exercise 2.2 – explore a road

Whether you live in an isolated village or a city centre, roads are something we all have in common.

Make a short series of photographs​ about a road near where you live. You may choose to photograph the street you live or work on, or another nearby. How you choose to approach this task is your decision, but use this exercise to develop the observational skills that will be challenged in Assignment Two.

The objective is to try to think about something that is familiar to you in a different way. You don’t need to make any preparations for this exercise. Work intuitively, and try not to labour the exercise.

– lpe coursebook, p.72

I am fairly familiar with (and have taken a lot of photographs in) the roads in the immediate area where I live, so for this exercise decided to to follow the one that I know least well. It runs pretty much north-south from the edge of Walthamstow to the centre of Leyton, a couple of miles to the south. I have passed along this road on a bus a number of times, but never stopped and explored on foot…

My route fits in with the idea of a road being a link between two places while a street is a destination. It would have been more rural  before the railways led to the expansion of both small towns in the middle of the nineteenth century.

I picked a time – 8am on a Sunday morning –  to do the walk.  This had advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, there were almost no people about and very little traffic;  however, it was a clear morning, so only one side of the north/south road was lit by the low, early-morning sun while the shadows from the buildings on the east had only just retreated enough for the whole of the western facade to be evenly lit, from ground up, as I made my south-north return journey, an hour or so after I had set out in the opposite direction.

 

Compile a digital contact sheet​ from your shoot and evaluate your work, identifying images of particular interest to you, or, potentially, to a wider audience.

– lpe coursebook, p.72

fig.1 – my contact sheet of photographs taken on Sunday 11th April, 2021, between 08.20 and 10.00

The pictures in the contact sheet (edited down, from a great many more) are ordered by the time they were taken, so they don’t give a proper picture of a single journey from Walthamstow to Leyton. A clearer narrative structure to the sequence would help here as this would make more of the changes in architecture – retail and modern housing, to more grandly residential/quasi rural space and then back to (more trade-focussed, this time) retail again.

Although the absence of people in the pictures fulfils my intention not to drift inadvertently from one genre (landscape, or cityscape) into another (street) some sense of the people who live in the area might help to produce meaning from the places I’m passing though. The people who live here are different in terms of class, and of race, from the people who live on the other – more gentrified – side of the Lea Bridge Road (where I started my journey). And people like to identify (and identify with) other people in pictures they are looking at; is there enough human interest here for someone who does not know the area to do more than glance at any of these pictures?

One thing that may help with this, is that quite a few of the pictures fall into the category of being challenging –  a description I picked up from Alec Soth’s video page-through of William Eggleston’s book The Democratic Forest – in that they are quite dense visually. They repay a bit of time spent by a viewer decoding what is going on in them while considering what caused me to take the picture in the first place. There are also references to other – mainly American – photographers in some of them – I can detect traces of works by  Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Saul Leiter and Stephen Shore, as well some Eggleston-y bits; some of the colour is reminiscent of Joel Meyerowitz’s New York Kodachrome work; there are shapes out of Lewis Baltz’s New Topographic pictures. My reflection in countless shop windows (and the crime-scene-empty streets) of course points to Atget. The pictures are photographs not snaps. They are meant.

Of course, the extent to which they resemble other photographs taken by other people, in other locations just could be a function of my not being very familiar with this particular road. Perhaps, I have not necessarily seen what is there, instead seeing ‘photographs’, and then taking them. If I made a second journey in a few weeks time – and I will definitely go back and make more studied pictures of some of the buildings here, in a way that may contribute towards my self-directed project for assignment 5 – I might begin to see what is specific to the place, rather than what fits my preconceptions about the place, and also what is ‘mine’ in the photographs I might make.

I wonder if the pictures will get more interesting as time passes and things change? Things that are just there in the pictures – like the cars’ paint colours in Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places – may take on greater significance once they are no longer current.  The blossom on many of the trees fixes the time of year. And there is definite documentary content be read – the yellow testing-centre sign outside the sports ground, or the repeats of the poster for the cancelled December fun-fair in the windows of shops, which haven’t been open at all since before Christmas…

 


Watch one of the films mentioned​ in this section or any other ‘road movie’ of your choice. ​Write a short review​ (around 500 words), focusing on how the road features within the film’s narrative.

– lpe coursebook, p.72

Vanishing Point  – a 1971 film, directed by Richard Sarafian – opens with a police roadblock being set up in a small western town (we discover later it is in California); the atmosphere conjured brings to mind the build up to a shoot out in a western. A white car approaches at speed, stops, heads back the way it came and then turns again and begins to pick up speed towards the roadblock again; motion freezes and a caption takes us back two days and a thousand miles east to Denver, Col0rado. From this point on, the road leads Kowalski and the viewer towards the roadblock and the films conclusion. The road, is both, literally,  a way through landscape and also,  metaphorically, the path taken by Kowalski’s life, as he hurtles towards the film’s (and his own) ending.

The road is an existential space (as is the desert it passes through). Kowalski’s progress along it, outrunning the law forms the spine of the story, while his motivation  – the why of it all – is only hinted at in flashbacks – he was in Vietnam; he was a policeman; he was a dirt-track motorbike racer –  and in snatches of interaction with characters he meets on the way. While in motion along the highway, he is characterised by the radio DJ who has picked up on the police’s attempts to coordinate their efforts to stop him as he crosses state lines as  ‘the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul’. On the road, he occupies a fluid, self-determined space;  the road block that ends his attempt to reach the coast will stop that motion, dead.

The road is also real, adding structure to the story and a physical route through the USA west of the Rockies, although if you try to place the actual locations where the film was made on a map, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a deal of fictionalisation in play too.

It passes through spectacular landscapes, familiar to us from Hollywood Westerns and the photographs made by O’Sullivan and Watkins et al, with many obvious signs of the later development that followed in the wake of the 19th century surveys as first the railways and then the great interstate highways cut across the continent. There are swathes of Robert Adams’ tract housing and gas stations that might have been snapped by Ed Ruscha a decade before the film was made.

Civilisation has closed in on the desert and the west is no longer a wild frontier. Kowalski can go off-road for a period of quasi-religious, existential confusion, but he needs to rejoin the highway to take his story to its conclusion, at the roadblock in California.

None of this is politically neutral of course. The idea of the libertarian man venturing into the open spaces of the American west and – unrestricted by the petty laws of the Eastern Seaboard – finding true freedom is central to the way much right-wing thought has developed since the time the film was made. Arguably, the mindset behind the ruthless exploitation of the west’s natural resources has set the scene for the ongoing climate emergency.

Vanishing Point has a good story but the road it follows leads to an end as dead as the one Kowalski finds as he hits the roadblock and his car turns into a fireball. Whether the film endorses his quest for existential freedom or not remains open to question.

 


Reference:

 

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