For this assignment, choose a theme or subject that you will conceive, shoot and process, in black-and-white, attempting to bring out the monochrome image qualities of form, tonal contrast and texture, perhaps also experimenting with key. To accompany the final images, which should number between about 5 and 10, write an account of why you chose this particular theme or subject, what you set out to achieve from the point of view of black-and-white imagery, and to what extent you feel you have succeeded.
I chose to follow a theme that I started prior to this assignment in some work I produce for myself related to urban decay, but with a twist.
Urban decay is a modern term which to me is ascribed to the dereliction and dilapidation of previously inhabited, or occupied, modern-day structures. I want to examine the relationships between this more modern genre, historical disuse, the unwanted and the unkempt areas and settings within the environment, the reclamation by nature and the abuses inflicted upon these sites by sections of society when they are abandoned.
RAF Greenham Common is both a historical and modern setting for the investigation of this idea. Historical in the sense that military use of the site pre-dates the airbase, but came to full fruition in the mid-twentieth century, it is now a protected ancient monument with residual structures and the entire area has been deconstructed and is being returned to its pre-WWII state.
Having lived in the area of Greenham Common for over forty years, it has been a significant geographical site in my life for a considerable time. The images that I’ve researched are somewhat limited in their content, presumably due to security restrictions, and the vast majority that are available in black-and-white are of limited size and quality. However, my aesthetic reasoning for wanting to use black-and-white for this project is linked to the more infamous celebrity of the site to do with the nuclear arsenal that was once kept there. Clearly synonymous with the cold war, the images that are evoked with me are always associated with the public information and military training films of that era, which were part of my life as a younger man, and were always in black-and-white; a very potent format for depicting the ultimate horror of nuclear war. I see this subject, with black-and-white as the format, as a continuation of those evoked images and the somewhat ‘nuclear aftermath’ impression some of the new images possess.
I have juxtaposed some older ‘found’ images against the up-to-date versions I have made to clearly depict the polarised feelings this very large military installation engendered in the wider public and to highlight how change progressed.
Urban decay is a very common theme to look-up on the internet where there is a plethora of individuals and sites dedicated to this genre and a great deal is very ‘same same’. The first artist and site that fired my imagination was that of Robert Polidori and his work ‘Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl’. These haunting images of a life left behind by the fleeing inhabitants of these cities is still there for all to see, now covered in dust, rapidly decaying and deadly toxic. The next artist who is an inspiration is Mary Baker and her work ‘Manchester and Salford’. I grew up just over the hills from where these images were made, in Yorkshire, and the scenes she’s captured remind me very dramatically of the same scenes in my hometown in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, but her images also link to the way I want to portray this project with past and present, her images definitely evoking the past. Andreas Feininger captured some very clever images of New York, particularly the harbour and its bridges in an era where coal was still a main fuel for motive power of the ships, tugs and boats. His ability to capture the clouds of smoke and steam then went on, I think, to help him capture the cloud formations in his ‘Route 66’ series. Although not about Urban Decay, Robert Franks’ ‘The Americans’ influences anyone who wants to get to grips with moodiness and gritty graininess. In the black-and-white genre, Walker Evans can’t be left out with his amazingly clear images, and particularly with regard to his incalculable influence on ‘documentary style’. Finally the Becher’s; their style of photography of the Ruhr Valley industrial scene was, to me, the single biggest influence on anyone who is, or has, made any attempt at Urban Decay. Their ‘straight’ style is so austere and simplistic, it simply lends itself to the portrayal of dilapidation.