I am taking the opportunity to make some still lives while isolating at home during the Covid-19 outbreak. A form of photographic diary; this work attempts to reflect our shared sense of uncertainty and alienation. Representing a fresh familiarity with the domestic, and the revelatory appearance of objects we live with daily; which have taken on a metaphorical weight they seemed to lack before. Shot on 4×5 sheet film and processed at home.
“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness”
— W. Eugene Smith
At a time like this when the UK and the majority of the world is in a lockdown state due to the Covid – 19 outbreak, the outside world has become an arena of anxiety and mistrust, the immediate environment of home has become amplified and there exists a new state of living. Time passes differently: punctuated by the news and mealtimes, working, sleeping, rising, exercising. Without the option to go out to work, do the commute in the mornings, have face-to-face meetings and fulfil the human instinct for social engagement, one finds oneself simultaneously turning inward and looking outward – life has become far simpler and far more complicated at the same time.
I am lucky however, I have always enjoyed my own company, I am reasonably healthy, but I am concerned for my daughters, my grandchildren, and my son-in-law who is working as an anaesthetist in a busy hospital, intubating Covid-19 patients and lacking the daily fresh PPE equipment needed for him to stay safe.
To help combat my own fears and worries, I find more than ever the need to feel attached to aesthetics and beauty, through exposure to creative acts and the production of images that reflect my mental state – listening to the internal voice, not trying to pin it down and interrogate it; but to simply listen. As the choice of venturing outside for any extended period of time is rescinded, the arrangements of still lives in an interior are for me an act of acceptance and meditation, a connection with the beauty of simple things that can be found immediately around me; inside my own four walls. Ultimately ones vision might not be realised but what matters most is the process of doing it.
In this new isolation-state, functional, boring, mundane, and common objects take on a metaphorical weight and even a ‘pure’ nature. I have noticed that my still life arrangements are part calculation, part accident. Symbolic content and meaning is added by the viewer who projects upon the image their own experiences and attributions. For example, the images of sheets in this gallery were conceived as the formation of a landscape – a projection of the outside world where I long to be – walking in the hills. My friend read the image as the manifestation of a night spent tossing and turning, tangled up in fevered dreams and worries, another friend saw a gang of ghosts rising spookily from a field.
The manner in which I am producing these images reflects my new mental state. I am using black and white 4×5 sheet film or 120 roll film and shooting with large and medium format cameras. I process the resulting negatives at home in developing tanks – washing the film in the bath and scanning the negatives digitally. This process is sublimely satisfying to me. The inherent slowness suits my mood, and allows me to punctuate periods of my day with stepped mechanical acts – loading the film in a changing bag, arranging and re-arranging objects, measuring the light, focussing the lens, winding the film or swapping the sheet holder, back to the changing bag to take out the film and into the developing tank.
Then the chemicals: developer, stop solution, fix solution, washing, hanging the negs to dry and scanning on the computer for post-production. I can happily spend all day producing just six photographs in this manner.
To paraphrase W. Eugene Smith, I shall for now listen to the ‘small voice’ that compels me to make these images in the hope that they may transport me to other places while isolated in this current space.
The Visual & Digital Arts Department at Morley College London is led by a team of inspiring Programme Managers. This group of inventive artists and creative practitioners teach a range of specialist courses at all levels.
Out of Office explores what happens when they leave work at Morley and return to the studio. It will examine how their teaching practice informs and develops their own work, alongside the ways in which their creative practice reinvigorates and strengthens art and design teaching at Morley.
Show opens 5th October 2017 and runs until 26th October 2017
Michelle Avison, Programme Manager for Printmaking & Bookbinding
Duncan Hooson, Programme Manager for Ceramics Lynda Kinne, Programme Manager for HND Fashion
Marian Lynch, Programme Manager for Textiles Steve Mepsted, Programme Manager for Digital Media & Photography
Cathy Reynolds, Programme Manager for Fashion Sara Robertson-Jonas, Head of School for Visual and Digital Arts
Anna Silverton, Programme Manager for HND Ceramics Helen Smith, Programme Manager for Jewellery Sheila Vollmer, Programme Manager for Sculpture Kate Wilson, Programme Manager for Painting, Drawing & Art History
For this show, ‘Out Of Office’, It was a pleasure to go to colleagues studios, making portraits, recording their spaces and working practices. The sessions were collaborative and fun and I was always pleasantly surprised by the spaces I encountered. For this series I chose to shoot on film, using available light and one roll of film per person.
I used a Bronica medium format camera. The considered and steady process of using this camera (as opposed to the instant gratification of a digital slr) afforded me the opportunity to slow down and consider the shots I was making.
I recently spent a brisk and stormy day walking in Salisbury. I went initially to visit Stonehenge which, after over half a century of my life, I have somehow neglected to see with my own eyes. I have to say its a bit of a let down: surrounded by ropes and guarded by walkie-talkie men it sits like a fish in a bowl.
(Top tip: avoid spending £15.50 and be marginally less roped/ripped-off by taking the actual approach avenue through the fields) as opposed to via the visitors centre with the selfie crowd (I know – i’m a snob!) cant help it. However the visitors centre is a rather lovely piece of architecture, which echoes what Woodhenge (a couple of miles away from Stonehenge) would have looked like back in the day!
The rest of the countryside is wonderful and especially the pub, The Old Mill, back in Salisbury; approached through the water meadows with Salisbury Cathedral in the distance.
