Ways of Remembering
About three years ago whilst in conversation with a local gallery owner, I was offered a succinct observation about the type of photography I find myself doing most of the time.
Whilst I love most types of it, I have a particular interest in landscape photography; typically urban landscapes with an architectural focus. For me, the way I choose to capture and subsequently present my images is often about tapping into an expression of my own state of mind at the time and more broadly, the loneliness some of us feel amidst the great urban sprawl of things. Appreciably, it’s sometimes purely about a pretty picture but much of the time my photographs pop out from this deeper well of thought and memory, whether you can notice that or not. I’m very particular: even pernickety about how they’re edited, down to micro-levels of of contrast, sharpening and colour toning and how this expression contributes to that greater, broader, holistic picture I have in my head, and often my heart.
So that’s me.
But despite all this, something intrinsically important is going on behind the scenes of this creative flourish and emoting. This gallery owner had something else to add, something that as an architect is quite obvious to me and is at the core of my very profession. It’s the architectural raison d’etre. Things get built but to make that happen these days, usually something needs to be destroyed. Photographs of the built environment are thus not only important to the photographer philosophically, intellectually and in all likelihood, emotionally, they are also important historically, as a record of what’s here now and is sure to be gone quicker than we probably think.
We’ve all experienced this with portraits or family photographs. Looking back on images of ourselves from only a few years ago can be revealing. How different we are. Often this is just because we look ‘younger’ but photographs, being the mass-narrative tool they are, can also reveal differences beyond the chronology of our years; we look different because we were different. Whilst I strongly believe our core ‘self’ never really changes even over the course of decades, photographs allow us a halcyon-scan of different lives, lived differently. Personality traits emerge that were otherwise forgotten. Photographs track key points in our lives as a diary or journal would and when viewed from one particular perspective, can be even as revealing as the most observant and self-reflective words. They carry with them the fuel for something even more powerful than simple words: imagination. With the rare exception of the omnipotent, no one can remember everything about their past years although we generally remember key points along the way. More crucially to this idea, we remember the memories themselves, which by process of time and chaos theory and whatever else, means different and imagined strains of memory. Viewing a photograph of ourselves is a quick way back into this misshapen but no less important personal history.
Buildings, in a sense, are no different.
North American light painter maestro Troy Paiva dedicated himself to capturing old relics of the modern age because he knows how quickly some things disappear. Amusement parks, ‘50s Cold War era military installations, poorly located stadiums, towns with no reason for being once the industry disappears. Many such places burn to life at their offset at the whim of trend or opportunity and often fizzle away, derelict and bordering on ruinous for a time, until the scavengers and the vandals strip them to their bones and eventually they’re demolished to make way for a new housing estate or shopping mall. In turn, the process may well repeat. This is the reality of our world and it’s the reality of architecture and development. As great a thing as a building can be, given the time, effort and energy expended to make it happen, it has an end-point. Most buildings these days are expected to last somewhere in the order of thirty to fifty years maximum, some considerably less. The relentlessness of technological progress, leavened with trend and maintenance in mostly equal parts means that buildings built today, no matter how advanced we would have them, will be tomorrow’s lost souls. The people designing house additions with commercial ceiling tiles in the ‘70s envisaged them as forward thinking back then. Now they are simply nasty and fortunately quite rare.
Things get built and things get destroyed and it starts over again. At no time was this attitude more recklessly apparent than in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Australia when beautiful examples of pioneering heritage architecture were destroyed to make way for the latest trend in building: slabs of cubicled, sparely articulated modernism. This was forward thinking back then, if not perhaps a little lazy but it was accepted and celebrated. Time has not been kind to many of the buildings that were raised up from what some would think of as a kind of merciless ruination, however some of the more tasteful and elegant of these modernist monoliths are classics and deserve to stay around as long as someone’s happy enough to look after them. All that said, we now have a more enlightened and, in some quarters, almost militant attitude towards the retainment of old buildings. I endorse this approach in most instances. But it is also a reality of the universe that things get built and things get destroyed.
From time to time, I see the wonderful images of the department store and hotel at the end of Adelaide’s Rundle Mall that was replaced with an award-winning multi-storey carpark or the famous Exhibition Building, an ornamental classic that was demolished in the early ‘60s to make way for the underground carpark adjacent the Adelaide University’s Napier Building, itself a big congested orange striped sliver of late ‘50s modernist thinking.
The first thought I have most of the time when seeing photographs or illustrations of these buildings is one of regret. Why were these buildings destroyed? Yet at the time, the decision made perfect sense. I can’t begrudge the town planners their attitude. They were doing what was contemporary, what was right – whatever right means.
What we have now, in their place are the things that are at the heart of this essay: photographs.
Someone made an informed decision to destroy these once-great buildings but someone also photographed them and the images we see now are likely to remain with us for longer than those buildings stood. When we see images of these structures, our minds are drawn back to a former time. Images of them may act as a reminder of a time and place; a potent warning, perhaps as to how we might handle future redevelopment. More profoundly, you’ve been given a visual access key into the past.
