Rob Clayton / Estate
May 2015 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Robert Clayton is a photographer based in London working for editorial and design agency clients and pursues his own documentary work. His work has been published widely, including in the British Journal of Photography, AoP and Hotshoe magazines, and has been exhibited at UNSEEN in Amsterdam, Photofusion and Laura Noble in London. Below, Christiane Monarchi asks Rob about the background to his new photobook Estate, images from which will be exhibited at the Library of Birmingham from 1st – 26th June 2015.
Christiane Monarchi: Taking in your compelling new book Estate feels like a privileged trip inside a time capsule. The Lion Farm Estate becomes stage and actor in this series, inviting the viewer in and around the various buildings, flats, streets and communal areas. Back in 1990 when beginning this body of work why did you pick this estate, and how did you first approach documenting this place?
Rob Clayton: In a way, Lion Farm Estate, chose me. I recall hunting for a location to work in and whilst driving and searching around the West Midlands (where I was living at the time) I caught sight of a collection of tower blocks from a distance and decided to go for a closer look. Fortunately I had one of those magical moments that photographers experience when a scene unfolds in front of them and there is an instant internal pleasure when visual elements suddenly fall into place and present themselves. There was also the element of the unknown; I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for – I had certain firm ideas and the location fulfilled these and, importantly, added its own surprises.
Visually the estate offered many possibilities. The sheer scale of the tower blocks and their bleak setting grabbed my attention – aesthetically and emotionally. Unknown to me at this point was that they were being decanted ready for demolition and thus the space was void of much human activity, exaggerating the sublime nature of the location. On the other hand, the busy area around the estate shops offered a more prosaic space that I was equally interested in photographing. I was looking for an estate that I could work in that would convey ordinariness of daily working class life yet I was fascinated with topography and architecture. The estate was both familiar in the sense I grew up in and around a large low rise council estate and exciting as it was unfamiliar, new to me, strange and offered lots to explore.
Maybe in one moment of discovery, a rich tableau appeared in front of me and it was this ‘stage’, as you put it, that I wanted to convey to a wider audience – unless you actually lived here, it would be unlikely you would experience this place. Yet many people did live here and why shouldn’t the wider population be more aware of what it was like to do so? I was interested in conveying the facts of life here and allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions.
To answer the second part of your question, I simply started to walk around and photograph. The vast majority of pictures were shot on a Mamiya 645 camera with a waist level finder – I found this a very helpful tool particularly suited to this environment and task. I meandered and explored and slowly and carefully chose what to photograph (and what not to). My background made me streetwise to a point and I had to be very aware that I had to have courage to get the shots I needed and also be aware that I did not want to impose myself on a scene and create hostility – it was a fine balance and tested my nerve and tenacity every time I visited.
CM: Your series includes interior compositions in living rooms and kitchens, including their inhabitants who look relaxed in their space, a testament to the trust you had built up with them. Who were these subjects, what kind of interaction or relationship are we witnessing?
RC: Well initially I knew nobody on the estate and indeed trust had to be built. I approached this in two ways, one traditional and one more inventive. Firstly simply talking to people – over time and after several visits I built up trust with one or two people and this led them to understand what I was photographing and my motivations and in turn this led to being invited to visit their flats. The other method I used was printing a cheap flyer explaining who I was and my project and posting it through letterboxes – then a few days later I would knock on a door and ask if it was ok to come in and photograph. A simple but effective approach.
Once inside I just asked people to carry on what they were doing and I would sit down too, work out my composition and wait. I would chat a little maybe or just observe. One, two or maybe three frames later I was done. Sometimes it would be a quick visit, other times longer; a cup of tea shared and wider conversations enjoyed. I didn’t think too much about the relationships I recall – I just behaved naturally and with respect – I had the motivation of trying to creatively document and produce the best environmental portrait I could, but that was all, no other motives and I suspect people can quite instinctively feel at ease once your approach conveys that you present no threat. So the subjects were quite random – I think, as is often the case, some bemusement surrounded the act of a photographer photographing such everyday spaces. Of course, interior portraits of this kind involve a two way interaction and throughout the whole body of work I wanted to avoid interacting as much as possible as I was more inclined to be motivated by ‘the decisive moment’ school of thought. So once inside I did my utmost to capture a moment that was as ordinary and unaffected by my presence as possible. Added to this was an acute awareness of composition and framing – the portraits had to convey the estate, the people and the place together – the functioning result. This process was integral to the investigation. I worked hard to achieve this.
CM: In some of your environmental portraits, the buildings show interiors cheerfully designed with colourful tiles, children playing in the waning sun, the community outside and enjoying the space. Other images seem taken at another time, through chips in the glass, showing graffiti, boarded up windows and the misery of a barren, cement ‘playground’ full of puddles. Even the cute little red getaway car is up on blocks. How are your own emotions about this estate portrayed in the selection of images for this series?
