The Last Rivet (Photographs by Berenice Abbott & Margaret Bourke-White)

Published in 1940, this book of images and text commemorates the completion of the Rockefeller Center in New York, begun at the height of the Depression in 1932. It originally came with a rivet motif dust jacket (which I don’t have) and the cover is even made from green velvet. Classy.

Before looking at the book itself, perhaps a word about these fine captains of industry is in order. The Rockefeller’s fortune was based on the success of Standard Oil, founded by the original patriarch John D. Rockefeller in the 1870s, and whose ruthless business practices ensured that rival oil companies were either taken over or destroyed, until by the 1890s it controlled 88% of all refined oil in the US. Eventually, in 1911, under pressure from the courts and the US government concerned about this monopoly, Standard Oil was broken up into different companies that make up the names that still dominate the globe such as Mobil, Exxon and Chevron. The Rockefellers owned a quarter of all the shares in the new companies, whose value doubled, making John D. the richest man in the world at the time. John D. Junior, son of the founding father, took over and was implicated in the Ludlow Massacre when the National Guard, whose wages were bankrolled by the Rockefeller controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, shot and burned to death between 19 and 25 people during a miners strike in April 1914. I think it’s fair to say that the Rockefeller fortune was not gained by being nice to people. And just as night follows day, immense wealth and power buys respectability for a Medici-like family whose tentacles soon spread throughout much of American commercial, banking and political circles.

But wait, it gets better. At the same time as the Rockefeller Center was being built the family business was keeping some very shady company indeed.  Standard Oil of New Jersey (later renamed Exxon) entered into profitable partnership arrangements with the notorious German company I.G. Farben (infamous producers of Zyklon B poison gas for use in concentration camps and organisers of slave-labour factories in Auschwitz) as well as being instrumental in providing vital fuel additives to the Nazis (tetraethyl lead). This was needed to make aviation fuel in order to fly German planes and drop bombs on much of Europe. They even seem to have gone to great lengths in the cover up, shipping it through the neutral  Spanish Canary Islands (after re-registering all their oil tankers in Panama so as to prevent them being  stopped and searched) where it was then transferred to German ships bound for Hamburg. They also appear to have used their South American depots to supply fuel directly to German tankers. But it wasn’t just the Nazis cash that Standard Oil of NJ was happy to take; they were also engaged in similar practices with Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. It has been argued that through their actions they may have directly assisted in the bombing of Pearl Harbour where a substantial portion of the US Navy was sunk.  But this is not to say that Standard was choosy about its customers; it had no problem selling oil to the Allied side as well. Business is business after all.

And there’s more; another of the Rockefeller cash-cows was Chase National bank, which ran a complicated money laundering scam for the Nazis through the German-American community in which worthless bits of paper issued by the Nazi regime were magically turned into US dollars needed to buy raw materials for desperate German factories. According to documents released by the US Archives, between 1936 and 1941 Chase brought in $20 million for the Fuhrer, while at the same time helping themselves to a substantial amount of the $1.2 billion in commission paid for their services as middleman, which mainly came out of funds taken by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. The bank went to great lengths in order to hide their activities from the US Treasury and Chase is also directly implicated in seizing money from the French bank accounts of its Jewish customers after the German takeover and for being overly helpful with the Nazi regime throughout the entire war. After being investigated for these activities, Chase avoided prosecution using blackmail; they threatened to embarrass the FBI and other government departments if it went to court by spilling the beans about all the dirty tricks they knew about.  Then, just as now, it is virtually impossible to hold powerful corporations to account. And these are only the scandals that have come to the surface; who knows what other skeletons have been quietly buried.

John D. Junior in a rather cynical move considering the company he was keeping at the time, piously expresses his personal hatred of war in the book and presents large corporations as responsible, ethical beings concerned about the welfare of mankind; “War is often laid at the door of business. On its very face such an imputation is as absurd as it is false.” To reinforce the message, there is an image of the Final Abolition of War mural by Jose Maria Sert which was commissioned for the lobby.

Now, nobody’s saying that the Rockefeller’s were stuffing suitcases of Reichmarks under their beds or had a safe full of swastika-embossed gold bullion hidden behind the Monet in the sitting room. That’s the kind of thing criminals do. When you’re amongst the super-rich you don’t need to get your hands dirty – the company you control does all that and you get to cream off the massive profits from the rising stock prices. And of course, you have no direct knowledge of any possible wrongdoing because nothing is ever written down or said aloud. These sorts of things are done on a nod and a wink making it almost impossible to prove who knew what. That way, if something does go wrong some middle-management bozo gets to go to jail while the main players are able to feign surprise and shock at what has been uncovered.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of the Rockefeller’s profiteering from their Nazi connections is not an area that the book dwells upon – that kinda thing tends to spoil the feel-good mood.

