band Rush. Geddy Lee is the one who sings and stands at the front of the stage, and yet the words he sings were written by the drummer! Only in the world of progressive rock can that kind of twisted band dynamic exist and thrive. Outside the world of progressive rock, drummers are not generally noted for their ability to write lyrics, or indeed communicate in any way that does not involve hitting things and shouting. You can go a long way in this word by hitting things and shouting, or by shouting and threatening to hit things.

You know how prog rock is essentially rock music for nerds? Well, Rush are a prog rock band for the nerdish class of prog rock fans; they are ultra-nerds, the nerds that nerds listen to. Perversely this shields them from the ridicule that is cast towards most progressive rock, firstly because there is a sense that they are too obvious a target, and secondly because the nerds of yesterday dominate the world of today, and look back fondly on their youth. The modern world is the wet dream of a nerd circa 1980. A world where men can look at pictures of naked women without having to go to a pornography shop first. A world where little men can insult big men without fear of retribution. A world where people can buy groceries and gadgets and everything without having to get out of bed and wash and shave.

Goedde's photography gives the impression that San Francisco is full of beautiful, tall, leggy women in latex outfits, who stand around waiting for a photographer to come along and turn on his funk motor. I'm sure that the reality is very different, and that a lot of hard work and wasted effort and mobile phone conservations and deadlines and long journeys and late nights and blisters and sweat and tears and anger and joy and frustration etc went into Goedde's art, but none of it is apparent on the other side of the screen, on the other side of the Atlantic, many years after the fact. The impression is all that counts, because that is all people ever see, and I see a fantasy world of exotic creatures prowling a science fiction dreamscape. A good photographer must be a master of creating an illusion that causes the muscles in people's wallets to twitch.

And so I have set out to create my own dream world, in the only major city at my disposal: London. The most obvious practical problem is that London is not a science fiction dreamscape. It is a filthy dump. The people of London are born, and flow into the city in the same way that the blood from a slaughtered cow flows down a drain, into the drain, where it sits and reeks. London's population would have mutated to death if it was not for a steady trickle of genetic material from outside the city; and of late this genetic material has increasingly come from outside Britain. Nonetheless it will be many centuries before Londoners are as attractive as our cousins on mainland Europe.

It is popular amongst certain parts of the British media to argue that immigrants are crowding out the indigenous population, and that presumably we should close the borders and breed with each other until everybody is everybody's brother and sister and we are all squid-like blobs. Based on my observations of the native-born inhabitants of Britain, if it is the case that the outside world is flooding into Britain - displacing people who probably displaced other people, many centuries ago - it is not a bad thing. I warn you that if the BNP come into power, it will not be long before Britain's population becomes so ugly that British people will be unable to stand the sight of each other, and will have to wear paper bags over their heads all the time. No doubt the paper bags will be encrusted with snot and vomit and tomato sauce.

Nonetheless, and hard as it to believe, the people of London are the cream of Britain's genetic pool, drawn from all over the country, lured by the promise of money and sex and glamour and the London Transport Museum, which is a fascinating place. As a consequence of this and the aforementioned genetic diversity, there are a few attractive Londoners to be found. And I have found some of them.

London's urban environment is a mixture of decay for the most part, with a few well-kept tourist areas plus the City of London, which is a theme park designed to resemble a naive child's idea of New York. Southwark has a few legacies of 1960s socialist town planning, but from a photographic point of view these brutally ugly estates and high-density housing projects are not an ideal subject. The problem is that they were done to death during the Mod and Punk eras. Unless you have been asked by a Mod band to recreate the cover of The Jam's "This is the Modern World", London's tower blocks are passé.

The general brutality of London's urban environment is nonetheless fully in keeping with the brutality of London's population, but it also makes for an interesting contrast with the soft, yielding radiance of attractive female flesh. It would also make for an interesting contrast with the soft, yielding radiance of a giant squid, or an octopus - assuming such a creature could be suspended in front of the camera, without simply flopping all over the street - but that is another topic for another day. There are many similarities between women and squid. They are mysterious creatures with soft bodies, who occasionally feed on fish, and would probably lose a fight against a giant whale.

Dot dot dot. Having written those words and pondered them for a few moments - the bit about tower blocks, not squid - and having gone over some of the photographs I took, it strikes me that I have essentially recreated the covers of The Clash and The Ramones' debut albums, except in colour, and with more attractive subjects. That must have been what was going through my subconscious mind at the time. And yet there are only so many ways to photograph a person standing in front of a wall or in an alleyway. You can have the person standing right up against the wall, in which case you need to make sure that the wall is either visually bland, or that it frames them; or you have have the person standing a distance from the wall, so that it is blurred into oblivion.

On a whim I chose Southwark, which is within easy walking distance of the River Thames. It is a semi-trendy area, a kind of blander version of Shoreditch, with an interesting mixture of railway bridges, construction sites, narrow streets, nooks, crannies, stairwells, doorways etc. There is nothing famous there. The railway bridges are extremely useful for the shade they provide. Direct sunshine is terrible for portraits. It casts harsh shadows and causes the model to squint, and it forces the photographer to use narrow apertures so as not to overwhelm the sensor. Shade produces naturally diffuse, soft light, and the dimness allows for the use of wider apertures, the better to blur out the background.

When shooting portraits in the open it is useful to have somewhere nearby to change clothes, such as the toilet of a local Starbucks or Caffé Nero. Whilst writing that last sentence I came up with the idea of a joke, or at least a pun, something to do with Nuns changing their habits in a toilet, but I need to work on it and polish it up. When I have honed the joke properly I will share it with you, but not before then.

This is the end of the first part. I have hit upon a blogging revolution, whereby instead of writing an enormously-long and unwieldy single post that I cannot effectively proofread and manage, I will split it into thousand-word chunks. There will be a second part, in which I discuss The Law and my ignorance of it, and no doubt a third in which I discuss technology, and probably a fourth if I keep digressing with nonsense about squid etc.