With regard to my opening weather statement this quote tickles me:
A strange photo job last night at the launch of Rachel Johnson’s new book ‘Fresh Hell’ at Acklam Village Market underneath the Westway Flyover last night saw the mingling of several famous faces. Brother Boris Johnson caught dancing with a handkerchief! Ian Hislop talking earnestly, Piers Morgan doing selfies, David Gilmour being effortlessly cool and Jeremy Paxman scowling. I felt like I had stumbled into a secret cabal of the great, the good, the bad and the ugly of the journalistic/political world. It would be wonderful if some of that journalistic, critical muscle could be brought to bear on the horrendous recent plans to turn whole tracts of the Westway into a fine dining and shopping ‘experience’. Soon, those ‘on the edge’ unique spaces; much sought after for exclusive book launches, may no longer exist. https://nottinghillpost.com/news/westway-23/
What a pleasure to leave the DSLR at home for a few days. With a group of students at Paris Photo it feels good to shoot on film for a while. Olympus Trip camera and Pentax K1000 – very simple, basic, reliable gear. Kodak Tri-X film for its good, solid contrast. Sad though that France, while simultaneously celebrating world photography in Paris Photo, has radically altered the manner in which it allows photographers to operate, particularly in the street.
With its recently overhauled privacy laws France threatens to subdue the wealth of (Street) Photography that has in good part informed its culture over the last 100 years. Cartier-Bresson would be turning in his grave. Best then to shoot very quickly and operate a smile-and-move-on policy if challenged. Here are some shots from November 2013 and 2014.
I am pleased to share this short film of ‘the making of’ my installation at Acklam Village – produced by the wonderful team at DigitalWorks; the film explores the context behind the show and its conception. The ‘Orphans’ project uses and presents historical photos of local people installed at epic scale on the walls of the Westway Flyover. Oh, and there’s still time to catch the installation at Acklam Village each weekend! To read more about the ‘Orphans’ installation see HERE
‘Orphans’ – A photographic installation under the Westway Flyover by Steve Mepsted Filmed and edited by digital:works [Sav Kyriacou & Matthew Rosenberg] www.digital-works.co.uk
Hear the accompanying song: “Home’ by Hey Zeus on Soundcloud.
‘White Collar Boxing’is a strange phenomenon – think ‘Fight Club’-inspired bored bankers and city boys ‘n’ girls wishing to let off some steam and perhaps fix a rivalry or two. All done in the time-honoured fashion of smashing each other in the face with padded gloves in a ring while your friends urge you forwards from the side. Of course there is more to it than that, including a fair smattering of controversy. A good article can be found HERE
I recently got a call from a fellow photographer and good friend Anders Birger to shoot on a fight-night for White Collar Boxing in London. Anders got the pre-fight training and I got the sweat, blood and gore! Thanks!
I was warned there may be blood and it proved to be so. The fighters aren’t joking around and come out of their seats with menace in their eyes and fists ready. And that’s just the women! Three rounds doesn’t sound like much but from my vantage point I could see the tiredness in the arms after just one. The guard starts to drop and thats of course when the punches land. Photographing this stuff is difficult. The fights are hard and frenetic, the lights are strong but pretty much in your lens all the time, but luckily one gets the best vantage points; right by the ringside and on the ropes. I worked with Status Magazine from Brazil and you can read the story (in Portuguese) HERE
Last night I’m back at the excitingly-grungy nether-world Acklam Village Bar 58 under the Westway Flyover in rainy Portobello. I have had a few (mis)adventures shooting here (see this previous post) But tonight I am here to photograph a band and their friends, celebrating their lead singers’ 60th Birthday. The Dirty Strangers – are a garage pub-rock band in the best of British tradition and happen to be good friends with ‘Keef’ Richards and Ronnie Wood. We were later treated to a video message from Keef himself, congratulating his schoolmate on reaching a ripe young age. The evening struck off with an appearance by Brian James of The Damned and the list of musical mates was duly ticked off throughout the evening – including the aforementioned video message from Keith Richards – face looming large and wrinkly on the concrete walls of the space. With songs titled ‘She’s a Real Botticelli’ and ‘Shepherds Bush City Limits’ you just know the type of noise The Dirty Strangers make. Tonight the amount of telecasters appearing made the stage look like a guitar shop showroom. The family atmosphere was reinforced when Alans’ 82 year old Dad got up on stage to sing ‘One More for the Road’, Alan’s son (also doing a good job with the singing and producing a frighteningly good impersonation of his Dad’s vocal style) then got rather emotional – shouting proudly to the crowd: ‘Thats my Grandad that is!!’ All in all a fun, good energy evening, in a fantastic space. Happy Birthday Alan Clayton, and may The Dirty Strangers and their filthy friends keep on doing their thing for many years to come.
The Westway Motorway (A40M) was built to run 3.5 miles between Paddington Green and White City. Building works began in 1964 and the Motorway was opened in July 1970.y The building of the motorway cut a swathe through much of the housing, businesses and streets in the North Kensington area and caused national controversy for the effects it had upon the local community and the environment. As the empty ‘non-spaces’ underneath the elevated surface of the road were considered by local people and agencies The Westway began to exist as a lively, contentious, potential network of narratives. Led by local documentary photographer Steve Mepsted and in Partnership with Westway Trust, and Acklam Village Market, ‘Orphans’ is the latest attempt to form an understanding of this richly poetic space. Using archive council photographs taken between 1969 and 1971 (just at the time the motorway was being built and opening) ‘Orphans’ presents old men, young women, local kids, market traders, shoppers on Portobello Road and children playing on makeshift adventure playground structures. These individuals are presented at epic scale; freed from their original pictorial context they roam the walls underneath the motorway as if returning through history and re-materialising under the very structure that cut through their lives and homes 45 years earlier.