The spin that the Rockefeller’s are peddling in this publication is that the centre was a happy collaboration between labour and industry, with both sides working harmoniously together in order to build the complex. Indeed within the book we have repeated mention about the gratitude felt by New York to the Rockefeller’s for creating, directly and indirectly, 75,000 jobs during the Depression decade. Certainly in an era of mass unemployment any bit of positive news is seized upon by politicians and the media to say that the future is looking better, but to exhibit such fawning gratitude towards the originator of a commercial project which was designed to further enrich the already super-rich, is, to pardon the pun, a bit rich.  In order to prove their gratitude towards the little people who did the actual work, there is even a photograph of a worker in the book, head raised as if in awestruck wonder at the vision of progress that he was helping to build all thanks to the far-sighted vision and generosity of the Rockefellers. One whole photograph.  Ain’t that nice?

Perhaps a more accurate indication of the Rockefeller’s attitude towards the common man was best expressed in their painting over of the mural commissioned from Diego Rivera for the Center, Man at the Crossroads, whose depiction of the potential power of working class solidarity (and an image of Lenin) didn’t really conform to the way they liked to do business.  This deliberate exercise of immense personal power to obliterate anything that might pose a challenge to them, I think, speaks volumes about the true nature of the Rockefellers. Although they pay lip-service to partnership with the people, their actions and business interests are all really designed to consume and exploit the powerless individual in the name of enriching themselves.  A few bucks thrown at some philanthropic exploit is supposed to paper over what has in reality been a very sordid history of greed, intimidation, amorality, manipulation, as well as the corruption and corrosion of democratic structures, not to mention aiding and abetting totalitarian regimes bent on world conquest.

Now I’m not saying that the photographers who were involved in producing images for The Last Rivet were in any way culpable. A paying gig is a paying gig; I’m sure that an assignment to represent what was seen as an architectural triumph would have been gratefully received by many. The photographs in the book come from a number of photographers, most notably from Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke White, although the individual images are not credited. Architectural images predominate with the main RCA building being presented over and over again. The largest image, presented as a double page spread, shows Fifth Avenue full of hustle and bustle and streets filled with traffic, which is the only image to make reference to the rest of New York city itself. The Rockefeller Center is presented as a world apart, distant from the mundane everyday of the chaos below.

The other main body of images in the book consist of the Last Rivet ceremony itself, consisting of the type of ribbon-cutting photography you’d expect see in the local paper; assorted dignitaries lined up on chairs, pompous stuffed suits and attentive crowds. A full page image at the beginning of the book even shows the man of the people, a be-suited Junior in white-gloves, doing a bit of riveting.

The photography in the book doesn’t work for me; it very much looks like what it is, a compromised mish-mash of safe images designed to flatter.  For a book that has the look of something that a lot of money was pumped into, the net result is pretty poor.  It wasn’t as if they were short of a couple of bucks to hire a graphic designer and really push the boat out and produce something really spectacular.  Some of the architectural images are ok but from the likes of Bourke-White or Berenice Abbott, I’d expect better. Apart from the velvet cover and the rivet motif, the book as a whole is quite unremarkable and, to be frank, boring. You could forgive this in part if the photography was good, but even that is, in the main, as insipid as the contents of this book.

But it’s not all bad; I do like the paper stock they printed it on.

Dresden, eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden, a camera accuses) – Richard Peter

On the night of the 13 February 1945, the German city of Dresden was attacked by over 800 bombers from the Royal Air Force, followed by another 500 American planes over the next two days, which dropped a total of 3,900 tonnes of bombs and incendiary explosives on the city. The result of this unrelenting aerial bombardment upon a relatively small urban area was to produce a massive firestorm which, as well as engulfing buildings and their occupants, was so large that it even sucked up all the oxygen, causing those who survived the initial bombing to suffocate to death in the cellars and air raid shelters where they had taken cover.  Estimates of those killed in the bombing vary from 25,000 to 200,000 but it is in no doubt that large numbers of people met an agonising death in this city which had little or no real military value and was full of refugees fleeing the Russian advance.

