Obsolescence: Mobile Cell Tower, Ben Dolman 2013

The title for this post ‘Obsolescence’ is based on a series of recently developed photographs of a brown field site on the northern edges of Leicester. I was originally drawn to the location on seeing a mobile cell tower whilst passing by on my way to see my family. The mobile cell tower has a capsule shaped top and when I caught sight of it the first time it was illuminated against a subtle grey sky and it looked rather futuristic and at odds to the surrounding area, an area that was wasteland surrounded by post war housing estates. When I returned to photograph the mobile cell tower the light and the sky was not as I had wished for but I decided documented it for reference, the resulting photograph is the first image in this post. I return again when the light and the sky was more to my liking and I started to become intrigued by the vacant brown field site, it was vast, a big empty space in the middle of the urban sprawl, nature was starting to re-colonise the land and the space was fenced off, separated, forbidden to humans and now seemly going feral, a sanctuary from humanity for wildlife and nature.

The site had once been occupied by a large lighting factory owed by GE Lighting which was closed down in 2007 and production moved to Hungary. I remember the factory originally as Thorn Lighting as a child growing up in Leciester and each year at Christmas all of the trees around the perimeter of the factory were covered with lights, it was quite magical as you passed by heading up the A46 out of Leicester. The reason the land had stood empty so long after the factory was closed and demolished was the land was contaminated from the byproducts of years industrial production. When I started photographing the site all architectural and structural references bar two spot lights had been removed, there was none the usual references to urban decay, just an empty space, a void. What I did not know at the time I was taking the photographs was the land was about to be redeveloped, the photographs are a momentary glance of a landscape in temporary suspension, in-between uses and in altered states.

I returned to the location with my 4x5 camera and decided to document the site adjacent to the fence, the fence and the trees formed a borderline to the space and for me became the defining feature, the land behind was now merely a backdrop that heightened the barrier. Photographing the boundary led to a linear sequence of photographs as I walked along side it. Adjacent to the fence on the side of the boundary was walking along was a wide strip of grass, a pathway which I photographed from and a very busy main ring road for Leicester, Troon Way, the wasteland was an island surrounded by busy avenues of transit. The resulting two triptychs of the fence and tree borderline give the impression of a still and static scene but it was far from it, every 30 seconds someone would sound their horn as I photographed the scene, this was not a discrete place to work. I enjoyed this contrast, to one side of me was the fanatic activity of modern urban life to the other side a dormant edgeland, one active the other seemly passive, one accessible the other closed to passage and intrusion.

About three weeks after I photographed the site I was passing by on my way to another project location and I noticed all the trees had been cut down and there were large mounds of wood chips. I parked my car and took some photographs roughly in the same place I have done so before so I could see the difference in the changing landscape. The once clearly defined boundary of trees that protected the space have now vanished, the sky now looms large over the landscape leaving the scene feeling exposed, the land is now laid bare and unprotected by the once natural borderline of trees and it felt vulnerable.

Nature has now been vanquished from the area, humans have reclaimed the land, a new supermarket is now being built on the land clad in decorative wooden planking as some kind of tokenism to environment, the cycle of the decline of manufacturing to a service economy continues unabated. All that is left in the photographs is of the past, a couple of spot lights that use to light the loading bay of the factory and the piles of wood chips that were the trees that bordered and protected the space. Both industry and nature that once occupied the space have become obsolescent, this obsolescence seems to have been speeded up since globalisation and an unsustainable population expansion that is changing the landscape dramatically around us. In this work I was interested in what happens to the landscape and our interaction and sometimes indifference to it in the momentary time between industrialisation and consumerism, in another location it could have been that of between a field and a new housing development, a coal fire power station and a wind farm.

Obsolescence Triptych 01, Ben Dolman 2013

Obsolescence Triptych 02, Ben Dolman 2013

My MA research project is called ‘in-between spaces’ and this notion is apt for England as these spaces are slight, temporary and of the moment, a wasteland or land that has become derelict is short-lived. The land will soon be re-appropriated back into human use due to lack of space and over population of a small country, the land rarely lays dormant for long, nature has little time to reclaim the land before it is altered again and repurposed. In other countries with more space or where there has been de-industrialisation, mass migration of people, human or a natural disaster these spaces that exist in an ‘in-between’ state have become the norm, the cycle of change sometimes stopped in it’s tracks. These spaces could be called dead zones, beyond human intervention, seemly beyond reinvention and repurposing either through the scale of human and/or natural dereliction and/or contamination. We had such scenes of decay in the 1980s in England for a long period during the recession and the collapse of our manufacturing base but in most cases these spaces have all now been consumed back into the social fabric as small industrial trading estates, housing developments, warehousing and shopping complexes. The in-between spaces are markers to how the land is alter and changed, they are reflections of our society, traces in the passing of time.