Steve Mepsted is an artist, teacher and freelance documentary photographer. His work draws heavily upon his previous experience in fine art and explores themes in social documentary, portraiture and photojournalism. He has exhibited widely, both as a painter and photographer, and writes for publication in magazine and book form. Steve works both on location and from his studio in North Kensington. Previously published local history work includes “The People and Histories of the West Eleven Housing Co-op”
To read more about the ‘Orphans’ project please see HERE
In partnership with
For a potential future publication Steve Mepsted is looking for stories, memories, anecdotes, suggestions and opinions of how you feel the Westway has affected the fabric of the area – its people, geography and community. Were you a member of one of those 600 families whose houses were demolished to make way for the road? Do you feel the Westway has brought regeneration to the area? What do you think of the Westway now? Please contribute your stories to maintain an ongoing dialogue about the Westway’s past, present and future. Contact details are below. Thank you.
Recently I have been running some street photography workshops in London for Photoion Photography School and developing some project briefs on street photography practice for Level 3 students in Photography at Kensington and Chelsea College. Teaching these sessions has been an interesting experience and I thought I would write some blog posts sharing some thoughts and pictures from my practice. This is the first post and I will be offering you some more in the future. In this post I will attempt a personal definition of street photography, talk a little about camera gear, what to take out with you on a days shooting and why I think that a simplified kit is a good thing. After that I will show you some of my pictures and explain the conditions in which I took them offering some advice along the way. Finally I will set out a couple of exercises for you to try when you are out on the street. I will finish with a few resource links for further reading.
For the purposes of this article I will define ‘Street Photography’ as un-posed, candid shots of something happening in the street or a public place, most of the time street photographs are pictures of people; fellow humans and our interaction with each other and our environment. For me Street Photography is about capturing a sense of the world we all inhabit. Street photographs are always candid, they are always “found”, and they are intensely social photographs, they are mirror images of society, springing un-manipulated from continuous, ever-changing found sources.
The origins of street photography are interesting. The bulky cameras of the late 1800’s, situated in the studio and fixed to tripods, were supplanted in the 1920’s by portable hand held cameras which used 35mm roll film. One could now slip a camera into a coat pocket and freely roam the street. Society was changing too – in post-war Europe more people were leaving the safety of the sitting room, women had more freedoms and workers more leisure time. The streets were busy, thriving places and the human condition was on display for all to see – and photograph. ‘Street’ is a difficult term to define precisely – indeed a photograph taken on a beach can be said to be a street photograph, one taken in a field too, or up a mountain. The Street photograph is not defined merely by what it depicts but by a set of shifting cultural values that refer to a certain ‘look’ of something, a ‘feeling’ even, an ‘attitude’ certainly. As I have alluded; the term ‘Street’ as applied to photography, is used to stand in for ‘Social’ or ‘Public’. The street photograph is a referent not an index.
So, for me, street photographs are not only pictorial representations but also senses of public space, of social interaction, that tell us something about the human condition in a way that a portrait or a posed image cannot. ‘Street’ is a certain ‘look’: halfway between a movie and a photograph. A good street photograph can give you a sense of the smell of a place, the sound of a place. Close in form to ‘Documentary Photography‘, street photographs can act as extremely reliable records of dress, mannerism and human relationships over time.
Street photography is difficult and a really great street photograph does not come along every day, or even every year! Street photography often thrives on luck, chance and happenstance. However the good street photographer learns how to make their own luck: street photographers often talk of a kind of “zone”, achieved after a certain time out shooting – this is your photographic eye and brain tuned up, ready to make the most of luck; placing yourself in its way.
IN THE “ZONE” Sometimes one experiences a kind of special sense – a developed vision, a sense of premonition, reading a scene before it happens and actively ready to grab the moment when it does. But luck is only part of the equation. Your attitude to your photography is the greater part. I enjoy playing a waiting game; watching the world unfurl and beat a rhythm before me. Once I see that something is happening – a set of shapes, a funny moment, a striking juxtaposition, I press the shutter. If nothing reveals itself I am also happy to move on, in the knowledge that something else will soon be revealed – another piece of street theatre is busy rehearsing itself. Conversely, and frustratingly, a good opportunity can come and go without a seconds warning and you need to be ready to take your chance. Most often its gone before you get it. I believe the following statement is true for every street photographer who ever existed: Their best photographs are the ones they never took!
“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson
Overall, street photography is not a planned event, it is not predictable in outcome. You can only be as prepared as possible and cross your fingers (actually, don’t cross your fingers – that may slow you down!) The art of street photography is as random and exciting as life on the streets itself. This is also what makes street photography unique: the street is not a photographic studio, it does not care to stop and pose, it has no need for a stylist, or to take regular breaks. It just goes on and on and on around you; in front of you; behind you and beyond the next corner. The thing to remember is that while you are out in the theatre of the street – you are also a player on its stage! Understanding this is one of the secrets to becoming a good street photographer.
Well, that’s one definition of street photography, it is how I feel about it as a practitioner and it might also be your view. It is a relatively ‘purist’ view and there are many other standpoints – and all of them equally valid. I could write more but need to press on. In a future article I shall look at contemporary approaches to street photography that challenge and break the ‘rule’.
I will now share with you some tips and tricks to help you while you are out shooting on the streets. They are not definitive, concrete rules and I do not claim they will be useful to everyone’s style or needs. However they are offered as ways to push your photography outside of the usual manner in which you may find yourself shooting. They are exercises – a kind of checklist, that I often use to stop my practice from going stale and to keep the whole thing fun and creative. There are as many ways to shoot the streets as there are events happening on them, so you may wish to experiment with the following and then deviate to what suits you – let me know what special technique you like to use, have you found a different approach that has helped you take better photos?
“Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work.” – William Klein
If we agree, as stated at the beginning of this article, that street photography is usually unposed, candid and focuses on human behaviour and our interaction with the environment then it is pretty obvious that you will need to blend in. Though it may be tempting to bring your whole camera kit out, you will more than likely stick out like a sore thumb! Its actually kind of a relief to be unburdened from the choices and decisions (and shoulder aches) that three cameras and five lenses forces upon you. Its useful to limit oneself and as a compromise try going out one week with only one camera and a 50mm lens. The next week go out with a compact camera and see how much you blend in. The following week, just take your mobile phone out! Shoot all week with your chosen kit and see how you learn to understand not only your equipment, but also the difference in the experience you have when interacting with the street. .
So – back to the kit….. my advice is always to use only one camera and one flexible lens. A compact camera such as the Canon Powershot or Fuji X100 are excellent shooters as they are small enough to be slipped into a pocket. They sport lenses with excellent zoom and focal lengths too (however see below on the over-zealous use of the zoom) A small DSLR such as the Pentax K5 is great too as it allows for lens changes and a quiet shutter! These kinds of cameras are light and can be used efficiently when shooting from the hip (see exercise two below). Most importantly they allow you access to a range of creative manual and semi-manual modes that get you off using your camera in ‘Auto’. Another bonus is that due to their diminutive size they do not make you a target for over anxious security guards or indeed the Police. (See HERE for further information on your rights as a photographer on the streets) Remember if you are taking your camera out all day then you will need to have a spare battery and/or your charger, plus a memory card large enough to hold your pictures.
For the ultimate in portable ease and for the potential to get in close I also enjoy photographing on my mobile telephone, the ubiquity of these devices allows one to blend right in with any crowd, the quality of the lenses and camera firmware is getting better and better each year and one can download fun and creative apps to use. ‘Instagram’ and ‘Flickr’ are great platforms to share your pictures and receive feedback, and of course, your photograph can be sent from your phone in a matter of seconds.
As an example I offer this photograph. This was taken on a mobile phone app, in an Underground train deep under London. It is still however a ‘street photograph’, even though it does not involve the use of a ‘proper’ camera and was taken several meters under the street! One thing is for sure, I would not have got the shot if I had tried to use my DSLR.The train was so crowded I couldn’t have even raised the camera! It is a picture of a human event, the rush hour crush, the daily commute; miserable and claustrophobic. The most important thing to remember about your gear is that the great photograph is worth much more than the price of your camera. People will always be more interested in the content of your pictures than the size of your lens. Or to quote a friend of mine:
“People look at my photos and say I must have a fancy, expensive camera” I ask them, “does a good cook feel the need to show off his pans?”
Try not to always use a telephoto or long lens. This is for several reasons: they are big and conspicuous, are bulky and heavy to carry around all day and they invite suspicion from security people and your potential subjects. People look at you and surmise that you are on a professional job. Although they may afford you distance and relative invisibility from your subjects it is this very distance that lends the resulting shots a kind of ‘spy’ feel. There is, I believe, a qualitative difference in the ‘closeness’ afforded by the use of a telephoto lens, and the true closeness afforded by the use of a fixed short lens. Telephoto photographs most often display none of the real closeness that involves the viewer in your photograph. The subjects can look flat, (it is a characteristic of telephoto lenses that they flatten perspective) isolated, distant and ‘cut off’ from their surroundings; lacking intimacy and interest. You may think that the telephoto offers you so much more flexibility but ironically, you will curse the times when something happens right next to you and you don’t get the shot because your focal length won’t allow it – you’ve got the (real) closeness but not the lens! Let your legs do the zooming with a short prime lens and you will achieve a wider variety of angles and layers; giving your photographs a richness and narrative; the viewer of your image will feel your own closeness to the subject and therefore in turn will be drawn in to your photograph.
“If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” Robert Capa.
Many interesting situations in the street involve interactions between more than merely one or two subjects, affording interesting juxtapositions between several elements. So consider sometimes using a wide angle lens such as a 28mm, 35mm or 50mm to allow for a broad scene with plenty of layered activity to be captured. These lenses are light and portable, they ‘blend in’ and are ‘fixed’ – i.e. they only operate at their stated focal length. These lenses are also called ‘Prime Lenses‘ or ‘Fast Lenses’, which are usually better quality and often offer a wider maximum aperture. The fixed focal length means that you use your legs instead of twisting a lens barrel and zooming from a distance. As said above, you are therefore really connecting with your subjects and situating yourself as part of them; not separated or disengaged. In my opinion, the vast majority of memorable street work has been shot with lenses between 28mm and 50mm. If you do not have a fixed or prime lens then use a short telephoto such as an 18-55mm, which is the ‘kit-lens’ that comes with a lot of first time DSLR purchases. You might also consider a 28 –70mm for short telephoto work. There are a lot of interesting focal lengths out there – I really enjoy using my 10-20mm super-wide angle lens for a massive view of the world! Henri Cartier-Bresson used a fixed 50mm lens for all of his street work. He got so used to that lens it became an extension of his eye!
SOME STREET PHOTOS AND THEIR MAKING
Here are some of my street pictures, these were shot in London, India and America. I have included them here to illustrate a few things one needs to be aware of when approaching a shot.
