Three years ago, to critical acclaim, Stephen Gill published his photographic study Hackney Wick. But Gill, who lives in East London, felt that he “just couldn’t stop” revisiting the area. Earlier this year he published Buried, a literally mud-encrusted collection of images made from prints that had been left to decay on the Wick. Now he adds two further titles to the Hackney series – Archaeology in Reverse and Hackney Flowers.
Of the two, Archaeology is most clearly – in content, format and design – the sequel to Hackney Wick. Wick opened with a photograph of a River Lea swan passing beneath the graffiti’d concrete of a dual carriageway. And Archaeology’s first photograph is also of a swan floating in the unmistakably urban Wick waterways. This time though the swan is dead – adrift in a slick of turbid crap.
In his brief afterword to Hackney Wick Gill had pointed to the area’s imminent redevelopment ahead of the bid for the 2012 Olympics: “The Games will bring many good things to the area… But there will be losses too.” That equivocation is replaced in Archaeology by the outrage of Iain Sinclair’s trenchant accompanying essay.
If Hackney Wick offered some kind of raucous immersion and caustic celebration, Archaeology is more circumspect. The bargain hunters, hagglers and scavengers are gone, replaced now by a cast of surveyors and soil mechanics, haulage contractors and – the horror! the horror! – Sebastian Coe and David Cameron. The billboards and signs read, “Back the Bid”, “We Buy Gold” and “Hackney’s With You All the Way”. The earth has been banked up, the trees cut down and the undergrowth cleared. The book’s title suggests the parallel of a malfunctioning archaeological dig: the mission here is not to unearth, preserve and cherish, but to excavate and obliterate.
What distinguishes Gill’s project though is not the scepticism with which he views Hackney’s brave tomorrow. It is the nuanced and varied character of the photographs – by turn appalled, contemplative, wry and even optimistic – that sets them apart. Maybe, more than any other quality, they share a resolute gallows humour. For every example of ruination Gill counterposes his own moments of poetry: a shadow of the Cross falls on a wheelie bin; buttercups echo the colour of a discarded jacket; sprayed red dots mark trees for felling.
The pictures are also distinguished by the singular formal properties that result from his use of a plastic Coronet camera bought at the Wick market for 50p. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s the idea of quality and technique became so important… and conversations around photography were often very much about dpi and megapixels. Part of me was letting go and rebelling against this stage that photography had reached,”
In Hackney Flowers Gill’s propensity for wombling achieves its fullest expression. Plants, flowers, seeds and ephemera – all collected while on Hackney field trips – are positioned on top of selected photos (most of which have some level of floral content) and the resulting collage is rephotographed. The seductive and often playful images that result are structured around the interplay of collaged element and photographic backdrop: the wings of a dead butterfly merge with a Hawaiian shirt in one picture; the same insect – now monstrously large – hovers over a market crowd in another.
Oh, and with carbon footprints in mind, in the year that Vanity Fair flew Annie Leibovitz 47,835 miles (yes) to shoot a cover, there is something to be said for producing three quality books from material found 10 minutes from the front door.