Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Wheelie-Bin of History

Library picture from an original transparency, posed by a model (1990s)

A recent clear-out of my office has revealed half-forgotten relics charting the history of technological change that has transformed photographic publishing in the 20 years since I first set up my current workspace. Quite a few have survived the early spring clean: the shelves stacked with boxes of black and white contact sheets (necessary for locating valued old negatives), 200 boxes of 10”x8” prints (unnecessary, but they took so much time to make!), my one-time darkroom through a door at the far end (in which an enlarger still has pride of place, but the blackout is long gone), two or three film cameras I couldn't bring myself to part with, and a large cardboard box containing thousands of slides returned from a now defunct picture library.
But much has been consigned to the recycling wheelie-bin, all redolent of a very different era: price lists from courier companies and colour processing labs, Kodak data sheets, a variety out-of-date printed directories, records of outgoing prints and original transparencies, and polite letters from picture researchers happy to pay NUJ recommended rates. A pile of CDs, used to distribute library pictures to publishers in the early years of digitisation, before photo library websites became commonplace, met a more violent and less ecological end: I smashed them with a hammer and sent them for land-fill. Regrettable but necessary.

It was the redundant digital hardware that I found most alarming.  The clear-out was prompted by the arrival of faster and more capacious storage and a new computer requiring more desk space. Three new 4TB drives have replaced a collection of 15 smaller ones - some as small as 80GB. The redundant discs have now joined the enlarger in my redundant darkroom.

Yet none of my IT equipment has worn out - almost all of it looks as good as it did when I first bought it. It's just become obsolete: too slow, too small, or no longer upgradable to the latest OS. My eight-year-old Mac Pro looks immaculate, but can't run the current version of Lightroom or Final Cut Pro, and its stylish carcase under my desk provokes some uneasy thoughts.

The care of film negatives and transparencies was always an issue for analogue photographers (the only sort there were until not very long ago). Unlike digital images, they represent the only 'original' of each picture, vulnerable to fire, flooding and various other potential disasters. Digital files, on the other hand, can be copied ad infinitum without losing quality. If you're into immortality, they seem a much better bet. But what if they too become obsolete? Negatives are very old technology, but they are still accessible. They can even be seen with the naked eye. What if the software that reads your digital files is no longer available? Or you can't afford a new computer, or your annual subscription to Adobe's Creative Cloud? Or someone has hacked their servers and disabled the activation on every copy of Photoshop ever sold? Or a solar storm wipes every hard disc in the known universe? 

Now we are all vulnerable to an instant clear-out. And a wheelie-bin won't be necessary.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Siege of Silicon Roundabout

  Demolition site, Hoxton     

The Old Street roundabout is surrounded. The wrecking crews are converging from all directions. The traffic island whose geometry lends its name to the London home of tech start-ups, skinny jeans and wall-to-wall wall-art, is under siege. The decaying Victorian buildings which have incubated the successes and failures of the new information economy over the last few years are being torn down to make space for gleaming new steel and glass towers.

Silicon Roundabout was always a convenient, but somewhat misleading moniker. There are tech start-ups all over the city, with a significant number already housed in steel and glass at Canary Wharf – a very different social space from the coffee houses and boutiques of Hoxton and Shoreditch. Nevertheless the area does have a distinctive buzz, which it would be a shame to lose. According to one local estate agent, much of the new residential property is being bought off-plan by overseas investors looking for a safe haven for their cash, and may well remain empty once completed. And the office blocks creeping up Bishopsgate are mostly devoted to corporate finance and its besuited offshoots. Will the rather appealing well-heeled bohemian vibe survive the London property boom, or will the relentless march of investment capital clear yet another piece of the capital of lowlifes with less than six figure incomes?

  Demolition site, Hoxton                                        Private apartment block, City Road

Thanks to Steve Nathan for the estate agent research.  More pictures here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Citizens, not customers

Pancras Square, 2014

Last month Camden Council took possession of a new office building containing a “state-of-the-art and sustainable” leisure centre, a relocated library, and other welcome community facilities. The council estimates its 14 floor tower, the construction of which was financed by selling off ageing and unwanted parts of its property portfolio, will save it between £2.5 million and £4.5 million a year in running costs.

5 Pancras Square sits in a corner of a major new development that has transformed the once notorious area behind King's Cross station. Ed Smith, writing in the New Statesman, described the change as one “from derelict wasteland to caffeinated utopia”. The place is buzzing with local office workers, passing travellers, and students from Central St.Martins art school in neighbouring Granary Square, built on part of the long disused goods yard. There's even a canal running through the middle to add that apparently essential waterside appeal.

I well remember the “derelict wasteland”. Twenty-five years ago I spent several weeks photographing it, and some of the people who lived and worked in it, for an exhibition. I would hesitate to now call it a “utopia”, but it is undoubtedly much improved.