Finally I would like to share with you a couple of exercises for shooting on the street. Any photographer can get a bit stale and find themselves repeating the same manner of shooting. We all get a bit comfortable shooting with the same setting on our camera and with the same approach to our subjects so its always good to shake it up and try something new. If you find that you are unsatisfied with your photos, that they don’t excite you, then you might need to give yourself a little assignment. Often this injects life and vigour into your shots, and you yourself come alive again with possibilities. Street Photography is hard enough without it not being at least fun to do! Sometimes all it takes is for you to try a different mode on your camera to give your shots a fresh feel. For example try shooting with a very wide aperture and blur out the background, making your subject ‘pop’. Find some movement around you and switch to shutter priority to freeze or blur your shots. In a future article I will go into depth discussing the technical aspects of the camera and how you can use manual controls for creative effects. But for now here are two exercises that will help you get better shots because they place you in a certain context with the street, forcing you in the first instance to be patient and observant, and in the second, to be brave and throw caution to the wind, accepting what happens! I hope you enjoy practicing these. The first assignment is called “Be The Flower, Not the Bee” and the second is “Shoot From The Hip”
The following are some links to excellent web sites featuring street photography from the practitioner and theoreticians point of view. Also there are links to some great street photographers who have inspired me in my own practice. Enjoy!
The lovely Mags Di Ceglie (re)photographed in her wedding dress (and Converse Trainers) Enjoying the chance to slip her dress on again (well it’s too good to wear just the once!) we headed off to the studio, and the studio roof, to take some shots. A big, huge thanks to her for graciously acting as my model for a series of wedding photography website shots. We had a fun time!
Acklam Village Market really does have it all on a plate for the weekend adventurist. Situated in a semi-underworld, below the rumbling roads of the Westway Flyover, a new world presents itself: a great variety of international street grub is served up from bright and friendly stalls, which snake from the entrance off the busy weekend Portobello Road Market. Your food can be eaten at high tables surrounded by urban art works sprayed and painted directly onto the massive concrete pillars and walls. You can also take your food into the Fuller’s bar and enjoy high quality live music on the hour. The live music bar, known as ‘The Den’, has recently had a makeover from design students of Chelsea College of Art and Design. The Art Students certainly know their stuff: cleverly harnessing an otherwise imposing space into a happy aesthetic of Day-Glo colours: the brightly painted wall and floor of the stage area fizzes with shocking pinks and blues in a twisted art nouveau vision of giant flowers. You’ll enjoy the wit of the ‘up-cycled’ interior: netting spans the roof through wooden hoops which float in the air like red blood cells, lamps stand encrusted with found plastic toys and trinkets, inventive seating is constructed from wooden palettes and packaging material, and coloured tape demarcates the floor like a trippy gymnasium. Painted pink flamingoes straddle a bank of cushioned seating facing the stage like a scene from the opening titles of ‘Miami Vice’ – it’s a funky, punky, trashy, comfortable and frivolous setting that raises a smile; an unusual, alternative space, happily flaunting a reassuring whiff of fashionable urban decay
There is a big musical history emanating from this space, and the celebrities featured in a special exhibition called “The Wall of Fame at the The Den – Live Music Bar” are just some of the most famous rock and pop stars associated with North Kensington (Portobello, Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill and Kensal). There are many other contenders, who have lived, posed, played and died in this very area. Very aware of their roots; in an example of its one-off special events, tonight Acklam Village plays host to a punk revival gig.
Acklam Village Bar/Live Interior
I am here to photograph three bands: ‘Adverse Effect’, ‘Pink Cigar’ and the (in)famous ‘Chelsea’ who are all in attendance to treat us to a sonic reminder of the heady days of the late 70’s Punk/New Wave Explosion. The crowd – most of whom had come to see ‘Gene October’strut his stuff with headline act ‘Chelsea’ – also thoroughly enjoyed emerging local band ‘Pink Cigar’, whose artful posing and clever songs reminded me of Iggy and the Stooges. Opening the evening, Adverse Effect’s lead singer snarled, clasped her hands together in mock prayer and flung herself prostrate on the floor as the band thundered through their powerful set.
Toward the end of the night ‘Gene October’ of ‘Chelsea’ with an energy belying his years, ripped through a repertoire of numbers with barely a breath. Prowling and bouncing across the stage he tightly gripped his microphone and hurled invective to the crowd who responded with gusto: jumping to the music and punching the air. It became a bit too much for this photographer, in search of a dynamic angle at the foot of the stage I was ‘Pogoed’ energetically by one overzealous punk and eventually booted onto the stage, bashing my kneecap and breaking my lens-hood – memo to self: ‘don’t crouch down in front of a punk appreciation society in full flow!’
I leave Acklam Villlage and ‘The Den’ with a smile on my face, ringing ears, a bruised knee and a sweet sense of nostalgia for the punky days of my youth.
Going through some old work I found these photographs I made of paintings I executed between 2003-2005. My Mother died, at too young an age, in early 2003 and I find it incredible that while I was painting these images I was not consciously aware of the themes they seem to explore. I obviously needed to get something out of my system. I feel that one of the joys of art-making is the physical manifestation of the subconscious; sometimes one wonders why certain ideas, visions and projects come unbidden to the imagination, I have learned to go with them; in a state of ’empty-headed mindfulness’, which for artists, is a liberating, intensely creative state to inhabit. These are paintings ‘about’ grief I guess and looking back on them now I am glad that I am in a happier place, I hope that my Mother is too.
