The photographer of “Magnum Photos” agency, professor of the photography Mark Power tells about shooting of the project – from the idea birth before implementation of the creative concept
Winter 1935. Bermondsey, London. A 29-year-old woman, standing a shade over five feet tall, is meticulously hand drawing all 23,000 roads and passageways she encounters during her daily walks around the city. She doesn’t use a guide, for precious few street plans of London exist and all are woefully inaccurate. It will take Phyllis Pearsall an entire year and 3000 miles to navigate the capital, but when she does her map is an instant success. The first copies are delivered to WH Smith in a wheelbarrow borrowed from a neighbour.
Nearly seventy years later, in the Spring of 2003, I was enjoying a picnic with my in-laws in the grounds of Hampden Court, Henry VIII’s sumptuous palace to the West of London. Leafing idly through my A-Z London Street Atlas I noticed the stream in front of me ran along the very edge of the map and that the field beyond fell off the page altogether. Here, it seemed, was a place defined not by it’s vicinity to the last tube station or to the M25; instead it found itself languishing somewhere between the two, distinctive only because it was absent. It was not on the map.
My atlas was the offspring of Pearsall’s original publication. At the time, the A5 version was the most popular map of any kind in Britain, selling over 200,000 copies a year, although advancements in smartphones have since seen this number fall dramatically. Yet it remains the cabby’s bible, and is surely owned by most Londoners. I don’t even live there and yet I own – I’m embarrassed to admit – eleven copies. Black and white or colour, they’ve been bought over the years during plentiful trips to London… without a map. Too shy to ask directions to where I’m going, I buy another.
I later did a little research and discovered that the extremities of the atlas change with each new edition. I sent an email to the The Geographers Map Company asking why this was, and who decided, year on year, where the map should end. I received a courteous but uninspiring reply: “Whatever the coverage published, we get requests for the atlas to be extended still further to include an address which is just beyond the existing coverage”. Reasonable enough, but still someone somewhere decides which parts of the periphery of London should be included, and which should not.
I like maps, and have an oddly-obsessive desire to own one of almost everywhere I go. Our house is littered with them: obscure paths in the Himalayas, an explorer map of Purbeck and South Dorset, a street atlas of Nuneaton (though I can’t say I recall ever having been to Nuneaton). I’m sure there must be a word for this condition – a cartophile perhaps (spellcheck doesn’t like this at all… but then it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Nuneaton either). Anyway, I think I’ll use my poor sense of direction as an excuse, since I can only make sense of a place if I see it pictured in two-dimensions (which might also explain why I’m a photographer).
Of course, a number of photographers have worked at the edge of the city. In Spain, for instance, there are three projects that immediately spring to mind. I remember my friend and university colleague Jim Cooke producing a piece, perhaps 20 years ago, about the periphery of Madrid, the birthplace of his wife Maria. Xavier Ribas made a series, Sunday Pictures, about leisure activities in the outskirts of Barcelona; Jean Marc Bustamente’s Tableaux explored the inexorable growth of the same city. In America the New Topographic photographers, in particular Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, were concerned with the disappearance of precious land beneath the burgeoning settlements of the New West. The concept of Suburbia has lent rich pickings too, from the gentle observations of Bill Owens to the nightmarish visions of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson.
I had already begun, tentatively, to work in a kind of suburbia myself, visiting sleepy Sussex towns (Brighton, my home town, is in the County of Sussex) like Hassocks and Burgess Hill. Something about these places fascinated me, but my work lacked any real direction. The world, even this very small one, seemed too big for me to handle and I felt lost, directionless.
What the A-Z gave me was a structure: “I’ll go to the edge of each of the 56 pages which make up the periphery of the map and I’ll photograph the landscape beyond, those places unlucky enough to fall just off the edge”. This and another more practical reason: our son Milligan had just been born and I wanted to do something which at least kept me in the country. With this idea I could make a series of day trips. If the weather was right and I had a free day then I’d drive to the edge of page 57, or 148, or 12. I’d make some pictures and I’d drive home. It was as simple as that. One night I spent at a Travelodge (a cheap hotel) right on the cusp of page 10 but it was such a thoroughly depressing, never-to-be-repeated experience, it only reinforced the notion that day trips were the way to go.
So I had a framework. But what the map failed to give me was a meaning. For that I’ve had to consider why I was drawn to the idea in the first place; why I chose this above all the other possible schemes I’ve jotted down over the years, most of which will sit forever, undeveloped and unemployed, on a sheet of A4.
In many ways Twenty-six Different Endings returned to some of the ideas I explored in The Shipping Forecast (1992-96). Both made use of a single map and explored a familiar British institution, and both investigated a dialogue between real and imagined space. But to be perfectly honest I don’t think it was until I had completed it that it started to dawn on me what – perhaps – it was really about.
