Stephen Gill’s deceptively ordinary photographs can look on first appearance like a set of prints your mum picked up from Kall Kwik – some hopelessly blurred, a few quite nice ones of some flowers and an attempt at a close-up of a bird in flight without the benefit of a zoom lens. Yet it is this very ordinariness that illuminates Gill’s work and its subjects with the bright light of insight, resulting in an important work of social commentary.
Gill is less a photographer and more a poet with a camera (in this case a plastic one bought for pennies from the car-boot). His eye for the melancholic, the tender, the beauty-in-ugliness, is matched by a Beckett-like appreciation of the absurd. Against the backdrop of sprawling Sunday market, which to all intents and purposes resembles a rubbish dump, a Sikh man stands incongruously by an abandoned fridge, holding a blue carrier bag. That he is being watched by a fellow trader lends an unexpected air of menace to the image. A man holds a plastic globe up for the camera, as Gill evokes a Blakean metaphor. An ice-cream vendor leans from her serving hatch to pin a poster on her van, yet in Gill’s portrayal this scene too becomes deeply unsettling. The woman looks like she’s fallen and died. Sometimes, it seems, all that’s missing is the circling vulture.
As we witness people scrabbling in the dirt for bits of brightly coloured plastic, standing waist-high in a skip, scrutinising cast-off white goods, the realisation that this is London in the 21st century is cause for concern. Yet as the gap between rich and poor widens, so nature steps in to fill it. In this littered urban wasteland, rambling roses cascade down the canal-bank; cow parsley encircles a graffiti-riddled bench and ferns soften a concrete path.
Interestingly, an irony not lost on the all-seeing Gill, this deprived area of East London will be in some way transformed for the world’s TV cameras when the 2012 Olympics come to town. As the roses go the way of the capital’s unwanted possessions, what will happen to the people who can’t afford a new pair of shoes?