Its 5.19am July 6th 2012 and the Amtrak train I boarded in Kingman four hours earlier pulls into the tiny town of Flagstaff, AZ. The conductor has woken me and I, along with ten other passengers, quietly leave the carriage so as not to disturb the seeping forms around us. The sun is just beginning to light up the sky, birds stir into song and a tall 1950’s Motel sign (Rooms $5) is revealed near the side of the tracks, its skeletal form glows orange in a new Arizona dawn. I am based here for a period of time, mainly to visit the Grand Canyon (a birthday present to myself). I am feeling very sleepy and calculate that by now I have travelled nearly 4000 miles since departing from Penn Station in New York over three weeks previously. The trains have taken me to New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas before crossing into Arizona via Bakersfield and Kingman. There are many more miles to go before I return home. I have nearly three hours to kill before my Hostel opens and I can check in and have a snooze. For now though, I am content to rest in the old station waiting room. Flagstaff is one of those Western-type towns with low-rise buildings and wide streets that put one in a reflective mood: it’s easy to imagine stagecoaches and horses tied to poles, and the chink of spurs in the dust. Sitting on the station’s wide wooden benches, I muse on the variety of destinations to which the trains have taken me, the people I have met and the journey still to come. Think of America and it isn’t long before images of trains begin to appear. The history of America is also a history of the railways. In song, film and literary legend the train rolls along, creating narratives as enduring and powerful as a steam engine and stoking up the popular imagination. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ was the first American narrative film, made in 1903; its plot is inspired by the exploits of the real life ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang led by Butch Cassidy. As one travels one realises that many towns very existence is only due to the building of the railroad. Originally these places were merely ‘tented-towns’ christened “Hell on Wheels” for their vice dens, violence and gambling (featuring in John Ford’s 1924 classic ‘Iron Horse’ and inspiring a 2011 TV Drama series) Many crumbled after the railroad was built but some remained to become bona-fide towns, notably Cheyenne and Laramie. The first ever populations of many cities and towns were the very workers who built the railroad, afterwards some remained to settle, many moved on. In 1865 at the end of the Civil War the term ‘hobo’ was created (the name ‘Hoe Boy’ was given to the returning destitute soldier/farmers of the South who, with little other choice of work, were drafted in to lay tracks) Many were unable to settle and wandered the country on the self-same railroad they had laid. I come to the trains as happily as a traveller who likes to feel the journey in his bones, hear the progress in the tracks and watch the ever-changing landscape slide by the window.Train travel over a long distance is certainly not as exhausting as flying. The combined sound of the tracks and gentle rocking of the carriages is restful at night and although I travelled through a total of five time zones I was never ‘jet lagged’. It may not be the fastest manner in which to travel but it is comfortable, even meditative. One knows that the views one is experiencing can’t be seen from any road or aeroplane.
I found it interesting how unaware most Americans seem to be about Amtrak. Although blessed with a non–privatised national rail company, which is cheaper and cleaner than flying and less expensive than car fuel, Americans generally choose to use planes and cars to get around the States. The majority I spoke with had no idea that the Government ran Amtrak or that a rail pass was available for travelling which cut costs even further. These conversations were often punctuated with statements that they had, “always wanted to try the train”, but had never done so. The main arguments were of course the time factor and this they felt was exacerbated by the freight trains. It is the Freight companies, and not Amtrak, who own the tracks. The legacy of the single-line track across most of America means that Amtrak trains are often delayed by long, slow freight trains, which ship goods all over the country 24/7 and have priority over the Amtrak passenger trains. However, over the course of the whole of my trip I calculated that I was delayed for only a maximum of 4 hours. Perhaps I was lucky.
Quirky conversations, chance coincidences and strange meetings are an essential part of the train travel package. One never knows whom one will meet on the train: a group of Amish women boarding in El Paso chat to me about their lives, a Vietnam Vet in Emeryville tells me of his adventures as a freight train engineer in the 50’s, I administer first aid to an 86 year old motorcycle enthusiast on the way to Chicago and, coming into New Orleans, the Café Car attendant, a tall woman, speaking in a deep Louisiana drawl, slips seamlessly into a broad Yorkshire accent, addressing me as ‘Petal’, upon hearing my English tones. She moved to the USA from Bradford 16 years previously and after a while began working on the trains. She works ‘The Crescent’ from New York City to New Orleans. She seems to be a real favourite with some passengers and is gregarious and cheery. I find it spooky as she converses effortlessly in her Southern drawl and then flips to her ‘natural’ Yorkshire tones when she talks with me. The trip to New Orleans is 30 hours, towards the end of the journey I get an experience that must rank as one of the best in train travel: the six mile crossing of Lake Pontchartrain is made possible by the train running on tracks laid on a causeway just above the water’s surface. It’s as if our carriage has become a speeding boat, the view from the window encompasses 630 square miles of water and looking straight down it is unnerving not to be able to see the rails. Fishing boats and small stilted buildings are dotted around us and people wave at the train from their bobbing craft. I wave back, delighted at this magical train-on-the-water experience.
