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Where exactly is a place? Take ROYAL OAK, for example, a station on the Hammersmith & City Line in West London. Travellers have been there in transit and know it as a name only: a pub name originally in honour of the future King Charles II, who hid in an oak tree. But it would be difficult for a traveller to claim real knowledge of such a place without having experienced its weather and its pavements. These pictures by Anthony Cairns are a test, for although they are attributed to places they look as if they have been salvaged from a metropolitan ruin raked by light and radiation.

One contemporary tendency is to know places thoroughly, by walking and investigation. You should know the place strenuously in your bones, and research should tell you who walked the same streets once upon a time. But these bleached images have few empirical points of reference: CENTRE, one of them says, on the Harrow Road according to the caption, but it could be any self-styled centre anywhere in the English or French-speaking world. What the pictures do is to allow you to imagine yourself uprooted and detached, adrift in an urban memory. From time to time a configuration might ring a bell, suggest a particular underpass or walkway on the Jubilee Line or on the approaches to Waterloo, for instance, but for the most part you are literally all at sea – and a misty sea, at that.

There are advantages to such pictures as these. Architectural photography, as carried out by architectural specialists, deals in identities, representing known structures at particular sites. Any building, studiously photographed, can be attributed to an architect and builder. Its materials are on show, along with their configuration. In reality, though, most of us pass through urban spaces, attentive to little more than their general feeling.

But there is a lot more to these pictures than a novel reading of the city’s streets. The pictures originate as 35mm transparencies, part-developed and then solarised before being re-developed for another five minutes or so. From inter-negatives contact prints are made onto pre-coated aluminium sheets. That is to say there are a number of stages, and a certain amount of handling of the material. What emerges isn’t a perfectly realized image but one that is marked by the demands of the process, by fingerprints, droplets and blisters. The picture itself, that is to say, carries as one of its aspects evidence of its making, the accidents and incidents involved in bringing the image to the light of day. So, on the one hand you may have a blurred and rhythmic view of a built-up landscape seen from a train travelling at speed and on the other the small incidents of production: the fall of dust, the touch of a finger or a trace of fluid – all representative of contingency or of that other side of life that simply happens irrespective of schemes and planning.

The pictures also have to be ‘made out’, fathomed or figured. Stains and blurs ask to be identified or separated one from the other; and due to the unfamiliar tonal range of the images items such as bolt-heads and lights have to be discerned. There are pieces of texts, as well, which can almost be read, and they cause hesitation and strain. Thus the very decipherment of the pictures takes another kind of time and different kinds of concentration: reading of letters and fragments of words, for example, as well as testing the light – looking for significant irregularities in delicate, radiant surfaces. Thus the city with its frameworks and modules provides a setting and a foil for the kind of almost imperceptible moments in which we usually have our being.

Ian Jeffrey
26 March 2013







  





 













 

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