Love uncovering hidden places throughout London? Our Art Curator, Rosie Glenn, strolled around our new outdoor exhibition at Paddington Central, LINES // ACROSS LONDON, with photographer Alan Williams. See their interview below to find out more about his design inspired compositions and uncover the secrets behind some of the capital’s often forgotten and overlooked locations.
RG: Alan, it’s great to see you here at Paddington Central with your photography on show. Before we look at the actual photographs, I wonder, how do you assess each location for photographic potential?
AW: I don’t generally know what to expect when I arrive at a location. They are partly researched or recommended. But, on arrival, I am always drawn to the part of the building that’s strong in colour with a repetitive pattern of shapes and form. I aim to follow my first impression of the space, hold on to what is striking and try not to be distracted from that.
RG: And now looking at the pieces here on display, this exhibition showcases three portfolios of your work, each one taking the viewer on a mapped out journey across London. Let’s look first at Sidetrack, the sequence of photographs showcasing hidden destinations along the Docklands Light Railway. What’s the inspiration behind this series?
AW: When I imagined Sidetrack I thought of myself on a train, coffee in hand, just daydreaming out of the window and wondering what happens in all those buildings?
RG: I’m intrigued by The Fan Museum, tell me a little more about your visit there.
AW: Well, it’s set in two 18th century town houses in Greenwich and actually houses 4,000 fans and fan related objects. The Fan Museum itself has many rooms but it was the fantastic colour and the theatrical Trompe L’oeil of the basement cafe that stood out. At the same time I met Daniel, the Museum’s gardener, and I thought the contrast between him and the space - modern verses traditional, baroque verses punk - was too irresistible not to photograph. In the end, the hair on his head turns out to be the only fan in the room!
RG: And then the next series, Upshot, photographs of hidden spaces at the top of some of London’s tallest buildings. These works have a way of drawing the viewer in for a closer look. Tell me a little about these please.
AW: You know, the best photographs draw you through the space. You want to look in and see what’s there. For Number One Poultry I switched the lights out, I wanted it black so all focus is on the circular form of the clock window and what lies beyond. Equally, with the Royal Albert Hall it’s the fact you’re looking at it the wrong way round, looking down through the mushroom discs as opposed to looking up, that makes it so engaging. I hope too that it imparts a sense of vertigo, standing on only wire mesh to take the photo was, in itself, a terrifying experience.
RG: Yes, they’re both very dramatic! I’m sure I’ve told you before that The Original Acts Room is one of my favourite shots. How did that one come about?
AW: It’s the most intriguing location and it took some time to negotiate a visit. The oldest Acts date back to 1497 and the longest, a tax law, runs to a quarter of a mile. Of course these are very topical at the moment with the legal ramifications of Brexit high on the Government’s agenda. For a photographer, the repeat circular patterns are perfect, appearing almost like tree rings or strata rock forms, a series of organic forms woven together on a vast canvas.
RG: Yes, they remind me of piles of material rolls in my mother’s favourite dressmaking shop! Lastly, let’s look at the Sub Urban portfolio - this series of photographs below ground seems very perspective driven with strong lines and sharp architectural forms.
AW: These underground spaces are all very forceful and, yes, each one has a strong sense of perspective, in fact, the brick construction of each amplifies this notion. Actually, Oak of Honour Hill remains one of the largest brick built underground reservoirs in Europe today and, above its brick roof, covered with a layer of concrete and top soil, is a 9 hole golf course!
RG: How funny, that’s clearly a place of enjoyment then, that said, some of these locations must have been tricky to access and maybe a touch alarming. I wonder, how did it feel to spend time along Dead Man’s Walk?
AW: Very eerie. It’s so grey. I have to say, whilst I was amazed by the architectural forms, I didn’t linger here for too long. The scene is underneath the Old Bailey, as a legacy of a time when crowds would gather to watch an execution, it captures the actual walkway towards the gallows and is disconcerting for two reasons. Firstly, it’s not only the perspective in the shot that makes the doors and openings appear to diminish, they really do - the condemned man was progressively pushed though the gaps until alone he met the hangman in Newgate. The other, and more uncomfortable, is the 1930s white tiles which seem to conjure up the ambience and the ghosts of the industrial mass killings of the 20th century.
RG: Lastly, it must have been difficult to get into some of these places? How did you go about gaining permission to take your photographs?
AW: Chance is a central part of the journeys. Who I met and what they recommended became the driving force of the photography. I thought I would like to shoot Big Ben but failed to get permission. However, while watching the Ukulele Orchestra of GB I was introduced to Lord Redesdale. It turns out that he's a keen fan of the Ukulele but, more importantly, he could get me into The Original Acts Room! As Jessica Mitford said “picking other people’s brains is an art worth cultivating!”