In New Orleans:
In San Antonio, TX: On the way to L.A. from New Orleans the train makes a layover stop at San Antonio to refuel, restock and clean up a bit. I have been asleep for a couple of hours but hear the announcement that we are to remain at San Antonio for a while. The stopover is for two hours and it’s 1am as we arrive. I am wide-awake and feel a breakfast beer coming on. I wonder if the station bar is open. Its not – there isn’t one. I ask the conductor if there is a local bar I might visit. He smiles and says I am in luck. There’s a sports bar open till 3am just around the corner from the tracks at the end of the platform. “It doesn’t have a name” he says, “But you’ll see the ‘Open’ sign, make sure you are back here by 2:45am – I’m not coming to get you from your stool”. I assure him I will be back in time and head off in the direction he has indicated. The bar is only three minutes away. Fringed with a wooden porch, a few people are clustered in groups round tables on metal chairs and cushions. I clump up the steps saying ‘Hi’ and people nod in my direction. I walk through the door. A beautiful barmaid who is serving beers from an ice-filled tub on the floor says “I’ll be with you in a moment honey” then, when I order a beer, she says “Oh, Hi Steve!” I check that I haven’t inadvertently picked up a name tag from somewhere and ask how she knows my name. “But sure, you’re Steve from England aren’t you” This is weird, either she is a prophet or an amazingly gifted detective in her day job. I must look confused as she says; “You rang earlier – asked to speak to Nick – wanted to know if we was open when the Amtrak stops over? I recognised your voice and well, here you are,” I tell her it wasn’t me who rang, that I never even knew the train stopped in San Antonio, but however, I am called Steve and I am from England. “Oh, wow, she says that’s crazy!!” “Oh well,” she ponders, “The Steve from England that’s not you, hasn’t shown up, but the Steve from England that is you…is here!!” “Yes, thats’s true…I am!” I say. As I take my beer out to the porch I hear her relay the coincidence to other customers lining the bar on stools, one gentleman shouts after me…”Man, you have a Doppelganger – you want me to hunt him down for ya?” “No thanks”, I say, “You might shoot me by mistake”
In Los Angeles, CF: I take the number 7 ‘Big Blue Bus‘ back to my hostel after a visit to an exhibition, it’s the same bus that I took on the way to the show but it terminates instead at a bus station some way from my desired destination. I ask the driver for the best way to Crenshaw and he tells me its five minutes that direction (gesturing vaguely to his right) I stand on a street corner for less than one minute to get my bearings, when a woman says from my side, “You look lost – are you lost?” I agree that I am and tell her that I thought the bus would be taking me to Crenshaw Boulevard and that it stopped here. I’m thinking of walking and does she know the direction? “Are you crazy?” she says, “Crenshaw is a long, loooong road, what number you lookin’ for?” I tell her and she says that’s not too bad. I tell her if she will point me in the right direction, I will walk it. She pauses and looks at me intently for a moment then says, “Show me your I.D. – I might just give you a ride.” Somewhat taken aback I don’t comprehend why I should show my passport to a person who (might) be giving me a lift. I hold my passport open for her and put it in front of her face, she reads my name, looks intently at me again and turns to a man queuing at a nearby ATM and says “Hey, what’s your name?”, “My name’s ‘Will” he answers, “Well, Mr. Will”, she says, “Take a good look at my face, my name is Janice, I’m from Hollywood”. “Uh Huh” says Will. “Now Will, while you’re at it, take a good look at this man’s face too”, she gestures to me, “His name is ‘Stephen Mepsted’ and he’s from England”. ”I am gonna give this man a ride, as he is lost”. “Uh Huh”, nods Will slowly. “And Will” says Janice, “If you see my name or face in the morning papers or on TV, and I’m like all dead and raped, then you make sure to remember the name ‘Mr. Stephen Mepsted’ – from England!” At this point I burst out laughing, but Janice from Hollywood is deadly serious and I am about to make a joke to a bemused looking Will: “Hey Will…should ‘Steve Mepsted from England’ turns up on the news all dead and raped then please remember the name ‘Janice from Hollywood’!” but I think better of it. Now of course I don’t know LA that well, so I guess Janice is absolutely right to get a witness to her good deed. The contract is made and she shows me to her station wagon and drives me along the freeway towards Crenshaw. I try to give her some landmarks to head for, ones that are near my hostel; I am notoriously bad at directions – In fact I possess no directional sense at all and don’t remember street names. When in an unfamiliar place I navigate by a building I’ve seen or by a striking landmark or location I can work my way back to. “I remember a big tall building called ‘Harbor’” I say, and she says she knows it and that’s fine, we can go there…its not too far. On the way she says to me. “You know, that’s not a great place to stand around looking lost”, “The bus depot”? I ask, “Yea, its not a good neighbourhood – not really a neighbourhood at all.” I express my thanks for picking me up. She asks me, “What are you doing in Los Angeles” I tell her I am travelling around on Amtrak trains from place to place, taking photographs and writing and thinking”, she seems impressed but wrinkles her brow at me like I am a bit odd. Janice then says, with sudden passion in her voice, “Death’s coming! – Live!” I am not quite sure how to respond to this slightly startling utterance but take it as an inspirational quote, which I am sure I am meant to. She says in a less urgent voice, “Sorry about the I.D. thing earlier, but my husband is sick and tired of me picking up lost people – you see I am a God fearing Christian and I have to pick up God’s lost children,” I nod, worried that there may be some ‘Righteous Preaching’ about to be delivered, but no….she continues, “My husband says there are always too many lost children out there and one day you are going to pick up the wrong one and end up dead, I guess he worries about me.” I tell her I am thankful and that she is a good person,” I add ludicrously, “I’m not going to kill you.” She smiles and says that she can tell I won’t. She asks me if I am never scared, she means in strange places when travelling, not generally scared. I tell her I am always getting lost, I don’t drive, I rely on public transport and walking and it gets me into areas that might be considered dangerous but because I don’t know they are dangerous I am not scared. It’s all a part of gaining new experiences and I point out that our current situation is a perfect illustration of that. She agrees. Janice tells me about her work: church charity missions, and networking for funding, she travels a lot with ministers of the church and considers herself to be a lucky person. She believes that ‘givers’, by giving, gain everything, and ‘takers’ only want more and will never be satisfied. I agree with her and ask if she gets scared – she says her faith keeps her confident that God looks after her and that she is not scared of death. She admits that she is, however, scared of driving on the high-speed freeways and that she has to listen to inspirational CD’s to give her confidence while she is driving. As we approach the hostel she asks what I am going to do this evening? I tell her I am tired from arriving at 5.20am and walking all day, that I will have an early night. I will go to the 7-Eleven to get some groceries, make a meal and crash. She is then kind enough to take me a further half mile to the 7-Eleven. Before I get out of the car I implore her not to get killed tonight because I might get the blame if ‘Mr. Will’ is on the ball! She says she’ll try not to, and laughs. We say goodbye in the parking lot and I forget to take her picture. Oh well…thanks, and goodbye Janice – Bless You!
