Lewis Bush / Lewis Bush: Metropole
May 2016 Interviewed by Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman
Lewis Bush (London, 1988) is a photographer, writer, lecturer and curator based in London. He studied history and worked at the United Nations before working as a documentary photographer. Bush has since developed a well regarded personal photography practice, is lecturer in documentary photography at the London College of Communication, edits the Disphotic blog and writes about photography. In the interview below, Lewis Bush contextualises his recent photobook Metropole. Originally published in March 2015, Metropole quickly sold out, garnering critical acclaim. Metropole has been presented as a solo exhibition at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design and London Metropolitan University, London.
Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman: Metropole, your photobook project records the effect of the recent capital influx on London, the rapid transformation of the metropolis, and the sensation of feeling lost in a city one once regarded as home. Could you tell us a little bit more how this project began?
Lewis Bush: Metropole began with the growing realisation that London wasn’t any longer the city I had grown up in. This isn’t anything special in itself, it’s in the nature of cities that they change and evolve and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it was the particular type of change that troubled me. It seemed that the great majority of development in the city was geared towards making money at the expenses of local communities and at the expense of the city’s character. I spent several years watching this happen, seeing beautiful buildings torn down and longstanding communities uprooted, without really knowing how to react to it apart from occasionally sounding off about it to anyone who would listen. I generally photograph things that anger or trouble me, so it was a pretty logical next step from there to look for a way to represent the changes in the city.
FMH: By photographing double exposures of luxury corporate and residential buildings in London, you reflect feelings of loss and dispossession, in a once accessible and familiar city for you, now more gentrified and privatised. Does this constitute a localised metropole in your eyes with these luxury buildings engaging in a one way dialogue with their surroundings?
LB: I’m not an architect or an urban planner, but I am a lifelong city dweller and from what I can see there is for the most part almost no dialogue between these new buildings and their surroundings. There are of course exceptions, but they are sadly just that, exceptions. Mostly what I see in the city is developers identifying a site they can acquire and then building something which they can turn around quickly and make money from. The result is an ever growing number of buildings which are at best visually obnoxious and sometimes worst.
20 Fenchurch Street (known by Londoners as the ‘Walkie Talkie’) would be a case in point, a building which isn’t only utterly out of place in an aesthetic sense but one which also actually adversely affects its immediate environment. Much media attention has focused on the way the tower generates huge wind speeds at ground level and its curved front has even been accused of frying passing pedestrians by acting as an unintended parabolic mirror and focusing the sun’s rays on to the pavements below, leading to the tower’s other local nickname the ‘Fryscraper’.
FMH: At least since the 1980s, and particularly in Germany and wider Europe, the concept Metropolis has become central importance and notoriety within the urban discourses. Reproduced in the titles of many different books and certainly at the core of the self-descriptions that many cities produce of themselves, the metropolis has become a key concept for transmitting a sense of economic resurgence, urbanity, new urban lifestyles and a renewed city. Is there anything that resembles this now in your eyes?
LB: Metropolisation has advantages and disadvantages. I think with regards to London and the United Kingdom a particular problem is that so much power, money and culture is centred in the capital that the rest of the country suffers as a result. The recent news that [part of] the National Media Museum’s photography collection is to relocate to London is a prime example of this.
It’s also worth me maybe making a distinction between the word metropolis and the word metropole. The former is something of a generic name for a large city, whereas the latter has a very particular and rather specialised meaning in English, where it’s usually used to refer specifically to London in terms of its relationship with the British Empire. London was the heart of the empire, the location where decisions were made which affected people across the empire, and the location where the profits of this empire all flowed back to. You could see parallels to this in terms of London today, and perhaps the financial heart of the city where so many of these high rises are located is a sort of new metropole for a looser empire based around globalised capitalism.
FMH: The photographs are very disorienting with the multiple exposures yet there is an order there that is being imposed by your use of the grid and the high contrast. The images have a dystopian or noir-like aesthetic to them. Aside from some obvious references inferred from the title, what sort of literary or film influences come into play here?
