Book spreads courtesy of the artist
Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson (Hwaet Books, 2015), BUY
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (SWW): Photography obviously has an innately strange and powerful relationship with time, with warfare and with history — its capacity to make iconic images of epochal events is arguably the instance in which photography ties these three things most closely together. Relationships between time, warfare and history were recently explored in the big Tate Modern show Conflict, Time, Photography, as well as in Chloe Dewe Mathews’s book Shot at Dawn, and both projects stressed photography’s imperfect capacity to measure time and to retrieve something of the past. What’s your sense of photography’s merits as a means to explore the aftermath of the London Blitz, and how and why did you begin making these photographs?
Thom Atkinson (TA): The way I remember it, the project began slowly, in reaction to a feeling. When I first moved to London I couldn’t help but see it as the landscape of the Blitz. For me, the Second World War has always held a fascination and when I think of it there are so many reasons for this. One which perhaps sums it up is a memory. As a child, when I was off sick from school, I’d spend the day with our grandad, Frank. He had a collection of 1940s and 50s war movies which he’d taped off the TV and we would watch them together all day. It’s a really vivid memory; this neat little bungalow, chocolate digestives and orange squash, antimacassars and the sound of explosions and gunfire. It was like another world to mine. Although it was unspoken, I think I understood that the war had been an incredibly important part of his life, and so it felt important to me too. That feeling has never really left me I think I’ve always been in awe of that generation and this epic, mythological event which they witnessed. Walking through a place like London, which is a focus for that mythology, is like time travelling. I think in a way, making the pictures for Missing Buildings was just an excuse to go to these places and try to connect with that feeling. There’s this phrase I heard once: “thin places”. I think it’s old and Celtic, and it describes a place where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is thinnest. I don’t want to sound too hocus pocus, but I think that’s sort of what the Missing Buildings sites are to me, just like how grandad’s front room and war movies were. You can be so close to something, actually physically there in the place where it happened yet you’re still so far away. Photography sort of works like that too there’s a reticence and a distance, a longing.
Beth Atkinson (BA): We both had an interest in these ‘thin places’. Before we started this project, I was trying to understand other aspects of our family’s history through revisiting sites and trying to conjure up something of the past there. But what brought everyone together, from all sides of the family, was this war and the cataclysmic effect it had on them. We decided to make Missing Buildings through discussing all this stuff and realising it had, in its own separate ways, informed our individual art practice and research. So in that sense, for both of us it was quite personal. Although that’s there for us, we wanted to make sure it didn’t become nostalgic or self-indulgent, it was important that the work addressed something broader and bigger than us.
I don’t think this project would have worked in another medium. There’s just so much within photography’s history about recording, possessing and, as Thom says, longing. The negative does the same job as the walls on the side of buildings, a trace of something is left that carries a meaning and significance with it. When you start using this process to describe stories or myth, blurring fact and fiction, it gets exciting.
SWW: In pragmatic terms, how did you set about making the work? Did you need to dredge up old records to trace the visible remains of the effects of the Blitz, or did you work in a more observational and exploratory fashion? I’m also curious to know how you established where and when the photographs had to be made, and to what extent was the process of making the individual photographs collaborative?
TA: We made a decision early on that we didn’t want the work to be a straightforward historical record; our interest was in myth. London’s bombsites are fairly well recorded and although we researched sites after photographing them, they weren’t found in this way at all. The process was a meandering and visual search, based on intuition, curiosity and a lot of walking. We were looking for pictures rather than historical sites. Towards the end of the project, it occurred to us that this process parallelled the way the damage was mapped during the war. We tried to bring this sense of walking through a desolated city, after the battle, so to speak, into the sequencing and the atmosphere of the book. Where the ARP were mapping the physical damage of the raids, we were mapping the scars and the healing process which had been going on for 75 years. We were also, in effect, mapping the power of a mythology on our imaginations. We photographed factual bombsites but also the modern day apparitions of what had happened during the Blitz. The work is about both physical and psychological remnants. It’s about a kind of haunting. The process we followed was very important in this aim.
BA: We photographed everything together. Using a large format camera lends itself well to collaborative work because it tends to be a slow, careful and considered process. You can both look at the plate glass and compose together, discuss whether something needs tweaking or shifting a little to make the image work. The nice thing about taking pictures of buildings (or missing ones) is that they don’t move, so we could take our time. We are both photographers, so each image is made by both of us together.
We didn’t want to have the same light in every picture so we tried to work with what we had on the day. We mostly avoided really harsh contrasty light because we wanted details, although some of our strongest pictures have a bit more drama to them. We usually shot on Sunday afternoons until sunset all year round, for 56 years. You can see the seasons changing in the work. Sundays are great; there are fewer people around and less traffic. It was a nice way to spend time together too.
SWW: There’s something classically photographic about seeking to photograph a thing that’s no longer there — about attempting to make an absence present on the picture plane. In the work of the Bechers you have a typological study of monolithic objects caught in a process of obsolescence, so that they stand for what is disappearing, or what has already been lost. I’m interested that you considered this an attempt to ‘map the power of mythology’ on your imaginations. It reminds me of Benjamin’s line that “every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns, threatens to disappear irretrievably.” So many of these absences in your photographs have been reclaimed by commerce or graffiti. Do you think these ‘missing’ buildings will eventually come unmoored from their ties to the war in the public imagination, and therefore do you think these absences might ‘disappear irretrievably’?