With the advancement of aviation in the 1930s it became readily apparent that any new war would bring about unprecedented aerial attacks on cities and civilian populations. In a total war defined by unprecedented advances in technology there was no longer any safe place. What the effects of this bombing would be, nobody knew.  Many predicted that those who survived such attacks would either go insane or else be so horrified that they would rise up against their government and immediately sue for peace with the enemy. What the Second World War showed was that, for the most part, the immediate effect of bombing on survivors did not have as dramatic an effect as predicted and in some ways even helped to unite diverse strands of opinion against a common enemy.

For much of the war, Britain was left isolated from the rest of Europe occupied by the Nazis and the main way to damage the German war machine was to bomb their cities and industry. To do this they invested heavily in building up a massive fleet of long range bombing aircraft which night after night rained British bombs down upon the Reich. Following the American entry into the war, the US began bombing in daylight, giving no respite to either occupied Europe or Nazi Germany. (The Germans were no stranger to the use of carpet-bombing and used it heavily during the early part of the war, most notably over Warsaw and London, but they tended to use it as a precursor to an immediate land invasion.) Based upon the ideas of the 1930s bombing raids were designed to have two purposes; to physically destroy the military capabilities, industry and infrastructure of the enemy and also to produce so much terror within the German populace that it would lose the will to continue the fight. The fact that the war raged on right up to the doorstep of Hitler’s Berlin bunker proves that this particular premise was wrong.

Returning to Dresden, the morality of these attacks has been a subject of much controversy and debate ever since. The fact that the Nazi state was a horrendously vicious regime that murdered vast numbers of people without compunction should not excuse the actions of the Allies. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling has argued, the Allies presented themselves as being engaged in a ‘just war’ in which their actions were contrasted to the amorality of the Nazis.  In order to fit into this scheme of a ‘just war’ the bombing of Dresden has to satisfy two criteria; it had to be both proportionate and necessary. On both counts, it fails. The attack was clearly completely disproportionate in nature and, at this late stage in the war, it was unnecessary.  The fact that the Nazis were morally bankrupt and evil should not excuse what was a war crime perpetrated by the Allies.

One possible explanation given is that, with the war drawing to an end, the Americans and British wanted to show the Soviets, who would soon occupy the city, the destructive power of their air-power and let them know in no uncertain terms that while it might be Dresden today, it could be  Moscow tomorrow. Another possible explanation is that there were internal institutional pressures for the air forces of Britain and America to justify the vast resources and expenses invested in them and results were expected to be delivered.  With the war drawing to a close by 1945 the numbers of targets left available to bomb in Germany by these vast aerial armadas was dwindling.  I personally think there may have been, in part, a desire by the Allies to see the effectiveness of a massive concentrated attack on a city in order to refine future developments in bombing capabilities. Whatever the true reason, it is in no doubt that the attack on Dresden did little to hasten the German surrender.

Richard Peter, a former press photographer who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his left-wing work with the AIZ, began to document the aftermath of war when he returned from military service in September 1945. He spent the next four years photographing the shattered remains of this once magnificent city which was published as a book in 1949. Undoubtedly his pre-war pedigree and connections would have served him well in getting the book published under the new communist administration of the Soviet occupied zone during a time of severe shortages.  The book at first glance appears to present a straightforward documentation of the ruined city and the rebuilding work taking place there. But there are other layers to this work that are informed by the context in which it was made; primarily the tension in representing German people as both perpetrators and victims of this war. Even the title of the book poses a question. To accuse implies that you believe somebody to be guilty. But exactly to whom or what is the camera assigning guilt to? Britain? Hitler? The German people? Fascism? The brutality of war? Mans inhumanity to man??

It is possible to divide the narrative structure of the book into three acts; the fall of the city, the wages of sin and, finally, redemption. The first section of the book depicts the centre of the ruined city, with architectural images of buildings before and after the bombing raids, now reduced to smouldering heaps of brick and stone. It is here that we see the iconic photograph of the stone angel atop the city hall, arm outstretched in mute horror, as it gazes out over a sea of utter desolation. This is one of the few images in the book that gives a sense of the sheer scale of destruction; most other images concentrate on individual buildings or street scenes. People are completely absent from these blasted cityscapes. Peter presents a catalogue of deserted, people-less rubble punctuated by the remains of some architectural feature that has managed to survive the cataclysm. He surveys the aspects of the city; the town hall, the commercial area, industry, the medieval old town and the churches. All have been shattered and reduced to ruins. Here Peter presents us with the remnants of German culture and civilisation, twisted by the Nazis as an instrument of world domination, and now crushed into dust.