LB: In some ways it’s easier to talk about what didn’t inspire it. A few people have asked if Metropole was a response to Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole which describes a man getting lost in an enormous and incomprehensible city where no one seems to speak the same language. I actually only read Karinthy’s book a few months after I finished Metropole so it was very strange to see how similar the idea was. Equally Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis was only a relatively minor influence on the project. Much more influential for me were early urban documentaries, city symphony films like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and Paul Strand and Martin Sheeler’s Manhatta. Except the difference was I was trying to produce something more akin to a visual requiem or funeral march for the city rather than a symphony. Visually I was inspired by Japanese photographers like Yutaka Takanashi and in some ways the Metropole book is intended to echo the format of Takanashi’s influential magazine Provoke.
FMH: While the structures in these photographs initially appear to be relatively normal, as the series progresses they begin to shimmer and merge into each other, creating impossible arrangements and disorientating scenes where all sense of scale and perspective is lost. Did your idea of presenting the city change as the project continued?
LB: From the start I thought double exposures were the way to talk about this topic. I love the way this technique has been used by people like Boris Mikhailov but the issue with it for me is that it can easily distract from the content and message of the photographs. So I spent quite a bit of time experimenting with ways to use double exposures but without making it immediately obvious that this was what was taking place. As the series goes on it obviously becomes pretty apparent, but I didn’t want the technique to be the first thing that registered in a viewer’s mind when they opened the book. Doing this just required lots of cold nights out on the streets of London trying out different techniques, reviewing them, discarding some and continuing with others. That was the main evolution across the course of shooting Metropole.
FMH: For the exhibition of these photographs you used large format plotters used for architectural plans. Could you tell us more about that?
LB: At the end of 2015 the series was exhibited at The Sir John Cass School in Whitechapel. This proved to be more than a little poetic as we learnt shortly before installing the exhibition that Cass is due to be relocated from its current central location to a new location in Holloway. The former site will likely end up in the hands of property developers. For the exhibition we decided to print the work using large format printers in the Cass’s architecture department which are normally used for producing building plans. Doing this was a continuation of what I’ve tried to do with all my projects, which is as far as possible to make the form suit the subject the work is talking about. I’m much less interested in producing beautiful limited edition prints if doing so doesn’t do something to enhance the work in the process. Using the Cass’s printers was also interesting because it was an opportunity to chat to architecture students who were using the same facilities about how they saw their profession and the changes taking place in London. I was relieved to find they were highly critical and for the most part viewed their profession more as a social calling than a way to make money.
FMH: For your recent work A Model Continent while still being a highly critical and probing work there was a en element of humour to it. Could you tell us more about this project?
LB: A Model Continent is something of a return to an earlier project which looked at the role of the past in the Euro crisis of 2012. During the making of that work I visited a strange theme park in Brussels which consisted of a range of scale models of European landmarks, in effect a vision of an idealised Europe where the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate sit side by side in strange harmony. In 2015 I decided to revisit the park to photograph it more comprehensively, looking for strange juxtapositions and humorous arrangements which might offer an indirect commentary on the current problems that faced the European Union. Shortly afterwards it was announced that the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on membership of the EU, which was inopportune. I think the European Union is a great idea but one with serious problems which need to be resolved. In the context of a binary choice of whether to stay or go, there isn’t that much room for that sort of distinction, people just want to know if you are for or against.
FMH: Do you have any current projects that you are working on that you would like to discuss?
LB: I’m currently finishing two projects. The first is titled City of Dust and is very much a project done for myself although I will be interested to see how others react to it. It’s something of a coda to Metropole and looks at the changing face of London through the prism of memory and walking. I’ll be exhibiting this in London this July. The second one is titled Shadows of the State, which looks at the possibilities of adapting methodologies developed by intelligence agencies in order to scrutinise those same agencies. Specifically the project looks at the networks of radio stations which emerged during the Cold War to allow intelligence agencies to communicate instructions to their agents working undercover in enemy countries. These radio stations continue to operate today and I’ve spent most of the past year tracking transmitter sites for many of them. I’m currently working towards publishing a book based on the project.
For further viewing:
Lewis Bush’s next exhibition City of Dust will be showing 11th – 23rd July 2016 in the Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin’s St, London WC2H 7HP .