Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Street scenes: Thomas Struth and the distillation of vision

Among the eighteen photographers featured in the recent show Constructing Worlds at the Barbican Centre in London I want to reflect for a moment on the work of the German artist Thomas Struth.  Struth forms part of an influential circle of former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy where significant advances were made in the use of large format black and white photographs to record the scale and detail of urban and industrial landscapes.

One of Struth’s photograph stands out for me in particular, entitled Clinton Road, London (1977), which captures a wide-angle view of an empty London street, perhaps on a Sunday morning so as to be as unobtrusive as possible (save for a possible curtain twitch to the left).   In a series of photos taken in the late 1970s in several cities—among them Brussels, Cologne, and New York—Struth sought to distil the essence of an entire city into a single image.  In the case of London this is no easy task.  Nevertheless, this street is instantly recognizable as an example of the type of turn of the century terrace housing that dominates many of London’s newly built suburbs of the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.  There is a studied ordinariness to this image that captures something of the enigma of London as a city.  

Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice what is taken for granted.  Like the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen achieved, with his marvellous book London: the unique city, first published in 1934, Struth has also managed in the field of photography with his carefully chosen location.   That this image is a large format image, with all the skill and technical complexity that that entails, merely adds to its poignancy.  And with the use of black-and-white rather than colour, the image seems to be both closer in time and yet simultaneously further away.

Thomas Struth, Clinton Road, London (1977) 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Spacey city

I recently took the Berlin-Warszawa-Express and made my first visit to Warsaw.  As soon as you leave Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof you are already in Poland: freshly cooked pierogies are immediately available in the restaurant car.  The crowded car necessitated a nicely Hitchcockian juxtaposition of strangers: behind me I could hear an urgent discussion about the political situation in Belarus.

My hosts were mainly architects and urbanists who explained to me how post-socialist Warsaw has been characterized by a construction frenzy, especially on the urban fringe, so that the grey vistas of state socialism now jostle alongside a kind of neo-Disney palette of pink and orange.  The sense of a postmodernist hangover is perhaps most directly evoked by Daniel’s Libeskind’s Złota 44—an immense edifice of luxury condominiums plonked right in the middle of the city. 

One of the most characteristic features of Warsaw is the use of almost every available space for advertising: above all, during my visit, the ubiquitous presence of the actor Kevin Spacey to promote a mobile phone network.  Spacey seemed to peer at you from all angles as if he formed part of some ill-defined political campaign.  The powerful effect of an urban landscape dominated by billboards is reminiscent of the geographer Anton Wagner’s encounter with Los Angeles in the early 1930s.  Wagner was fascinated by the garish landscapes produced by weak or uncertain planning regulations: a topography in which real spaces were hidden by a proliferation of imaginary ones.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Camberwell Beauty

Feeling the glimmer of January sun this morning I recalled one of my most vivid memories of last year.  On the morning of Saturday 29 March, at just after noon, I cycled past a favourite spot amid the woods and waterways of Spreewald, a biosphere reserve that lies about 100 kilometres south-east of central Berlin.  As I passed the point where two canals meet, next to towering ash and poplar trees reaching up into the sky, an unmistakable butterfly swooped up into the air: a Camberwell Beauty, Nymphalis antiopa, which owes its English name to an early sighting in 1748, in what is now part of South London.  I stopped my bike and frantically assembled my camera in time to take a bad shot of the butterfly sunning itself on the track some ten metres behind me before it took off over the trees.  At least I had proof of having seen it but otherwise only a blurry likeness.  I waited maybe an hour in the vain hope that it might reappear but there was a strange stillness in the March sunshine and nothing was to be seen.

The next day I approached the exact spot again, at precisely the same time, riding my bike quite slowly: to my delight I could see that the Camberwell Beauty was already there several metres ahead of me so I made another stealthy attempt to take a photograph.  Again it soared upwards at my approach only to reappear a few minutes later further down the track, now being pursued by another Camberwell Beauty, flying even faster.  The two butterflies took off together, spiralling around each other, higher and higher, way above the treetops, until they were a mere pair of specks in orbit silhouetted against the sky.
I stood by the track and waited patiently, camera in hand.  About twenty minutes later I happened to glance to my left.  A Camberwell Beauty sat sunning itself on a warm twig jutting out from dead vegetation, this time just a few metres away.  I edged towards it and this time it did not fly away.  Evidently the strange creature advancing towards it no longer seemed to present a threat; I had made a temporary connection with their world. 

Spreewald, Brandenburg, 30 March 2014


The radical Left party Syriza may win the forthcoming Greek parliamentary elections on 25 January or at least play a decisive role in the formation of Greece’s next government.  This would undoubtedly be a good thing.  What is especially interesting about this looming possibility is that it has forced a spectrum of commentators both inside and outside Greece to take their alternative programme seriously.  The hollow rhetoric of doom issued by the European President Jean-Claude Juncker and the German chancellor Angela Merkel has been replaced by a sense of quiet trepidation.  If Syriza wins power they intend to not only renegotiate the terms of Greece’s financial settlement but also carry out the real structural reforms of Greek society that not even the EU dared suggest.  The Greek oligarchs and their powerful friends, who have been busy squirrelling money away in Swiss bank accounts and overseas property in London and elsewhere, will find themselves under intense scrutiny.  The so-called Lagarde list of tax evaders and their fellow travellers, people who have in effect been betting against their own country, will have to pay up.1  If Greece does ultimately stay within the Euro under Syriza it will emerge as a better and fairer country as a result.  The powerful interests who have most to gain from a Greek exit form part of a mendacious establishment with links to the military junta of 1967–1974.  It is no wonder that figures such as Juncker are worried by the prospects of real reform: this discredited politician has himself been a facilitator of vast tax evasion practices within the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg: a shadowy entity exemplified by its nefarious monarchy parading in the pages of Hello magazine.2  If Syriza were to take a decisive role in governing Greece a huge amount would be at stake since their failure would usher in an intensified wave of cynicism and strengthen the murderous xenophobia of Golden Dawn.  

1          Kerin Hope, “Syriza to crack down on Greece’s oligarchs if it wins election,” Financial Times (6 January).

2          Susan Watkins, “The political state of the union,” New Left Review 90 (November/December 2014) pp. 5–25.