RC: At this point in my life I had a degree of anger. I had squatted for six months a couple of years earlier, as a teenager, and learnt what it was like to live on quite a rough estate in London. I wanted to photograph in a very accurate manner an environment that a lot of people have to endure in their daily lives. So the playgrounds for example – they were hardly used and why should they be? One element of them was old sewer pipes (I believe left over from the days of construction) that were set into cement and deemed a suitable apparatus for children to play on/in – a cheap and nasty add on. Jonathan Meades in his accompanying essay in the books refers to this in that he questions the lack of maintenance afforded to such estates once they were built. They were Utopian in that they helped solve a real housing and public health crisis in the UK (look at Nick Hedges work Make Life Worth Living) and this is to be applauded, but then councils tended to walk away and neglect their upkeep. Today, in areas that are desperate for public/social housing, these tower blocks are real assets with big waiting lists to acquire one. This is despite the long term neglect they have suffered. Most of the blocks in my work were demolished which I think was a real shame. So the playgrounds – why? Is this good enough – of course not! I was glad where I grew up my local play park was better than this and I wanted to expose this. Did anyone responsible for this genuinely believe this was good? Would they design this for their children?
The more positive images reflect the positive human spirit I suppose – the common things that we all want; our children to be happy and play safely for example. My experience was that children were generally happy and safe in this environment and this was something to show and be proud of; albeit the environment could be cared for much better if our priorities were different. So although I tried to remain objective in classic documentary style, there was a sub-conscious element of campaign about my work. I’m on ‘their side’ so to speak. My own background certainly moulded my approach.
I enjoyed producing this series; personally it was challenging and I was using my craft the best I knew how to and pushing myself. That element of hunting for the next picture that in itself tells a story or sheds light on a situation. I shot very few frames compared to how we approach work today in digital. Film was rationed and it made me work much harder for each shot – I do wish I could have afforded to use more film but it instilled a discipline that made me think very carefully if a scene was worth capturing.
You identify two elements, one positive and one negative. I suppose I was always looking for balance and I was not emotionally involved to the extent I was going to consciously portray the estate one way or another. Accuracy was important to me, and sometimes pictures and the process of achieving them was lovely: fun, interesting and enlightening. Other times it was a case of getting on and showing the location for what it was and I enjoyed this process too – in fact it is some of the inanimate details of the estate I wish I shot more of. It was exciting as I could never be quite sure what I would witness next and I had to be prepared. A heightened sense of observation that street photographers require and then an ability to react quickly – all this on medium format film kit too.
These environments were largely ignored in this era – I wanted to change this and shout out look at this place for a change. Look at us, look at this place.
CM: Thanks, Rob, I definitely have a better understanding of the insights you bring to this project, conceived 25 years ago, and now presented in a new light – in book form. The editing process in putting this book together has given us a certain narrative. We end our journey to Lion Farm Estate in the last few images gently saying goodbye to the people on the street, walking away, ever further, with one last look at the towers in the distance. Congratulations on this publication. Will you revisit this place again?
RC: Yes definitely. In fact I have recently visited with a film-maker and we are attempting to produce a short film about my book and introducing some footage of the estate and how it looks today. Jonathan Meades has also kindly agreed for us to use his essay as the narrative for this project and has also been filmed by us as part of the short piece we are making. It is quite an undertaking and a steep learning curve for me but using Jonathan’s invaluable written piece, contemporary footage and archive material, I hope to produce an interesting piece to support the book and contextualise it in the present. Self-publishing makes one think hard about getting work noticed in a saturated market!
I hope to revisit again soon – there is in fact a library on the estate and I would like to make sure they have some copies of my book there and some for sale at a very generous discount for walk up local sales. On one hand I am open to ideas regarding revisiting but I think the film idea fulfils that objective of visually reporting on the location today. I would certainly be open to talking about and showing the work locally.
I’m glad you describe it as a gentle goodbye. Twenty-five years ago many frames were never printed up. Today some of the more poignant images are being seen for the first time – as we leave the estate we see a mum and toddler returning home to their tower block in warm late afternoon sunshine. It’s timeless in my opinion, that love and bond between parent and child common to all humanity. And therein lies a crucial point that makes my work relevant today more than ever I believe – homes are for people to live and flourish and thrive; they are not primarily investment opportunities yet Britain no longer has this narrative – it’s lost. I am of the certain belief that we need to build many new council homes and regain some of the common decency of post war consensus. The estate I photographed was from a time when everyone believed in a decent home for all – it was a goal of a modern, caring and socially democratic society. They were perfectly good flats, well sized and produced in large numbers to match society’s need. Despite some of the bleak settings, they were built in a golden time of provision. The goodbye in my book has a certain charm tinged with melancholy. Its easy to say with hindsight that the pictures were prophetic, but the social engineering under way in 1991 that I witnessed, and details residents relayed to me, did disturb me. What I see going on in London today with social cleansing appalls me – and it represents greed and falsehood. I hope my book contributes to the ongoing debate around UK housing in a positive way.
Rob Clayton: Estate will be exhibited from June 1st to 26th, 2015 at the Library of Birmingham.
For further information:
The project: www.lionfarmestate.co.uk
The book: www.stayfreepublishing.co.uk
Print sales: www.lauraannnoble.com/