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Your Perfect High Street

15 Sep

As part of last weekend’s Heritage Open Day events, I was delighted to be invited to run a workshop at the Unitarian Church on Shrewsbury’s High Street.  According to the inscription on its frontage,  the Unitarian Church was built in 1662 and was where Charles Darwin came to worship.  And I had a beautiful old room with stained glass windows above the street to work in.

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The suggested theme was designing a perfect High Street.  Arguably, Shrewsbury already has one, and so in preparation for the event I began to explore by taking a series of photos of details along the street.  Details that may go unnoticed unless you really slow down and look.

Participants helped create a collage of my photos as a grid during the workshop, and then people added their own thoughts, ideas and memories on sticky notes within the grid:

 

 

 

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My preparations also included a pen drawing of the elevations of both sides of the street, which became quite addictive.  I completed it in about three days, although certainly can’t vouch for its accuracy of detail.  It was interesting to see the differences in scale of the buildings and see them without the dominating colours and branding of the retailers. The Unitarian Church, which can seem quite an impressively large facade from street level, actually appears to be one of the smallest buildings along the whole street.

 

The workshop was aimed primarily at families with children aged 8 and over, but many adults dropped in and got involved too.  There were around 35 participants over the course of 3 hours.  Besides the photo collage, the activities began with thinking about the kind of activities that might take place in the High Street and which are more important.

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I made a few initial suggestions, and quickly realised just how many different activities already go on in our High Street.  Participants then added their own ideas, moved activities between “important” and “not important” and voted with red dots for the ideas they agreed with.  I deliberately missed out quite a few activities like shopping and gambling to see if there was any reaction, and surprisingly only one person added “ice cream shop”… and this was in the “not important” zone.  Someone else added “independent businesses” as important.  Hear hear!

The activities ranked in the highest zone of importance/votes were (approximately):

  • Homes for living,
  • green space,
  • learning,
  • seating,
  • street art,
  • a litter free environment,
  • having a strong community,
  • independent businesses,
  • walking/strolling/wandering,
  • healthcare,
  • theatre/street performance,
  • exercising democratic rights local political issues and public debates.

I think we can guess at the kind of social-demographic I was dealing with.  Other suggestions I really liked included:

  • Temporary closure of streets to create play/community areas,
  • interacting and co-operating,
  • installations and performance platform for local artists (obviously).

Most of the workshop activity revolved around building a scale model of a High Street using card boxes and hand drawn frontages.  Participants could use my pen drawings and a montage of architectural design considerations as inspiration.  There were some really lovely buildings.

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Finally, as an activity to take away, I produced a sheet of some of the architectural details to go and find somewhere in the High Street.  You can download a copy and have a go yourself by clicking this link:  Look Closely

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Against the Inevitable

8 Jun Entropy, Against the Inevitable, Andrew Howe

My Canon camera has become afflicted with the dreaded ERR099 fault, and I fear its final demise may be imminent.  Before this, and perhaps as some kind of forewarning or omen, I found myself taking shots of seemingly futile patch repairs and supports to bits of infrastructure facing the inevitable drift from order into ruin and chaos. Its hard to resist a morbid fascination in the relentless entropic process of disintegration and gradual takeover of vegetation and other organic growth.

These photographs were taken in and around Shrewsbury and Walsall towards the end of 2015 and early 2016.

The Walk to Work

28 Dec

Walking is better than cycling if you want to see the world and think.  The pace of walking fits with the speed of thought.  It takes me about 50 minutes to walk around the River Severn, through Longden Coleham, and along cycle paths (an old railway line) and finally across fields.  I love to do this in all seasons, and particularly during the dark mornings and evenings in November and December when there is a quiet atmosphere of anticipation of the coming festive season.

Things catch my eye and it is rare that I get to work with the result that I have had a good, methodical think through a particular problem or subject.  But it is great for letting the mind float free, alighting on objects, each sight distrupts the thought pattern but might just send my ideas in a new, revelatory direction.

During the early Summer, I planned to take photos of things that caught my eye and I began to ponder on how we see the world – our state of being.  Perception, conception, meaning and reality.  How do we interpret what we see, and what is reality.  Before I know it we could be into the depths of Wittgenstein.  There are numerous texts on the subject by artists and philosophers and scientists, so I am not saying anything wildly original here, but think about it.  What do you see? 

Our experience is not really like a continual film, but a series of snapshots, sometimes blurred.  We look, process, look, process, think, focus, think, look, process, refocus, think, look, process, look again, process, think… perception and conception.

I realised that the series of photos I took one day would almost certainly be different to the next and the next.  Snapshots would be influenced by mood, weather, thoughts, noises, smells, time of day, other people, wildlife, movement, recent and past memories and much more.  Our interpretation of a particular view is determined by our memory of past experience, and is largely an abstract construct before we actually consider what our eyes are taking in at that specific moment.  So even if by some miracle another person walked the route and took photos of exactly the same things, it couldn’t be for exactly the same reasons, and interpreted the same way.  And that’s before we even begin to consider the photographic image selection, framing, the capture itself taking account of light conditions, camera settings etc and the post-editing processes.  No two people could possibly see the same route however short, in the same way.

