September 12, 2004

(London, 1985; click image for larger view. Image Copyright Hamish Reid).

London in the mid-1980's seemed to be gripped by a Thatcherite cargo cult focused on America and all the shiny things that would surely come to Londoners if only they used half-understood American concepts and words picked up at third-hand or (mis)heard on the tele. So much mediocre striving... so much striving for mediocrity. As a side effect London started becoming infiltrated by new buildings whose architecture gave the impression of having been translated from another language by someone with a tin ear for the original language (or of jokes retold by someone who doesn't "get" them...), whose surfaces and lines might have looked at home in the sun of LA or in the forrest of buildings making up Manhattan, but that just looked ... sad ... in the context of a city like London.

Meanwhile, the reality on the streets was inevitably something different. London was still dominated by decrepit shit-coloured bricks and stained concrete, the apotheosis of which -- the council housing estate towers -- stood out against the grey skies everywhere you looked. The effect was miserable -- I remember how disheartening my first glimpses of London coming in from Heathrow years earlier had been -- and I felt compelled to roam around with my little Pentax taking photos of the lot. Inevitably most of those photos just didn't work -- a large part of the real-life effect is the sheer size of the tower blocks and the ludicrously inappropriate scale compared to their surroundings, not much of which comes out in 35mm for me. And besides, everybody else was doing that sort of thing at the time -- it was that bloody obvious -- and it was a crowded market.

But as a side effect I started seeing and appreciating some of the older workaday buildings and structures, especially around places like Kings Cross or south of the river. I started obsessing about the the railway arches and viaducts, the way the late Victorian and early twentieth century builders had combined the curves and lines dictated by the railway right of way with little offices, workspaces, flats, etc. (any inner-city Londoner is familiar with the series of little shops and storage spaces tucked in under the arches at Kings Cross, Charing Cross, etc. These all-purpose structures were always coated in decades of grime and were usually the noisiest places in London with the trains crossing overhead every few seconds, and the traffic on the road just outside.

This image is probably my favourite from that era -- it's taken just near London Bridge BR station, with a series of long road tunnels and little shops under the railway viaduct, and a series of half-abandoned offices and tenements above the road level. Absolutely typical of its time and place, if it exists at all now it'll be unrecognisable.

People often criticise me for the tilted angles on shots like this, but that's how I see them. Something in my brain can temporarily see the angles without the normal corrections for a few seconds at a time when I look at a scene like this, and I like recreating the little bits of vertigo that result. And besides, there was nothing upright about anything in that part of London in those days...

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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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