About halfway through the book we are presented with a double-page spread which is clearly designed to shock; two full page photographs of bodies unearthed from the cellars in which they had been entombed. The left hand page shows the body of long haired woman, facial features still partly discernable, head downcast in agony, while facing her is a corpse that still wears a swastika armband, whose grinning skull directly confronts the viewer.  In another iconic image, Peter shows an anatomical skeleton with a building torn in half in the background. The message is stark; the war didn’t discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. All were mercilessly cut down by the aerial onslaught.

The final section of the book deals with the post-war activity of rebuilding this shattered city. We see people returning home with activity to clear the damage and bring order to the chaos.  As this book was published in 1949 under the auspices of what was to become the East German state, this last section produces an abrupt change of tone in the narrative, allowing the book to end on a positive note.  Here we are presented with people coming together collectively to rebuild their city, lives and self-respect.  The images move swiftly along and after a couple of pages of people sifting through the rubble, Peter presents us with images of newly built apartment blocks, factories and the contented audience of a newly restored concert hall, signalling that German culture had not been destroyed.  Germany had lost its way under Hitler but the communists would restore it.

In the second half of the 1940s an ideological battle between capitalism and communism for the hearts, minds and territory of the ruined German state was being waged between the winners of the war and it is no coincidence that the destruction wrought by capitalist Britain and America is being rebuilt by the communists. It is into this vacuum of uncertainty the communists offer a lifeline to the German people; work with us and help to wipe the slate clean of past sins. This book is not just a straightforward depiction of the aftermath of a war crime, although it most certainly is. There are layers to this book that reflect the confused and contradictory state of a traumatised post-war German society struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of what was unleashed upon the world ostensibly in their name and how they should respond to it.

Further information about Richard Peter and his depiction of Dresden can be found here.

Moi Parizh (My Paris) – Ilya Ehrenburg

Life in the shifting uncertainties of Stalinist Russia, where denunciations, arbitrary arrests and sudden changes in policies meant you could suddenly become an ‘enemy of the people’ overnight, was a nightmare that has left Russian society traumatised to this day. Primarily known as a writer, journalist and poet, the twists and turns of the left-leaning Ehrenburg’s personal history should have meant a one-way trip to the Gulag but he seems to have managed to chart the treacherous waters of Stalinism with aplomb, and, unlike many of his literary contemporaries who tended to end up in a muddy Siberian grave, he was acclaimed and valorised before being allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil in 1967 at the ripe old age (for a Stalinist literary figure) of 76.

His international reputation and the fact that he was living in Paris probably helped to keep Ehrenburg out of the Gulag, but Stalin had a long reach (as Trotsky found out in Mexico) and being a Soviet writer was a dangerous game. To survive well into old age under Stalinism required a certain kind of flexibility and moral dexterity, involving the loss of all sense of personal integrity or morals, an ability to change your opinions in an instant, ratting your colleagues and workmates out before they did the same to you as well as being prepared to snitch on your friends and family to the secret police. Terror and fear poisoned everything.

It was in this context that Ilya Ehrenburg published My Paris, a study in words and images of the underbelly of that great city. Published by the State publisher Izogiz in 1933, and designed by El Lissitzky, (this copy is the faithfully reproduced Steidl reprint of 2005 which helpfully includes an English translation of the Russian text) My Paris is an interesting example of book design and an insight into how the Soviets viewed their proletarian brothers in the West. Ehrenburg’s familiarity with the city made him uniquely qualified to produce a Russian perspective on injustice there for a Soviet audience. This book certainly avoids the pitfalls and clichés that seduce many a chronicler of that iconic metropolis; the Eiffel tower only appears once in the background of a picture of a scruffy building site.

Ehrenburg’s introduction to the book, in which he describes how he used a right angle viewfinder attached to his Leica in order to catch them unawares as he was taking their photograph, does strike me as being rather at odds with his status as a fellow proletarian. As he boasts “I can talk about this without blushing; a writer has his own notions of honesty. Our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole.”  In his defence we must also admit that he was not a professional photographer used to the rough and tumble of taking photographs on the street and certainly, from personal experience, you soon learn that street-photography can produce some ‘interesting’ reactions from the people you photograph. But this inordinate pride in deception and dishonesty that Ehrenburg displays, in my opinion, speaks volumes about his character.