In Las Vegas, NV: Its been said before but it bears repeating: Las Vegas is screwed up; sad, beautiful, run down, built up, shiny yet dull, like a pocket knife discarded in sand. Vegas is populated by sulky dwarves and grinning giants, bo-toxed angels and suited demons, desperate and hopeful, greedy and needy; Vegas drinks too much and dresses badly and gets around on motorised wheelchairs when it is perfectly able to walk. Sinatra and Elvis have left the building and have been replaced by ‘The Jersey Boys’, magicians, hypnotists and more tribute acts. Costumed ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Spongebob’, ‘Buzz Lightyear’ and ‘Woody’ line the streets. Card-snapping small people flit like locusts and promise a ‘Hot Babe to your room in 20 minutes’. Couples argue and kids whine and beggars demand and all the while the relentless desert heat pounds down on ‘New York, New York’ and the Statue of Liberty looks out upon ‘The Strip’, offering a fibreglass ice cream cone in place of her flame.
To Flagstaff, AZ: I gratefully leave Las Vegas by hopping on a shuttle from Mc’Carran International Airport and then an Amtrak Bus to take me to Flagstaff AZ. At Kingman Station awaiting the train to Flagstaff ‘JC’ a Vietnam Vet who has chatted with me on the shuttle is inspired to tell me of his time as a freight train engineer in the 1950’s. He says that the trains would pass so slowly through here that the bar up the road would have a tray of beers ready – he would jump off the front of the train – run into the bar, pay and leave with the tray full of beer and be in time to jump on the rear of the train then walk along the top of the containers to his mates at the front end again. During this trip I travel upwards in elevation 4’818ft and across a state line: Vegas sits at 2’181 ft above sea level and Flagstaff at 7’000 ft. I have timed things so that I will spend my birthday in the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff is a great little place to wind down after the bustle of Vegas. The thin air here creates a particular shade of blue sky, a powdered baby blue. Each intake of breath feels like two – same with a glass of beer. Freight trains at night announce themselves mournfully and shunt on through the station, which lies just behind my hostel. The rail crossing shuts its barriers to cars and pedestrians and clangs as the train blows, it feels like proper ‘Old America’ and the only place I have visited so far where, in my minds eye, I can see the streets 150 years ago. 7th July is my 49th birthday and I am up early to grab the shuttle bus to the South Rim of the Canyon. We arrive and it’s a short walk to the rim. I shut my eyes as I began to see the view up ahead of me. As I fumbled my hand out to the railing and opened my eyes I shut them again to let it all seep in, its too much to comprehend and my brain needs to adjust. I stayed at the rim for an hour just looking, mouth open, and then take the ‘Bright Angel Trail’ down into the Canyon for a happy hike.
Back in Flagstaff I heard some guitar music coming from the bar across the road, in the elegant courtyard of a small bar. I decide to end my birthday with a meal and some beer. The duo playing were excellent and we got chatting in their break. I mention I play and sing a bit and they said I should hop on stage! I borrow a guitar, play some covers and they join me. In a fairy-lit garden in Flagstaff, the trains sound hauntingly in the warm night air. I look forward to the adventures I will have down the line, and all is well with the world.
FACTS AND INFORMATION: If one has the time and the inclination for this sort of journey, Amtrak trains provide it, and they do so reasonably cheaply and efficiently. As the USA’s intercity passenger rail operator, Amtrak connects America with 21,000 route miles in 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, Amtrak operates more than 300 trains each day, at speeds up to 150 mph, to more than 500 destinations. The cheapest way to go, if you are planning an extended trip, is to purchase a USA Rail Pass from Amtrak for $829 (around £520 at time of writing) CHECK FARE PRICES NOWthis entitled me to 18 journeys, or ‘segments’, to be booked within a 45 day time period but available for travelling for up to 180 days. With a little pre-planning and booking-ahead I was able to cover 8000 miles and cross 20 states for little over £500. A segment can be a 38-hour journey (New Orleans to Los Angeles) or a relatively short hop of 7 hours from Kingman to Flagstaff. USA Rail Passes can also be purchased to cover 30 days/12 segments and 15 days/8 segments. In all I travelled for two months on Amtrak trains. From New York to New Orleans, New Orleans to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Oakland, Oakland to San Francisco, San Francisco to Emeryville, Emeryville to Las Vegas, Las Vegas to Kingman, Kingman to Flagstaff, Flagstaff to Albuquerque, Albuquerque to El Paso, El Paso to San Antonio, San Antonio to Austin, Austin to Chicago, Chicago to Buffalo, Buffalo to Boston, Boston to Washington DC, Washington DC to New York, New York to Toronto (via Buffalo) Toronto to New York (via Buffalo) One can also choose to pay extra and sleep on the train in variously graded sleeping compartments. On long journeys this might be a good idea for some but I never did avail myself of the service – the standard coach class seats are comfortable, reclining to 40 degrees with sufficient legroom, even for a 6’6” man like me.
I am very happy to announce the End of Year Show of a fabulous bunch of students from Kensington and Chelsea College’s National Diploma in Photography. I have had a lot of fun teaching this group this year and the show is well worth a visit. You can find the catalogue HERE