Writing 5.4.17. Walking 31.3.17
On the last day of March 2017 (Friday 31 March), I decide to make a walk on my
What are my thoughts or intentions beforehand?
What are my expectations, what do I hope to find?
I might prefer to think that everything is open-ended and there is some truth to this.
On the other hand I have established the intention of taking the district line tube to
Tower Hill and then to walk south and west from there and probably to stay just on
the north side of the river. I also want to seek out some of those threshold spaces
that have become a feature of my recent paintings. I mean by this the kind of space
where a road leads off into a dark, possibly underground space such as a car park or
a service area. I want to see if I can add to my collection of images of these types of
space and these images in turn can be pored over in the quiet of my studio and used
as a basis for my paintings. In this way my walk to come combines determinism with
open-endedness. I don’t know which side roads I might wander down, how many
pictures I might take, if any, how long it might take and so on.
The district line train pulls into Tower Hill station and I get off, along with a number of
I emerge into the bright sunlight, I get my bearings and start walking in a south
westerly direction and then walk west along Upper Thames Street, not far to the
north of the River Thames. There are few people about – some office workers
perhaps, stepping out for a cigarette break – a few tourists who might wander a bit
off the main drag. I pass the Custom House and the Old Billingsgate Market on my
I have with me my smart phone, which like most people nowadays, I carry with me
pretty well all the time. For this type of occasion, I use it to quickly take pictures when
I come across one of these apertures. There is definitely something furtive about
taking these pictures, which enhances the feeling of looking into places one isn’t
supposed to delve into. The presence of security personnel and the awareness of
terrorist outrages in the city reinforces the feeling that in taking smart phone pictures
I am acting in a transgressive manner, or at least it might appear that way. The
feeling that I have around this circumstance can make me snatch at taking the
picture – so that the quality of the resulting picture is pretty hit and miss. But by now I
know that to make a painting in the studio that works is not so much to do with the
quality of the source image. There are times when the least promising source photos
lead to the most interesting paintings and vice versa.
The first point that I stop at is in Swan Street – just off the main road. There is a road
with a shallow incline leading down and around a left hand bend into an unknown
dark space. At the entrance there are lifting barriers. I can see no security personnel
around and I take a quick furtive picture and move on. What happens at this moment
of apprehending the scene and taking the photo is fairly typical of what happens at
this stage of the process and I am inclined to think that the feeling that is generated
at this point feeds through into the painting and is evident in the final image, maybe
not so much as an explicit feature, but more as an implicit quality.
Why so furtive? After all there is nothing illegal, threatening or wrong in the interests
that I have or the photos that I take. Yet in a time when there are the occasional
terrorist atrocities in our cities, with the consequent ramping up of security
awareness and control, there is a latent sense of edginess and impropriety in what I
do, that would not be the case if my subject was synonymous with the tourist view of
the city. In these moments of lingering around an entranceway like this – in my mind
I am ready with an explanation should my actions be challenged. The recognition
that a security guard could see my behaviour as suspicious sort of makes me act in
a suspicious way. I am aware that unseen eyes might observe the spaces that I am
photographing, in this city where there are CCTV cameras seemingly everywhere.
Though on this occasion I take my picture and move on without more ado.
The next point to get my attention is an aperture on the south side of Lower Thames
Street. Again I can detect no security personnel present and quickly take my picture
gazing into a narrow and deep space, gently sloping down and illuminated by twin
rows of fluorescent strip lights. A yellow and black striped steel ramp in the road and
a red light indicate that access is at least temporarily denied. To the pedestrian,
these signs reinforce the exclusionary nature of the space. You may look, but do not
enter. I feel in this moment a curious similarity between this and the barrier that
exists in conventional theatre where the audience is separated from the stage. In this
way gazing momentarily into these functional city spaces becomes a theatrical
experience. The spaces become sets waiting for some drama to unfold.
The next point to arrest my gaze is Bell Wharf Lane, which also leads off the busy
road of Upper Thames Street. This road presents a deeper and much more complex
space, visible through a steel gate left open. There are further apertures just visible
leading off to the right and at the far end of the tunnel. I quickly clock the space and
take my picture to be studied later then move on.
Off to the right of Lower Thames Street is a narrow street called Gutter Lane. On the
left side of the road is a double aperture, which I photograph. On the left side is a
shiny road ramp with a gentle upward slope and on the right of a concrete column
another ramp leading slightly more steeply down and which curves to the left as it
descends into a dark underground space.
This turns out to be the last picture I take, after a bit more wandering before getting
back on an underground train on the way home.
What I take away with me from this place are just a few images on my smart phone,
plus of course impressions and memories.
I mention the tourists again because in some ways I feel like a tourist in my own city,
where I live and work and sleep and breathe most of the time. I am not really very
familiar with this part of the city and in any case am very aware of much this area
(like a lot of parts of London) is rapidly changing.
As I stand on the crowded train taking me home, I wonder to myself why I feel like I
have been doing something a bit illicit? Is it because I feel I have taken something
(my pictures) without paying for them? Is this because we are so much in an age of
monetary values that it feels wrong to take something without paying? Is it because I
feel I have no legitimate reason to be in this part of the city? I don’t work there and I
am not a bone fide tourist taking tourist paths and pictures. Is it that really I am and
want to do something kind of subversive? What is subversive about this activity
anyway? Maybe it is in this suggestion of other spaces, which I don’t go into, but are
shown teasingly in the photos and in the subsequent paintings; spaces that have a
kind of allure as well as carrying a sense of menace? These dark spaces are open to
the imagination while being in a certain sense indeterminate and unknown, or
unexplored. A suggestion that all is not necessarily as it seems in the city, that there
are these portals into parallel constructed worlds. There can arise an ambiguity
about what is being perceived, like something retrieved from a dream.
Stephen Carter London 2017