Culross Buildings, 1989

So what's not to like? Not a lot. I just have a slight resentment at being regarded by my elected local authority as a 'customer' (top), rather than a 'citizen' (even if that is my status in the rest of the largely privately owned and managed development). And a nagging feeling that the rough sleepers, short-life tenants and small businesses that I photographed back then are not among those who have benefited from all this. More pictures of the 'derelict wasteland' hereCaffeinated utopia to follow.

Young homeless man, Pancras Road, 1989

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Access All Areas?

As a photojournalist and documentary photographer I am instinctively opposed to any restrictions placed on my ability to make pictures wherever I choose. So I should be delighted that the National Gallery has lifted its ban on the use of cameras and smartphones – but I'm not entirely.

Nor are the gallery attendants, who have been landed with a Sisyphean task. The change of policy, which came into force this month, was prompted by the problem of distinguishing between visitors legitimately using their phones to research paintings via the gallery's free wifi network, and deviants taking photos of its precious artworks. However, using a flash is still forbidden, and as most users of smartphones and compact cameras leave them set on automatic, flashes are firing off left, right and centre. The attendants are continually forced to intervene.

Although the gallery houses thousands of wonderful paintings by world-famous artists, one single work, Van Gogh's Sunflowers (above), attracts the overwhelming majority of snappers. It is an extraordinary spectacle. Many never actually see the painting itself, so intent are they on framing its image on their screen. Most irritating of all are those whose must-have picture is a friend or family member posing in front of the canvas. Clearly all this has more to do with Facebook than art appreciation.

Fortunately, with Sunflowers hanging in a room conveniently close to the front entrance and taking most of the heat, the rest of the national collection remains relatively unaffected.  Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Canaletto – even Seurat (above) and Monet – do not attract more than the occasional smartphone or iPad.

So maybe I needn't countermand my instinctive desire for access all areas. However, I do recognise the trouble it is causing gallery staff – still, by the way, woefully underpaid and fighting a campaign for the London Living Wage (below). My solution would be to take Van Gogh's over-popular work (or a reasonable copy) and nail it to an outside wall, where the crowds could photograph it, themselves, their friends and family, without bothering anyone, including those who visit galleries to look at paintings. More pictures here.

 London Living Wage protest outside the National Gallery, 2010

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Photography in Hungary: The Law is an Ass

Back in March there was a flurry of comment after a new civil code came into force in Hungary which made it illegal to photograph someone without their express permission. In theory, the law makes photography in a public place virtually impossible, so before a trip to Budapest earlier this month I called the Hungarian Embassy in London to check it out.

The first person I spoke to was completely unaware of the issue, but passed me on to a more knowledgeable colleague, who laughed off my concerns and told me there would be no problem taking photos wherever I liked. I found this reassurance only mildly convincing. The law is quite clear, and a pre-existing ruling, that police can only appear in a published photograph if their faces are pixellated beyond recognition, is strictly adhered to.

Commenting on the new civil code in The Guardian, Márton Magócsi, senior photo editor at news website Origo, said at the time: "having to ask for permission beforehand is quite unrealistic in any reportage situation”. He also pointed to the danger that private security guards or the police could use the law to block access to reporters and photojournalists. Much of the work exhibited in Budapest's recently opened Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre would not exist if such a law had been in place and adhered to. Likewise the work of the renowned Hungarian photographer and Magnum co-founder himself.

Nevertheless, I wandered around the capital with my cameras without incident and, on a visit to the Szechenyi thermal baths (above) was astonished to see a TV crew filming freely around the pools and many of the punters strolling about taking pictures without interference. That's not something that would happen in the UK today – it's been a long time since photographers here were regarded as a benign, even welcome, presence. Despite the civil code, the UK's obsessional association of photography with terrorists and paedophiles does not seem to have taken hold in Hungary, and photographing in the streets of Budapest felt easier than in those of my own capital city.

However, as long as it remains on the statute book the law poses a very real threat to press freedom and to the rights of ordinary citizens. Even if largely ignored in practice, it should not be allowed to stand.

A bar overlooking the Hungarian Parliament building

Friday, June 20, 2014

New Soapboxes For Old

Yesterday's Royal Parks press launch of revamped landscaping at Speakers' Corner offered a refreshing spectacle: a senior politician (Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport Sajid Javid MP) attempting to face down two experienced Hyde Park regulars angry at a lack of consultation over changes to their Sunday afternoon meeting place. He didn't stand a chance.

Face-to-face argument, rarely possible between governors and governed, is what the place is about, and this one took place in front of the TV cameras. Tony Allen and Heiko Khoo, who have been speaking in the park since 1978 and 1986 respectively, heckled Javid mercilessly through out his brief speech, and then confronted Royal Parks senior management (above). The Hyde Park speakers are a hard bunch to organise, but there is resentment at the noise from the rock gigs held throughout the summer on the nearby field, the cycle lane that runs through the concrete area on which speakers and crowds currently gather, the lack of toilets, and the failure to screen out traffic noise from the Marble Arch roundabout.