Ehrenburg used his modified Leica to produce images for a book depicting what he describes as his Paris, the working class areas of the city and the poor that live there. A good portion of the images and text are taken up with depicting the better-off sections of the working class eating, drinking and enjoying themselves, which only serves to heighten the contrast with the homeless and destitute. The result is a procession of images we expect to see from a photographer documenting this kind of subject; dirty streets, comatose men sprawled in the gutter, homeless people huddled on benches, grizzled old women scowling suspiciously, shabby houses and the discarded flotsam and jetsam of material culture picked over by the poor.

Is there any empathy with the people Ehrenburg depicts in this book? I have to say that I can’t see it. Ehrenburg’s work skims over the surface of the human degradation and squalor surrounding him but he doesn’t penetrate beneath the surface of life on the margins. Even the text serves to negate Parisian poverty, describing it in a straightforward manner, showing it as a normal, accepted state of affairs with no solidarity between the different sections of the poor. The individuals in his images are presented as passive and docile. They are browbeaten, broken and selfish people, content to wallow in their bottle of cheap wine after a meal in a restaurant or collapse in the gutter.

In the climate of fear that pervaded Russian society, books just didn’t get printed by State-run publishing houses without layers of bureaucrats being satisfied about the bona fides of the author and the contents. To do otherwise was to shorten your lifespan considerably.  I would imagine that My Paris was regarded as ‘safe’ because it was interpreted by the Soviet authorities as a straightforward representation of systemic problems associated with capitalist society, such as drunkenness, homelessness and unemployment. The individuals he portrays are presented as pitiful downtrodden pawns of capitalism in contrast to the revolutionary fervour of the masses building a bright new future (under Stalin, naturally). This servile attitude is also used to explain why the Russian revolution hadn’t spread westwards across Europe; it was their own fault for being so weak and spineless. The flame lit by the Paris Commune has been passed to the workers of the Soviet Union (led by Stalin of course) who are in the vanguard of progress.

Although Ehrenburg’sbook is ostensibly about Paris, it is really being used to convince a domestic audience about the great strides being made in the Soviet Union.  The formerly revolutionary workers of Paris are no more; that mantle has been assumed by their Soviet counterparts who are now the only hope left for the working masses.

New China Builds

Published in 1976, the final year of Mao’s reign, this book was designed to showcase the architectural gems of ‘new’ and improved communist China (as opposed to the old, bad China ruled by the corrupt Chang Kai-Shek). As such it has high production values and was designed to impress foreigners about the wonders accomplished through communist collective endeavour since 1949 when Mao had assumed power.

Thematically the book is divided into sections dealing with industry, transportation, residential complexes, showcase public buildings, rural communes and water conservancy projects. As such, it is veritable catalogue of the Maoist built environment, all constructed through decades of unprecedented suffering, terror and death.

The Great Leap Forward from 1958-1961 is estimated to have resulted in approximately 45 million deaths through famine and starvation (according to historian Frank Dikotter’s recent book Mao’s Great Famine). Coming ten years after Mao took power in 1949, the Great Leap Forward was designed to demonstrate to the world that China had been completely transformed under his rule. Amongst other aspects of this insane plan, China embarked on a vast range of horrendously expensive prestige building projects designed to bedazzle everybody with the wonders of Maoism. All this was part of Mao’s attempt to usurp the mantle of the leader of world-communism after Stalin’s death in 1953 by showing that China had accomplished more in the few short years of his rule than the Soviets had managed to do since 1917.

According to Dikotter the construction projects embarked upon suffered from widespread defects; a shortage of adequate materials led to substandard replacements, including poor quality cement and steel reinforcing bars made from brittle metal, all assembled hurriedly by exhausted and starving workers. As can be imagined, although these buildings looked fine from a distance, they were simply rotten to the core inside.

Flattening centuries old cityscapes, Mao transformed Tiananmen Square in Beijing into a vast parade ground where the masses could congregate to worship their new emperor. Old buildings were regarded as backward and shameful and were demolished to make way for modernist, Soviet inspired, monstrosities designed to ‘serve the people.’ But however bad conditions were in the cities they bore no comparison to the countryside where the vast majority of the population lived.