In America there seems to be a whole photographic movement or genre based on the urban decay of Detroit, part of the once large industrial rust belt of northern America. Detroit has undergone a radical de-industrialisation and subsequent de-population, nearly half of Detroit is now vacant and the city is bankrupt and in terminal decline. Examples of the documentary architectural decay photography can be seen in the work of Andrew Moore and Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ to name but a few. In ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ there seems to be a compassion for the subject, the imagery is very arresting and beautiful. The photographs conjure up for me at least a sense of the fall of an empire due to the scale of the decay of a once bold and industrious city and we are left with the remnants of a past civilisation that leaves you feeling of an otherness about the place, a place that seems abstracted and removed from the norms of our contemporary life that I find interesting but others have found issues with.

Typical image result when doing a google search on Detroit

In the photographs captured in the screen grab from a Google search for Detroit there has been a growing backlash to this type of architectural and landscape documentary photography done in Detroit and other places that exhibit severe urban decay, critics refer to the work as ‘ruin porn’ and see it as exploitive of the remaining inhabitants of places like Detroit. I can see where the critics of ruin porn are coming from but all documentary photography could be called to some degree as exploitative to varying degrees, to view other peoples’ desperation and despair. As humans we are hardwired not only to look at and seek beauty but also the tragic, to seemly to take a pleasure from destruction as much as creation. Whenever there is a car crash on the motorway people slow down to look at the incident, this intuitive act is referred to as rubber necking. No-longer is it just professional photographers that document the ruins or collapse of civic order but the general public with their smart phones, why, to be part of and to understand the things around them from the celebratory, the mundane to the tragic and to convey and share their experiences with others.

We learn through observing but what can we learn from the photographs of the urban decay of Detroit, perhaps the folly of relying on one type of industry, the consequences of the segregation of class and race, the true cost of globalisation and financial deregulation on local communities and industry, the list goes on so yes these pictures maybe seen as exploitative but ‘nicely intended liberal’ ethics aside they also offer useful lessons of a possible decline for the rest of western society if politicians, capitalism and industry continue with their short-term and self interested polices. Whilst looking at different photographers who have documented Detroit’s dereliction I came across Dave Jordano who started out doing the usual architectural documentation of Detroit but then turn his camera to look at the people of the city and what remained of the once large community of Detroit, the project is called ‘Unbroken Down’ and offers and more positive engaged view of Detroit, it puts a human face on the urban meltdown.

America seems to have a lot of wastelands, well photographically it seems from the urban, the suburbs, industrial and agriculture, and you do wonder if this is through not wanting to fix things, given the size and space of America they seem to prefer to move on, happy to leave the past behind especially if it is a failed one, a failure that is something best forgotten and reinvent oneself somewhere else. I guess the spirit of the early settlers continues, first they left old Europe and later headed west across the continent, always seeking the ‘new’ world, an American psychic formed on the wagon trail with the lure of cheap land, political and religious freedom, a new life, the new frontier.

Chernobyl Image Search Results

Moving on from forgotten places to forbidden places, Chernobyl has been attracting the interest of photographers such as David McMillan. Chernobyl is a place long forbidden to humans since the nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986 that resulted in a fire that released large qualities of radiative material into the surrounding area and across western Europe. The local population has since been evacuated leaving the city of Pripyat and the surrounding towns and villages abandoned and frozen in time slowly decaying and being reclaimed by nature, a nature that was originally destroyed after the initial meltdown but in subsequent generations has adapted and thrived in the forbidden zone. In 2011 Ukraine opened up part of the exclusion zoned around Chernobyl to allow tourists to visit, yes tourism in a radiative zone, a new kind of disaster safari that has also occurred in Detroit. The imagery from Chernobyl has similar visual characteristics of that of Detroit, crumbing facades, overgrown streets, interiors frozen in time. Both places were the subject of man made disasters, one economic the other pollution from an industrial catastrophe. It may not be scientific but when you do images searches on Detroit and Chernobyl the later shows more images of people, the victims of the nuclear disaster but Detroit superficially seems victimless, why, is it because most of the remaining population are not white? History is now repeating itself in Japan after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 which led to a fire and radioactive meltdown at Fukushima. This area was hit by three concurrent disasters at the same time but the fall out from radiation has had the most lasting consequence of the area. Already the event has become well documented by the media, local people and photographers like Toshiya Watanabe.

Three weeks later...................all of the trees have gone

Obsolescence, Ben Dolman 2013

Obsolescence, Ben Dolman 2013

Obsolescence, Ben Dolman 2013

Obsolescence, Ben Dolman 2013

and in six months time................... there will be a great big shed selling baked beans