This calls for an experiment sometime – to get two, or preferably several more, people to walk a route, take photos, perhaps within 5 minutes of each other, then on different days, at different times, over a long period.  Then compare.

The decision to take a photo is influenced by so many factors, depending on the objective.  Sometimes it is such a fine line between stopping, considering, framing, releasing the shutter and continuing, or just saving the effort and leaving the image in mind only.  With digital cameras there is almost no effort, no waste, so the line is even finer.

So where am I going with this?  We cannot relate to the same thing in the same way, our individual life experiences are isolated and interconnected at the same time.  We’re heading into the fundamentals of photography and what it can reveal to us about the photographer.

On one morning in June, I set out to take photos of what my eyes alighted on – not everything, or I might never have arrived – but what I judged to be of a “certain” significance.  The camera battery gave up just short of my destination, and I took some 94 photos.  Inevitably there was an element of  selection/exclusion in what I shot.  I tried not to spend long with composition or thinking about the shot, and I used the camera zoom only where I considered that this represented my selective focusing on an object.  Similarly I only cropped an image in post production if this represented what I was looking at better.   I did very little manipulation of the image except to balance tones and colour. 

To avoid further selectivity, I have not discarded any of the images and so here is my walk to work on 17th June 2013.  Of course, I didn’t think much during the walk that day except about taking photos, so like with any scientific experiment, the intervention of conducting the experiment changes the conditions in which the experiment is conducted … but anyway:

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Coton Hill Allotments – Winding down

5 May

My last visit to the allotments to take photographs was on 26th October 2012.  I didn’t manage to get to the site during most of the harvesting season, but there was still much produce still in evidence.  Some of the winter crops, like leeks and sprouts were also well under way.

It was also good to see that at least one of the bee hives in the neighbouring field had been salvaged.  The bee colony had not been in great condition but hopefully it will thrive.

It was a cool damp day, but the Autumn colours of the leaves were particularly vibrant this year.  Colourful chard leaves also brought some brightness to an otherwise quite sombre day.  There were plenty of mushrooms around in the adjacent fields.

Some people were hard at work just starting out on preparing their plot and putting up fencing ready for next year.

Coton Hill Allotments – it was all worth it

3 May

By 21st July, the site looked fully established.  Another 15 plots had been created and were being prepared, albeit quite late in the growing season.  It was quite astonishing how mature the allotments appeared, as if they had been ongoing for some years.  There was a general relaxed air of satisfaction about the place.

Most of the plots already had plenty of vegetable produce.  One lady was watering her magnificent crop of cabbages and she allowed me to take her portrait with them, albeit that our conversation was somewhat limited by our different languages.

It was quite a warm balmy late afternoon, and it was just the time I had imagined way back when the project started – a late summer’s afternoon when one could relax after working on the plot, have a drink and may be enjoy a barbecue.  I could see that one or two folk had already tried out this particular blissful experience, but there were no barbecues on the day during my visit, so I missed out on that photo opportunity unfortunately.

 

Coton Hill Allotments – And so it grows…

27 Mar

Suddenly with an incredible spell of warm, almost Summer-like weather at the end of March, the allotment has become an industrious place.  Its a busy time of year, but I managed to make a visit to the site early on 23rd March. 

I had a chat with the enthusiastic Martin Howard, who has done most of the work in developing the site.  He was continuing to work on the fencing and gates along the northern edge, having completed the work on the main entrance gates at the bottom of the access track.  He was awaiting further instructions on proceeding with the water connection to be made from the Berwick Estate. 

The most striking thing for me, was to see not only the immediate impact people have made on their respective plots, but the diversity of their approach.  As vegetation is not yet well established, the most obvious impact was the new sheds, greenhouses, cloches and other various structures.  Hard landscaping.  The idiosyncratic use of found and reclaimed materials is already evident, in addition to some brand new materials.

Some folk have gone for weed control and mulching – I fear the nettles will bite back.  Others have gone straight for digging and improving the soil.  Several of the plots have impressively neat rows of potatoes planted.  There is already a wide variety of vegetables and fruit bushes.  The most powerful signs of Spring were the few heads of rhubarb bursting out of the soil with an almost palpable energy.

The buds are emerging on the surrounding trees and the battle over territory with the rabbits goes on…

Coton Hill Allotments – the little details

9 Feb

I spent the first visit wandering around the site noticing so many details of insects, vegetation, old rusty debris and I was most fascinated by the ancient lichens on the old fruit trees.  I took some macro photos, but difficult to get good shots without a tripod – something for a later visit.

On later visits I saw more of the signs of animal activity, such as hazelnut shells left by squirrels, stripped corn cobs amongst straw, and birds’ nests.

I’m also always drawn to the little signs of human activity, such as the rusty gates tied up with rope, shed doors, corroded corrugated sheets and barbed wire.  Given the site’s historical use as an allotment, it will be interesting to see what ancient objects turn up as the earth is dug open once again.

The allotment even when new, will surely be populated with found and adapted tools and other objects.  I like the ramshackle dishevelment of allotments, which on closer inspection reveal many layers of creativity, ingenuity, humour and general thrift.