Even the mighty industrial plants the regime was so proud of, that were supposed to propel China overnight into a great  power, were more white elephants that produced lots of junk rather than quality products. But in a system that defined progress through statistics, output was king. Inadequate servicing and a lack of spare parts meant that the shiny new machinery of the 1950s soon rusted away and became unuseable. And the easiest way to get rid of the all toxic waste produced was to dump it into the nearest river with no thought about the impact this would have on health or the environment.

But this was as nothing compared to the rural water conservation schemes in which millions of people were forced to work on in order to increase irrigation and improve agricultural output. Many of these river diversion schemes and dams were constructed simply by having vast numbers of people pile up earth banks with no adequate thought to engineering or planning. The result was horrendous. As well as the inevitable bursting of badly built dams, this grand scheme proved to be an environmental catastrophe.  Soil eroded more quickly, rivers became silted up, flooding increased because the rain had nowhere to go and fertile topsoil was simply washed away leading to the expansion of deserts. Interestingly, less than twenty years later Pol Pot and his genocidal Khmer Rouge henchmen copied this same model in their effort to transform Cambodia into their own nightmarish version of utopia.

Although the book is designed to showcase collective might and architectural wonder, it is appropriate that many of the images are completely bereft of people. These photographs of the modernist blocks, the dams and belching factories can be regarded as tombstones to the memory of the countless numbers sacrificed in this megalomaniacal ego trip.

Mao’s legacy is still writ large upon both the Chinese people and landscape to this day.

Remnants of the Recent Past – Pip Erken

The abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s meant that suddenly a number of new, supposedly independent, states emerged blinking into a changed world. While ostensibly free to plough their own furrows, these former satellite states are still shackled by the legacy of more than 70 years of centralised planning where local realities were ignored in the decisions made in distant Moscow.

Ukraine, with its agriculture and heavy industry, was a key component in this centralised economic system and was heavily dependent on energy inputs from other parts of the former Soviet Union in order to keep the production rolling. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of those times can be found in Chernobyl, whose crumbling concrete sarcophagus still lurks ominously in northern Ukraine, continuing to invisibly poison the environment and devastate countless lives.

Unlike other newly independent states in the post-Soviet zone, Ukraine has had a long and proud national tradition which has helped to bind the country into a largely cohesive entity (unlike its neighbour Belarus which is effectively a Russian satrap). Preoccupied with dealing with the economic and social trauma of the break-up, Russia was in no position to assert much influence over its new neighbours allowing many to build ties with former Western enemies, such as Nato, a strategy which was designed to prevent future Russian interference.  While many of the former post-Soviet countries are regarded as being distinctly different, Russia considers both Belarus and Ukraine as Slavic brothers who most assuredly fall within their zone of influence.

Looking hopefully to the West while the weight of the past pulls them to the East, the ties that bind this new nation together are being slowly unravelled by competing powers. Politically, economically and socially Ukraine is defined by this struggle. In this conflict, energy, the vital motive force behind a society, becomes a weapon. The pipelines that were laid in Soviet times are crucial conduits of gas and oil that are key to keeping Ukraine working and the Russians have been more than happy to threaten that they would turn off the tap if they didn’t get their way. Additionally, as much of the natural gas that flows from Russia to Europe runs through Ukraine, an additional layer of pressure is added to any events that might jeopardise the EU economy.

Erken’s photographs are a portrait of a country struggling to come to terms with its new and uncertain place in the world. His images produce an account that ties together the varying strands of this invisible geopolitical tug of war and  its impact upon both ordinary individuals and Ukrainian society.  Moving seamlessly between scenes of industry, apartment blocks, coal mines, power stations, desolate landscapes, and everyday people sleeping and drinking, Erken creates a narrative that is refreshingly broad and ambitious in its scope.

The landscape in these images is bleak and heavily polluted; this is a country where the environment has been ravaged by man for decades. Interestingly, the few images of lush greenery and the bright red berries that appear in the book are pictures from the deserted and heavily contaminated zone around Chernobyl.  The promise of the future has been tainted by the legacy of the past.

As a book object this is a wonderfully produced example of what can be done through self publishing. It comes complete with cardboard sleeve which has a small black and white image of a Soviet era dam under construction on the front. Sliding the soft cover book out, there are a number of translucent pages before you get to the book proper. The sequencing and the narrative flow of the images works well, while the deliberate use of different sized pages prevents it from becoming yet another oppressive survey of despair. Despair is most assuredly evident in this work but it is the quiet scream of mute anger and individual powerlessness rather than the shrill cry of the outsiders fleeting outrage that pervades the pages of this book.