BA: Yes, they will. I suppose the work is about preservation to a certain extent, and that feels like a very photographic impulse; to stop time, to record. London’s landscape is changing incredibly quickly as property values have shot up. Even while making the work, we’d go back to sites and find they’d been demolished or there’d be hoarding for new builds where there used to be a gap. This evidence is threatening to disappear; but that’s part of any city; there are other traumas buried and long lost underneath the city we have now: plagues, fires, battles, lives lost. It’s just that this one still feels within reach; it’s still in living memory.
After we shot the work, we discovered some of the places we photographed aren’t confirmed bomb sites, despite looking like them. So in that sense, for some of the work, they are ‘unmoored’ from their historical ties already but not from our imagination. This is where myth steps in again; they are tied to the mythology surrounding the Blitz, the epic battle, the stoicism and fortitude and that’s a powerful story, so perhaps that will buy us some time in remembering what happened.
TA: While we were photographing there was a definite sense that these spaces and gaps were being filled in and vanishing, and some of the pictures depict that process of repair and renewal. There was a feeling that if we didn’t make this project now, it wouldn’t be possible to make it. Once we’d recognised that, it felt like a duty to make the work.
We found a quote a couple of years ago, taken from a wartime issue of the Architectural Review, which suggested retaining some of the damaged buildings as memorials to what had happened during the Blitz. There are a few instances of buildings being preserved in a bombed out state, but on the whole this vision was never realised. But when that article was written, it probably wasn’t clear how much the Blitz would later be mythologised. In the end, that mythology is a far more powerful and sturdy testament to what happened.
SWW: There’s something complicated about the ways in which one might wish for the trauma of this destruction to be recorded, given that in the war British and Allied Forces emerged victorious. We’re not dealing here with the same complex questions that are at play in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or in Dresden, and in that sense the sacrifice and the loss symbolised by these buildings are more associated with valour and victory than with victimhood.
David Chandler elegantly describes this work as being “formed around a familiar dialectic of presence and absence,” and suggests that the photographs intimate London’s “piecemeal development.” I start to wonder, as I roam back and forth through the book, about the disassembly of local communities who had historic ties to the places in which you photographed. There are other invisible losses at work here having to do with London’s ‘redevelopment’ following the war aren’t there?
TA: In the Blitz mythology, Britain is characterised as being the underdog. The British public are cast as gentle, simple, stoic and resolute. They are vastly outnumbered by an enemy of cold, unfeeling, automatons, programmed to destroy. Even though the Allies eventually defeated Hitler, the Blitz myth is all about facing defeat and bearing destruction; it’s about fortitude in the face of despair. The victory it celebrates is not so much an end victory over an enemy, but the victory of an idealised way of life enduring and surviving against the perceived odds. It’s a myth that reappears in East Enders, and Dad’s Army, and even Star Wars. And yes, it is tinged with a kind of victoriousness or pride. I think the Blitz is almost viewed as a positive thing in Britain, such is the strength of that mythology. There’s a picture in the book The Highway, Wapping which seems to symbolise this for me; an old corner pub, beaten up and shabby, surrounded by destruction and change, but still hanging on.
BA: The ‘Blitz Spirit’ myth is a rhetoric that is being used by our current government to get us on side with their decisions ‘we’re all in this together’; we’ll get through the hard times just like we always do; as if the austerity programme was some kind of bomb dropped on us and not an ideological decision made to serve corporate interest over the people’s needs.
I think there is politics in our book: property prices, redevelopment, righttobuy and gentrification are all written onto London’s landscape, and all determine how many of these sites are left and how quickly they are changing. And yes, as you said; those invisible losses come along with local communities disassembling. There is a massive cultural shift happening. After World War Two there was a labour and a housing shortage which, in very simple terms led to the social housing project and an immigration boom. The resulting jumble of classes, languages and belief systems have made London’s culture as we know it. Now it is shifting again as property is being sold off privately and people are being forced to move. I feel like some of this stuff has snuck into the book; although it wasn’t on purpose.
SWW: So now you’ve finished this book, do you think you’ll keep looking at the landscape of this once vividly multicultural and resilient city? Are there other new avenues opened up by the work you’ve done here that you’d like to explore, together or separately?
TA: My own big interest is in British mythology and conflict, particularly in relation to the First and Second World Wars. I’m working on a photobook which looks at Britain’s memorialising and mythologising of those wars, and at the role of the British landscape in that mythology. It’s a huge and overwhelming project which I don’t fully understand yet, but I’m looking forward to focussing on it now that Missing Buildings has been published.
BA: My day job is at the Horniman Museum in south east London and I recently found a very exciting box of images hidden away in the archive there. I’m not sure what it could turn into yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out. The Missing Buildings project has been many years in the making so a part of me is drawn to quicker, less intense projects for now. I always have a million ideas on the go at once and never enough time all to do them so we’ll see.
Interview by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa / Published 16 December 2015