In a similar way to the distorted but no less important memories of our former living moments, a photograph of the architectural past is a vivid and evocative gift to us all. The building doesn’t physically exist anymore but photography has literally made it last forever. The stories and reality of that building and the people that lived or worked in it are there for you to interpret. It’s now far more than it ever was: it’s a memory emblazoned on paper, in our heads and in our community consciousness. This is the ‘meta’ in architectural photography for me, but it is arguably true for most photography that consciously captures ‘reality’. There is a richness of thinking here that in the right head or heart can be deeply satisfying. You just need to calibrate your thinking and then let it flow.
When I was reminded of this concept, it made good sense but never as perfectly as it did when I started to see things change around me. It first started with a photograph of a hall near where I live. For as long as I could remember, its corrugated tin roof was heavily rusted a deep ochre; parts of it looked as thin as parchment. I took several photographs of this building, with an emphasis on the roof because that was visually what appealed to me. Some months later the building was sold on and the roof was replaced. Now all I have are my photographs.
Recently a friend of mine purchased two of my photographs, both of locations within the city of Adelaide: one of the Westcare church in Wright Street and another of a street-art crammed carpark off of Crowther Street. Over recent months, the area around the church has changed dramatically, with new apartments springing up behind where a former warehouse once stood. The vines that glimmer with light in my photograph are now long gone. The church remains but it is a different place now. It’s gone from a representation of an area seen through my eyes to a historical record. In a way, it’s even more my vision now, disconnected from the encumbrance of reality and left out to tether. Seeing the area as it is now, I am more appreciative of the small world I’ve managed to capture. It is now a place of open ideas and imagination and no one will ever know the truth to the stories within, which is a potent thought to me. As for the street art crammed carpark, I recently learned that the whole lot is being in-filled with an apartment building so the record I have of this place is truly unique. Odds are it will never be that again but it remains so in my photograph, framed on a wall.
Urban photography thus captures these places and contributes to the ongoing consciousness of our increasingly photographed world in varied and potent ways. Just as we can look back on our old wedding photographs and cringe (or maybe sigh longingly), we can see the world around us as it was and interpret it in our own personal context. Written accounts of the past are an essential part of a historical record however in photography we have something that opens up other less concrete avenues for us to appreciate.
Things are always changing and they are changing quicker than we might think. Trees are growing, paving is being replaced, roads are being upgraded, bus stops are being fabricated, tram lines are being laid, buildings are being built. And all the while, things are ageing and disappearing.
Whilst this in itself is a significant idea that my brain enjoys chewing on, I’ve also recently been conscious of a more internalised approach to all of this: the ageing of the photographs themselves. Not the curling and fading of photographic papers, but the way we perceive and live with our own images. Over the last few years I have built up a body of work that’s comparatively significant in size. I have taken enough photographs now to acknowledge several stylistic phases and some of these I’m not particularly proud of, despite feeling to the contrary at the time I took them. As photographers, we take a journey and hopefully we ‘improve’, whatever that actually means. At the very least, we evolve – or we should.
From time to time, I revisit a small group of photographs and improve or update them to my current taste. Given the power of modern software this is quite simple and is a dramatic and powerful way of reconnecting with a photographic past. Provided the original ‘digital negative’ photograph is technically sound, one can continue a journey with that image for as long as one chooses, creating processing iterations over time. I enjoy this, as a movie director may enjoy tinkering with their original creation. We’ve seen numerous so-called ‘director’s cuts’ over the years and in most instances, these versions are an improvement over the original release or at the very least offer something fresh and distinctive.
There are, however, certain photographs that I will never touch again. Usually these images have developed a life of their own somehow by exposure or recognition. They stand alone as images that could potentially be upgraded but never will be. Like the buildings they often capture, once they’re brought to the ground, nothing will be built there again that matches them. They remain alone and are left to evolve the course of time without additional artifice or improvement.
For some of these, I have grown over time to know them well. I am technically still happy with the majority of these photographs and don’t feel the need to change them. For a few, I see the faults that once I thought were strengths but I love them for those faults. It’s those faults that make them what they are.
They point though is this: after spending enough time with these images, knowing them as well as I do, little personal stories start forming, just as they might in a historical photograph, in the context I mentioned earlier. The longer they remain a part of my creative life, the more they begin to open themselves up to personal interpretation. This is something that I feel whether they’ve been tinkered with over time or not. Tinkering in itself is one form of engagement with an image and builds familiarity over a period of time however the ‘untinkered’ are never really far from my head and their story grows wild and tangled and complex, without the benefit of semi-regular pruning.
Either way, the power is in the photograph and how it evolves over time. With mass exposure, an image may grow into and form a recognisable part of the broader public consciousness, become iconic and a unique thing in itself, beyond a ‘simple’ photograph. The others, the ones that constitute the greater bulk of images ever taken are either confined to obscurity or they manage to become a part of the personal creative journey of their creators, hopefully in an imaginative and enriching way.
There are a cast of characters that live in some of my photographs. I have never scripted them or plotted their life stories to paper but I know them well, or at least I know about certain aspects of their lives. These characters continue to grow and move through the broader photographic narrative of my urban photography. This is but one example of my point.
At its simplest level though, these images remain a historical record – a record of what was physically built and also, perhaps more importantly to me a least, a personal record of my personality and motivations at the time – how I felt they should best be represented; what contrast, sharpening and colour toning or whatever: all those things that contribute to that greater, holistic picture. Inevitably once a photograph is taken, it’s already a part of the past anyway, a record of both the subject matter itself and the thought that went into its creation.
Everything else is a work in progress along the way.