Erken’s work is an examination of the human impact of this posturing, portraying an uncertain nation, shackled by history, trapped between their aspirations and the inescapable influence of their larger neighbour who is determined to reassert control.  Unlike other photographic projects documenting the Soviet legacy this is not just another study of rust and squalor; the clichéd gnomic semi-naked alcoholics of Boris Mikhailov are absent here.  Erken’s images are subtle and, in my opinion, all the more effective because of it.

Memento Mori – Peter Mitchell

Continuing the theme of the changing British urban scene, this book is an in depth study of the ambitious Quarry Hill housing development in the city of Leeds that was designed to provide an alternative to the Victorian slums, photographed by Annan, that still made up much of the housing within industrial cities. Mitchell’s book is a multi-layered approach to documenting the Quarry Hill flats, incorporating personal narrative, historical newspaper reports, archival photos and blueprints, as well as his own medium format photographs, all combined together to produce a comprehensive account of this grandiose scheme to alleviate dire poverty.

Inspired by the Viennese workers apartment blocks built in the late 1920s, the Quarry Hill area of  Leeds, famous for its disease, squalor and crumbling tenements, was the site of an ambitious building scheme in 1935. This huge housing complex was supposed to offer a utopian alternative to the poverty that huge numbers of people endured in the city of Leeds. However, like many schemes that seem to offer a quick-fix to a complicated problem, the optimism soon faded and the unsuccessful Quarry Hill housing complex was finally demolished in the late 1970s.

After the First World War, Britain was struggling to come to terms with the changed social landscape of a country traumatised by four years of brutal war. The 1920s saw the rise of the Labour Party as a voice for the workers who would act in the interests of the common man and alleviate the conditions of poverty that had prevailed since the Industrial Revolution. As well as an increase in the political power of the working class during this time, the 1930s depression meant that tangible measures to pacify discontent found new impetus. The Quarry Hill complex was designed as a modern solution to the old and intractable problem of urban poverty and it was hailed as a model for other cities to follow in the years before the Second World War.

In a country where everybody’s home is still regarded as their castle, some commentators attributed the failure of the complex to the ‘foreign’ and un-English nature of communal living. Certainly the problems caused by huge numbers of people coming from traditional individual houses suddenly having to cope with shared spaces and facilities was a hard nut to crack and should have provided ample warning to the architects planning the high-rise developments of the 1960s. However, it is no coincidence that the late 1970s saw a sea change in terms of the state’s attitude towards the individual that found ultimate expression in the Thatcherite 80s.

The 1970s were a depressing decade in Britain as it struggled with the terminal decline of imperial grandeur, widespread social unrest and the collapse of heavy industries that had once defined its place in the world.  Thatcherism and the triumph of the financial service economy in the 1980s were the reaction to this collapse in traditional British power and the destruction of the flats can also be regarded as a harbinger of the new order to come. During the eleven long years she was in power, the communal social contract and the post-war safety net provided by the state in terms of basic social protections were a prime target for Thatcher and the subject of her most strident attacks.  The state’s obligations to the individual were reduced again and again as they were cast adrift on the choppy waters of the new free market service economy to either sink or swim as best they could in the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘competitiveness’. Images of the crumbling flats, once hailed as a vision of social and collective harmony, can be read as a metaphor for the changing fortunes of a country that was trying to come to terms with a new world order in which it was no longer a global power.

Mitchell spent a number of years documenting the various stages of the demolition work which are presented throughout the book, detailing the slow process of pulling down this massive structure of concrete and steel that so many people had made their lives in. Interspersed with these images, he also provides interior photographs of the once proud flats still showing the ghostly traces of the hopes and dreams left behind by their former inhabitants.

The book uses newspaper cuttings charting the rise and fall of Quarry Hill to construct a narrative that begins with optimistic projections of communal harmony. Later the first criticisms of life on the complex appear showing that all was not going as planned. Finally, the book culminates with plans to obliterate this development from the urban landscape.

As well as this narrative, Mitchell successfully attempts to give some insight into the multitude of personal stories of the people who lived there and their changing aspirations and dreams.  Black and white archival photographs showing the construction work, birthday parties and ordinary life in the flats are woven in the pages alongside Mitchell’s own images of destruction.

For a nuanced example of the nexus between the official, political and personal narratives that are encoded within all such grand schemes of utopian planning and social engineering, this book is well worth looking at.

Information about Peter Mitchell is hard to come by but an article about the photographer can be found here.