It has been pointed out to me that these edges only exist on this particular map and that there must be another map that would include the places I’ve photographed. Logical yes, but to be included on – or omitted from – such a popular volume is about belonging – or not. If I tell you that I was born in Harpenden, in Hertfordshire, just a few miles from the northern edge of the map, my interest in the idea might make a little more sense. Later, growing up on the outskirts of Leicester, I wanted so much to be able to tell my classmates I was born in London, which sounded so glamorous and exciting, but of course I could not. We had a copy of the A-Z at home, and I knew full well that Harpenden was not on it.
There was a palpable tragedy in those places I photographed. A bleak landscape of grey – brick, mud, tarmac, skin – a mind-numbing blandness. Time somehow passed more slowly there, dragging by lifelessly, an arena of dreams which had come to nothing. Not here David Lynch, for you’ll find none of the exoticism of middle America. Sorry, Edward Scissorhands, but you’re not welcome. Just… nothing. Only, if I blocked the incessant hum of the cars, an eerie silence, echoing the emptiness of the view. A place where houses outnumbered people.
But then… Romford town centre is right on the edge. As is Chessington World of Adventures. And the flightpath to Heathrow Airport. I would save those locations for special occasions, when the very idea of driving to yet another housing estate became too much to bear; when I couldn’t face my fifth trip to page 24, already knowing the line along it’s edge like the back of my hand, unable to find anything of note, and without even a trick of light to help me. Thus a trip to Scratchwood Services, which is also on the edge, became a real treat, a Grand Day Out.
What, then, was I looking for? If, as I believe, we are products of our own backgrounds, our characters shaped by the places in which we grew up, I can only assume that it was something I recognised: a landscape, a thing, perhaps just a feeling. For, critical as I am, I recognised more than I wanted to admit.
I spent the vast majority of my childhood in a suburban sprawl on the edge of Leicester, a non-descript city in central England which had once been a centre of the hosiery trade. Oadby, which is four miles from the centre, had once been a tiny village but it had been consumed by the growth of the city, and, therefore, it became no different from thousands of other such places all over the country. As the spaces between the city and the town were filled there was a sense that nothing was planned anymore. Things were just put. So I grew up not in Leicester itself, but somewhere on the edge, in a messy, incoherent place that clung limply to it’s ‘village’ status (my parents always said that they were going down to ‘the village’ whenever they went to the local shops). But it was clearly a village no longer.
I would often get lost among the myriad of yellow brick houses all, even to a child with an undeveloped sense of such matters, seeming to lack any character at all. There was little or no sense of community. Had there been such a thing as Neighbourhood Watch back then, the whole vast estate would surely have signed up.
We lived in a cul-de-sac. Although our house was near the entrance I would retreat further inside, riding my go-cart up and down the short incline at it’s depths. Three Scandinavian teenagers lived in the house overlooking my ramshackle circuit. How wonderfully exotic they seemed, but what on earth had brought them here? I never asked them.
A young family opposite our house, at number 2, decorated their garage door with purple, black and white geometric shapes. True, it was badly painted, and looked, frankly, pretty terrible, but to a child these people were certainly intriguing. It was clear, however, they were not welcome in our street; I can only assume they ‘lowered the tone’, mistrusted because they dared to be different. I wanted to be different too, but didn’t know how to be, and certainly lacked the courage to try. All I did was do my best to fit in.
The land artist Robert Smithson once wrote: ‘The suburbs exist without a rational past and without the big events of history. Maybe there are a few statues, a legend and a couple of curios, but no past – just what passes for a future’. In 1967, Europe’s first out-of-town superstore, Woolco (a swollen version of Woolworths) opened in Oadby, on the other side of the dual carriageway that split it in two. It was our very own legend. It was the future! To an eight year old, heaven had come early. Woolco sold books about dinosaurs. Airfix kits. Comics. In fact it seemed to sell everything. It had a drive-in tyre bay. A travel agent. It was the only place in Oadby you could buy records. It even sold guns… not just air rifles, but (I feel sure of this) proper shot guns. Saturday mornings would never be the same again. Except that nowadays it’s just a plain old Asda.
And then, one day, I left, moving to the town by the sea which grew up to become a city. I went back to Oadby recently, these pictures and these words having sparked another project. It’s hard going back, especially when you realise that it’s gone forever. Part of me, a big part of me, wishes I could do it all again, for, as they say, you can take the man out of Essex, but you can’t take Essex out of the man. Or Leicester, for that matter.
© Bleek Magazine. Text and all the photos: Mark Power.