August 15, 2004

(London, 1985. Image copyright Hamish Reid).

I used to stand on the platforms of the various Picadilly, Northern, and Central Line stations in the London Underground on my way to or from work, or going to the flix, or whatever, and suddenly become aware that an entire stretch of wall or corridor was covered in a bizarre montage of torn advertising posters. Long streaks of disconnected colour, faded or ripped bodies, cut-up texts with missing letters or words, strange juxtapositions of images and meanings, all generated from the press of thousands of people struggling to and from the trains each day. These little surrealisms would change every day (in busy stations, every hour), and sometimes the results would rise above the mundane to becomes something accidentally beautiful or even arty colourplays.

I think this was when I slowly became aware of all the other everyday surrealisms around me as well, and just how easy it was to either not notice them at all, or to just take them for granted. I became a little obsessed with the phenomonon, and started taking my new Pentax 35mm into the Underground to photograph what I saw there. The posters were an early target -- like Just Another Landscape, they were some of the first images I ever took with my own camera -- but not an easy target. Photography was banned on the Underground (but that wasn't much enforced), but the real problem for me was that the best images were necessarily in the most crowded stations and places, and I always felt incredibly self-conscious taking the photos. People would either elbow me out of the way or stop and ask what I was doing, usually shrugging or looking at me like I was a total loon when I told them. A handful thought it was a great idea.

So over a few months I built up a handful of nice shots like "Last!" above. It took a while to notice, but every successful image from the series -- at least my favourite six or so -- has at least part of a human face in it. Otherwise there's very little in common between the shots. Once when they were renovating Holborn tube the entire wall opposite the platform was a surreal swirl of torn and peeling posters stretching maybe two hundred feet continuously; I rushed home to get my camera, and in one of those rare times when I just forgot my nerves, I took a shot of the opposite wall from the platform every 6 feet along the busy platform (followed by a bunch of kids who kept asking me what I was doing and why wouldn't I take photos of them...). I don't know what the guys in the Sky automatic photo place thought when they got the film, but the prints came back, and I strung them together on a long piece of cardboard to make my first real Undergound obsessograph. I still have it here in Oakland. No one ever works out what it is they're seeing when they see it, not even other Londoners. Unfortunately, I never did the changes-over-time thing -- that turned out to be way too difficult to arrange, especially as the poster were changed often and seemingly randomly, and I'd usually have to miss a few days anyway.

Technically, there's nothing interesting about the shot -- taken with the small hand-held Pentax 35mm using Ektachrome at 400 ASA and "natural" light (i.e. very dim flourescent lighting, mostly), in either Leicester Square or Picadilly tube stations, I think. It's not like I had much choice of gear at the time...

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Hamish Reid is a photographer, designer, and software engineer living and working in the Jingletown district of Oakland, California. This is his full profile.

You can get hold of Hamish at xyzphotolalia at ylayalixyz dot com without the xyx's.

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