Photographs of the Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow – Thomas Annan

Thomas Annan Old Closes of Glasgow

The Victorian era saw an unprecedented urbanisation of society as the draw of factory work (and the promise of supposed riches) lured millions of the young and hopeful away from the backbreaking despair of the countryside. Britain established the model for industrial development that is being used today in China.  Throughout the nineteenth century, industrial cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Glasgow to name a few became the centres of heavy industry and a source of massive wealth for a small group of people. Most of the unfortunates who actually did the heavy, dangerous and backbreaking toil for a pittance were consigned to slums of shoddily built houses with no sanitation, running water or basic amenities. For the dubious privilege of living there landlords charged massive rents to already exploited people.

Thomas Annan Old Closes of Glasgow

In Victorian society marked by strict hierarchical division based on class and the appearance of outward respectability, the British middle and upper classes, who were benefitting from this new found wealth, were at first quite happy to ignore the nightmare in their midst. However the dangers of having huge numbers of impoverished, desperate people on their doorstep soon became a source of fear. A new-found concern for the welfare of the poor arouse from the 1840s onwards mainly because it became apparent that the overcrowded slums were breeding grounds of revolution and disease. In particular cholera was the great nineteenth century middle-class nightmare because as well as the potential for death, you couldn’t control your bowel movements, which in a society that was based on outward respectability, was especially ‘embarrassing’.

Thomas Annan Old Closes of Glasgow

Into this festering Glaswegian urban mix steps an official local government body, the City Improvement Trust, charged with trying to bring some sort of order to the chaos and provide basic sanitation and living conditions for the urban poor. As part of their work, they intended to knock down and build new houses to replace the overcrowded slums. Obviously the local slum-lords who owned the buildings were not keen on having these meddling do-gooders disturb their very profitable racket and the usual combination of greed, money, politicians, powerful vested interests and bureaucratic red tape made the process of change slow and ultimately futile (clearing the slums didn’t solve the problem – it merely moved it to another area).

As part of their work, the Trust decided to employ a photographer in 1868 to take photographs of some of the most run-down slums in the city that they planned to demolish and for this they chose a middle-class commercial photographer, Thomas Annan.  Annan was employed to provide a visual record of poverty that the Trust could use to convince decision-makers, who would never go into slums, that things needed to change.

The book I have is a 1977 Dover reprint of the original publication which publishes the original 1868 images Annan took as well as additional photographs made in 1877 and images added in 1900 when it was published as a book (which can be bought on Abe if you have a spare $9,700 burning a hole in your pocket). Most of the additional images added in 1900 were picturesque scenes of old town life, indicating to me that nostalgia had already set in when the book was finally published.  The photographs of 1868 were documenting an immediate problem for a bureaucracy; by 1900 they were safely consigned to the past.

It is the original 1868 photographs of the alleyways that really stand out. The photographs are for the most part uniformly gloomy and sinister; the sky is a small muddy grey patch in the corner of the frame. In the Victorian imagination, light is associated with order and progress; dark is backward and dangerous.  The images emphasise the dark, claustrophobic nature of the alleyways and courtyards where thousands of people lived cheek by jowl in absolute poverty. This is the alleyway where we all fear to tread come to life. Disease in the Victorian imagination was thought to be caused by bad air (miasma) and dark unventilated conditions were thought to cause epidemics. Looking at the photographs in this way, what the Victorian viewer saw was the perfect breeding ground for crime, disorder, violence and disease, giving them a personal incentive to buy into slum clearance efforts.

It is important to remember that we are looking at these photographs from a totally different perspective. They are records of a distant past which is alien to us. Middle class viewers of the time would have been horrified and fascinated at the sight of these dangerous spaces. Respectable people did not go anywhere near these areas. The slums were an unknown black hole in the middle of a city. Annan is the original disaster tourist venturing into dangerous places where the ordinary person fears to tread in order to bring back the ‘truth’ of what he sees there to a distant audience. Because of the technology of the day, Annan’s photographs took time to make and in many of them we can see the blurred outlines of people looking curiously at the unusual sight of the photographer. But he is no Riis or Hine concerned with documenting injustice.  Annan is here to photograph the architecture. The buildings are Annan’s focus; the inhabitants who live in them are not his concern.  Although slum-dwellers may appear in his photographs they are as much a part of the scenery as the washing lines that pepper Annan’s images.

The poor, it seems, will always be with us.