18 Dec 2009

ways of walking?

I chose the title "Ways of Walking" for my original street photography website as it expressed two particular ideas: the style or state in which we walk, for example oblivious, alert, cautious, careless; but also the routes we take such as pre-determined journeys to work or more serendipitous ones when we have the luxury of time to follow something that captures our attention, a fragrance, a face, a memory.

In recent years I have found myself blurring the planned and random nature of my walks around London. The area I am most fascinated by is the West End, in particular the streets roughly bounded to the north around Oxford Street, to the east by Kingsway, the south by the Embankment and to the west at Park Lane. Within that boundary the direction I take is initially driven by the position of the sun. Staring at the sky above Centrepoint I sometimes think I'm as acutely aware of the weather, the change of light of chasing clouds, as any landscape or wildlife photographer.

Once the direction, west to east along Piccadilly for example, is set then it's a question of timing. Lunchtime affords an opportunity for a hasty assignation between office workers outside Green Park; a language school spills out onto Shaftesbury Avenue between classes, the students a synthesis of world cultures; an eddy around the news stand outside Leicester Square tube at a sign of the first edition of the day's Evening Standard.
New London street photography
Lately I've taken to Regents Street. I love its curve and breadth. The consistency of the style and height of the buildings are unusual for a London street. Its alignment, a bit north/south, a little east/west, means the sunlight can always find some stretch of pavement to illuminate. It also culminates at Oxford Circus, a wonderful gateway to one of the major arteries of London, nourished by the underground station's stairways recycling bodies in and out. This makes it sound like an amorphous mass of people but I feel that the architecture here doesn't diminish the individual and there is still an intimacy about this place that keeps me coming back.

3 Dec 2009

Auerbach's building sites, the mountains of London

The current Frank Auerbach show at The Courtauld Gallery, London Building Sites 1952-1962, portrays a London literally rebuilding itself post-war. The series of paintings depict building sites around central London including John Lewis in Oxford Street, the Shell building at the South Bank and the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square.
Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square by Frank Auerbach, 1962
I was fascinated by the exhibition's title, an exception to my received impression of the usual ones there e.g. Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests. Portraying the primal scene of the birth of buildings, that point where the ground is literally broken, in thick, viscous oil paint in such a traditional gallery was a contrast I liked.

Granted the location of these buildings was influential and reminded me, in my own lifetime, of the appearance and disappearance of buildings, streets even: "a heaving, bubbling, cauldron" as Auerbach said.
He characterises London in this post war period in a wonderfully evocative phrase "...(it) was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama" and this series is on first look more representative of Mars than Earth, let alone London. Red, ochre and umber saturate the paintings' surfaces. It's a primal, alien experience yet a human element, although not immediately evident, is a definite presence. It takes me to my other interest in this portrayal of London at this particular point in its history which is more personal.

My father, as an immigrant from Ireland in the 1950s, represents the hidden hands behind so much of what shapes the architecture of modern London. Although not directly involved in the building sites represented here, his compatriots were. Looking at these paintings, at the occasional glimpse of a silhouette, gave me a sense of connection to him and to the London he would have experienced. Another quote from Auerbach: "...(there was a) sense of survivors scurrying among a ruined city… and a sort of curious freedom… I remember a feeling of camaraderie among the people in the street”.

It also made me reflect on the current renewal of the centre of London courtesy of the Crossrail project. I'd like to think there's an artist working now in the same vein, recording the birth of another landmark in the depths of the mountains and crags of Charing Cross Road.
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