A small temporary exhibition, visible as the backdrop to the bespoke wooden soapboxes from which Royal Parks CEO Linda Lennon CBE and the Secretary of State addressed the assembled media (below), included material from the Sounds From The Park archive, and pictures from my Speakers Cornered project, so as well as being hugely entertained, I got to photograph my own photographs in the place they were originally taken.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What Goes Up Might Come Down

As high-rise blocks are demolished on estates in South Kilburn and Barking (below), 2818 new homes in the skyscrapers of the former London 2012 Olympic Athletes' Village in Stratford are awaiting their first occupants (above).

The difference between those coming down and those going up is not so much architectural, as proprietorial. Private housing is replacing public: 1439 of the apartments in East Village, as it is now known, are being offering for private rent by Get Living London, a joint venture between the Qatari sovereign wealth fund and property company Delancey. The remainder are 'affordable' homes for sale, shared-ownership, or rent by Triathlon Homes, a public-private partnership.

Only time will tell whether ownership status is more important than architecture and the strength, or otherwise, of the local economy – or whether East Village is destined to become a densely packed, down-at-heel, buy-to-let opportunity earmarked for a future wrecker's ball.  More pictures here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slum Clearance Revisited

Earlier this month Brent Council started demolition of two 1960s tower blocks on South Kilburn Estate, part of a £66.5 million redevelopment scheme that will see them replaced by 229 low-rise apartments for sale and rent.

One of the 18 storey towers, Fielding House (above), used to fill the view from the window of a flat I once rented on the opposite side of Kilburn Park Road. Back in 1975 the towers were a recent addition to the NW6 landscape, and the Victorian terrace whose first floor I part-occupied was scheduled for compulsory purchase and demolition by the Greater London Council.

Calling it a flat is being kind. It wasn't self-contained, the toilet was shared with the tenant upstairs, it had no bathroom, and the only running water was a cold tap above a Butler sink on the landing. At the time such conditions were commonplace, particularly in the private rented sector, and the towers were part of a slum clearance programme designed to sweep them away and provide good quality public housing for all who needed it.

Almost forty years on, the Victorian terrace is still standing, and it is the towers that are coming down. In a complete reversal, not only is high-rise making way for low (the 229 new South Kilburn apartments will be in buildings with traditional mansion block facades and six or seven floors), but public sector housing is making way for private: 126 of them will be sold off, and only 103 will be let. 'Private good, public bad' is the mantra now.  More pictures here.

Tenant in an unfit kitchen, Kilburn Park Road, 1982

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Market Failures

The Guardian's exposé of the extraordinary state of 'Billionaire's Row' – The Bishops Avenue in north London – is yet another reminder of just how dysfunctional the UK housing market has become. Mansions worth together around £350 million are lying empty (above), many decaying into serious dereliction, whilst the government's 'bedroom tax' is forcing large numbers of those at the other end of the 'property ladder' to quit the capital, often leaving behind family, friends, schools and job opportunities.

Boris Johnson's answer? To charge owners of empty properties worth over £2 million a 50% Council Tax surcharge. Or maybe 150%. The Mayor isn't very good on detail. That should really hit the owners hard. The rate for the top Council Tax band in Barnet is £2832.40, so the surcharge would be either £1416.20, or £4248.60, depending on what he means. One of the Bishops Avenue mansions, Dryades, until recently the property of the Pakistan Minister of Privatisation (clearly a post with a generous salary), was bought for £12 million in 2007 and, according to the Guardian, is currently believed to be worth £30 million. That's a profit of £18 million in seven years, or just over £2.5 million a year. A few thousand pounds of Council Tax isn't going to make much of a dent in that.

Interventions by this and previous governments aimed at addressing failures at the opposite end of the market have been no better. The other streets where boarded-up houses lie empty, and bulldozed vacant lots stand unattended, are the result of the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme in Oldham (below), Liverpool and several other northern cities, started by Labour and prematurely shutdown by the coalition. Both bad decisions.

The abysmal record of government interventions at both ends of the property market highlights the failure of market-based solutions to a problem that requires social and economic planning, not blind faith in the beneficence of laissez-faire profiteering. More pictures here.

Friday, January 31, 2014

On The Road

The mostly Latin-American cleaning, security and maintenance workers employed by Cofely GDF-Suez at London University have already succeeded in their battle for the London Living Wage. They are all members of the independent IWGB union, which this week called a three day strike to demand union recognition and improved conditions of employment, and in protest at job losses. On Tuesday the union's 3 Cosas (Three Things) Campaign took to the streets of Bloomsbury in an open-top bus (above) before moving on to a rally outside Parliament (below), and unannounced visits to fellow workers at the Royal Opera House, and to the Cofely GDF-Suez Islington office. It feels like a campaign that is going to win.  More pictures here.