The End of London David Straight
The End of London
â€œwhat am I if not a collector of forgotten gazes?â€? Theodoros Angelopoulos Ulysses Gaze
The End Of London David Straight
THE END OF LONDON The lifeblood of the street photographer is the place in which they roam. The people who pass in front of their lens are often oblivious to their captured presence within the photographer’s frame, unguarded in the stolen glimpses of their world. City dwellers are a breed unto themselves, often wrestling with the limitations that their environment places upon them. They turn inward to deflect the gaze of those around them. His serves to further absorb the individuals into the urban mass. Every major city has its own identity, but capturing that identity on camera entails a combination of people and place supported by an understanding of how they both tick. However, this is an endeavour best pursued alone. David Straight’s state of mind reflects acutely in his imagery, as the city reminded him of his own solitary existence. London can be a lonely place when you are a stranger in town. It takes the role of a character, albeit a temperamental and unpredictable one that can surprise, enthral and frustrate. Straight’s photographs capture the many facets of the capitol over a two-year period, when an unplanned stopover overran by many months. As loneliness seeks company, London bustling with people offered the possibility of interaction for Straight, whose camera captured multiple fleeting narratives and the stillness that comes from being one person alone in a big city. John Galsworthy wrote in The Forsyte Saga, ‘There are houses whose souls have passed into the limbo of Time, leaving their bodies in the limbo of London.’ This limbo is ever present in Straight’s work, looking for an answer to his dilemma. He attempts to unpick the tangled threads woven by the streets he walked. His camera encapsulates the nature of a place filled with individuals who seemingly so rarely interact with one another. There is a timeless quality to his photographs - much like London itself - that unravels slowly and with repeated viewing reveals something new each time. The subtlety of gesture of the public when unaware that they are being watched by Straight evokes a rather lonely view of the city. The sense of isolation is palpable. His figures appear subsumed by their surroundings. With his vantage point at ground level Straight connects to his subject whilst emphasising their diminutive scale inside the monolith that is London. His own emotions are brought to bear through the strangers he has yet to meet. In one picture, beams of light seem to cast out hopeful rays from behind a cloud. Placed within the rest of this series it is a reminder to look skyward. After all, the need to break free of it is part of being a Londoner. We are however grounded by the trees on the bottom right hand side of the image, never truly escaping the land or the city beneath. Anyone who lives in London becomes familiar with the mercurial nature of the place and the people within it. We come to expect the unexpected. Just when you think that you understand how the city works, it contorts and bends to keep you guessing. Like a movie with multiple plot twists, what appears on the surface can change in the blink of an eye. Londoners are renowned for not knowing their neighbours and for being unfriendly. This is only partially true. A Londoner must function within a mass of people, cars, trains, buses, noise, the Underground and pollution. In order to survive, it is often easier to detach oneself from everything and create a psychological wall or mode of behaviour to block it all out. Londoner’s become very protective about their own personal space, as they are vying for room to breathe alongside millions of others doing the same. They pay more to live and work and travel but are more likely to be from somewhere else initially. This is the paradox. The very thing that appears to repel also draws us towards it – we are both attracted and repulsed by the mass. Straight is aware of this contradiction. London on the one hand appears as anathema, lonely, banal and cold yet there are sublime moments of beauty here also, even comedy. Two men apparently oblivious to one another walk into the sunshine both holding their left hand across their eyes, shielding them from the glare. Their mimicked gestures are comical, absurd and disconnected. In another, two other men in suits stand on the pavement like plastic toys each with a hand on their head in a game of ‘Simon says…’ As if to complete the symmetry even the pavement seems to collude with the scene as there appears to be
a manhole cover either side of them. Two scenes, four men, one pair acquainted and the other not. It is as if Straight is searching for a balance, to find equilibrium through his photography that was absent from his own experience of the city. In doing so he brings a sense of closure to the work through the patterns which re-occur throughout, as if to come full circle, marking the end of his time there and the beginning for someone else – in this case the viewer – to discover. People become a series of verticals that blend into the landscape amongst the signs, lampposts, buildings and trees. The backs of two women walk in front of Straight both wearing dark winter coats and matching hairstyles. This could be a co-incidence or they could in fact be twins. As we never see their faces we shall never know. This curiosity and inquisitive glance is satisfied yet retains a pleasing anonymity for us to imagine our own narrative. The pace of the city is propelled in a picture of a woman, strands of hair blown forward by the wind behind her as a taxi whooshes past in the other direction. She looks lost, stationary, caught by the shutter before passing him by. Her face looks troubled but this could also be fleeting. The time that Straight harnesses is fragile and all the more precious for it. A spotted dog walking into an alleyway may have an owner attached to it, but we cannot see around the corner. It delivers another contemporary mystery. We could assume that a certain amount of luck is involved in capturing such things on film. But really all it is; is a commitment to seeing. Not unlike coincidences that appear to be more forthcoming when we look for them, so do the extraordinary moments that happen every day all around us. A little girl standing inside a fountain of water jets coming out of the pavement - holds her arms out at her sides, feet apart like a figure in a child’s drawing. The scene is simple and complex all at once, with dual feelings of the fun she must be having whilst trapped within the bars of H2O. Just as a playwright uses actors on the stage, Straight uses the grey pavements of the city to illustrate his own impressions of London. London is a place of stark contradictions, where the pulse of the streets can beat fast then suddenly flat line and become banal and mundane. A principal prop that furnishes the stage in Straight’s photographs are trees, one of which looks as if it is doing its best to cover the plain façade of the flats standing behind it. These glimpses of life amongst the hard concrete surfaces that dominate the cityscape break up and soften the otherwise brittle linear backdrop. Then there is the light. The warm light that makes its way in between buildings by day catching the cheeks of faces all sharing the same landscape without touching. Such dislocation is tangible as the natural and man made compete for space, grudgingly co-existing. Commuters walking from London Bridge Station are picked out by the sunlight, creating another set of verticals that blend into the architecture. Contrasting this, the cold light of the night, from neon signs and street lamps illuminates a group walking ahead of him. The metallic creases in a heart-shaped helium balloon one of them is carrying shines and reflects the night, this time suggesting a happy event preceding or yet to happen to the quartet. An equally beautiful moment is captured, this time on the silver screen, as Ingrid Bergman’s angelic face glows in the darkness of a cinema, a tear rolling down her face. We get the impression that Straight drew comfort from her sitting there in the dim light of the cinema as she faces her own loneliness in Casablanca. From the fantasy of the big screen to the playful imaginings of scale an arm stretches out over the city as if deciding which building to pick up from below. Like Alice in Wonderland we can disappear into the labyrinthine nooks and ginnels of the city, find people and places always changing and altering, as day becomes night. Any Londoner will tell you that you can never really know this everexpanding city with its miles of streets, plethora of architecture, people and cultures all fused into one. There is a silence in this work that is deafening, that screams out of the shadows Straight’s honest bewilderment and response to this ‘Dirty Old Town’. It may be a far cry from his native New Zealand, yet he unveils more of London to those who think that they know it well with intricate and empathic eyes. As I said before, this may be his end, but it is our beginning… Laura Noble, 2009, London.