The Ball photographs record three-dimensional constellations placed into existing and often transitory or semi-permanent spaces. The placement of the balls, and the constellations they create, form subtle planes that touch, and at moments, envelope the space with their presence.
These homemade celestial planes, tilted through the floors, sills and surfaces of each scene disrupt and transform way we see, creating a sense of stillness, drawing our attention slowly around the scene, mapping out new patterns and connections.
Edited selection. Print dimensions: 604mm x 760mm
Then Things Went Quiet
MW Projects, London, 2003
The title of this catalogue refers to the quietude that five contemporary British photographers, a selection of whose work is shown here, seem to present. Within the title is also the sense of the fruitlessness of hyperbole or over-dramatisation in an introduction to their photographs, Any text will offer a merely consonant reading of the delicate balances struck in each image, rather than what could be considered their explanation. These photographs work a gentle magic, one that makes subsequent reasoning around a photograph’s positioning in the service of commerce, sociology or art, a laboured task. These photographers work at the service of seeing and there lies their significance, sotto voce.
Photography has an enduring capacity to make anything, regardless of its transitory existence or ordinariness, worth the act of recording. All the photographers represented here engage with this enchantment particular to their medium. The propensity of photography to make anything worthy of being seen is carefully harnessed here by the apparent reticence of these makers to fully assume the meaning of their subjects before photographing them. And with this acknowledgement comes the potential to create photographs in which the visual fascination and the experience of the subject is embedded. A layering of evanescence is the open-ended pleasure that such photographs hold.
The silent pause that washes over these layers is the combined signatures in photography of available light and the use of traditional cameras. The photographers use medium and large format cameras – the equipment that is the preserve of makers as opposed to takers of photographs, once their technique is mastered, there is an assurance that within the infinite possibilities for framing a soon-to-be photographic subject, a generous but exacting standpoint can be achieved. To use time-honoured cameras is to reject the voracious, promiscuous range in favour of the earnest intent to distil the substance of an object, figure or scene. There is a certainty that what we see is the subtle specificity of something and nothing that has already dispersed, never to be re-grouped in precisely the same way.
David Spero’s Ball Photographs (2001-) perhaps offers the most explicit contemplation of this theme. Set within modest and functional locations, the colourful rubber balls are the comical but beautiful punctuations of the spaces. They form home-made celestial planes, tilted through the floors, sills and surfaces of each scene. They draw our attention to the many still lives within each photograph and the transformations of their contents into photographic subjects. Each layer of description reinforces the feeling of the limitless visual capacity of a photograph’s content – like the thousands of perfect vortices that constitute a single wave of sea.
© Charlotte Cotton.
Art of the Garden
David Spero: Garden
Tate Britain, 2004
The Garden series is an ongoing sequence of images (there are nine to date) of the garden below David Spero’s flat in North London, taken with a large format camera over a period of five years. During this period the garden has had three owners: Madeleine, Sophie and Charlotte. Spero is fascinated not only with the passing of time in the garden – the way the fullness of summer shades in to the sparseness of winter- but also with the very different ways in which the owners have used the garden. The changing garden thus becomes not only a marker of the seasons but also a reflection of different personalities: a matrix of varying degrees of engagement, presence and absence. We can see that for one owner, it is ‘something to be tamed every other year, not a space with which to express herself’, while another’s attitude to the garden is perhaps ‘romantic’. At times the garden is almost wild, at others highly ordered. Nonetheless, despite this interest in characterisation, as in almost all Spero’s work the photographs are unpeopled (except for the fleeting presence of a cat, caught investigating the remains of a barbecue; or the fugitive presence of Sophie’s gardener). Spero has spoken of the fact that the removal of the actual human presence makes the signs of that person’s passing more important, more telling.
Spero is in this context a passive observer (although he has spoken of how he ‘shares’ the garden with its actual owners, despite not being able to enter it). From his vantage point the structure of the garden is revealed in a way that is not visible to someone actually in it; the garden, with it’s oval patch of lawn, becomes a kind of stage. As time is condensed in the sequence of images changes are rendered more visible, the contrasts between the seasons almost shocking – as to the tendency for order to break down, for artifice to give way to nature.
David Spero graduated from the Royal College of Art, London in1993. Since then, working in series, he has created a body of work characterised by a quiet intensity, ‘a gentle magic.’ Engaging with expansive, spiritual themes, often focusing on the subtle means by which we negotiate private and public spaces, Spero has affirmed that his art is about ‘how people relate to the world around them.’ Working in series, he has said, is like gardening, in that it about ‘subtly nurturing things’; allowing ideas to develop and emerge in stages over time.
© Ben Tufnell
David Spero: Churches/Settlements
PHE05 Cuidad, 2005
In the past, documentary photographers tried to obtain self-sufficient images, with meanings that were almost perfectly clear to avoid any possible confusion. The informative content of their work was the main goal of these photographers, who were obliged to act like hunters stalking their prey, the image that would never be repeated. In order to be a documentary photographer, nothing was needed other than being present with camera ready in moments that have exaggeratedly been called decisive. As soon as photographers decided to be something more than opportunists, this model ended. Photographs show unconnected fragments that cannot be used to infer causes or consequences, isolated fragments that very rarely hold any meaning on their own. The current renewal of documentary languages is based on the fact that these fragments can be valuable when they are not isolated and their meanings are not clear. David Spero (London, 1963) is one of these new documentary photographers. Instead of hunting exemplary trophies, he accumulates, with patience and rigour, repertories of images that share certain aspects and make sense as a group, as signs or traces of existing situations, but also as readings and interpretations of these or other events in which the artist intervenes and in many instances determines.
In the series titled Churches, David Spero presents urban landscapes found in the large contemporary globalised city. Taken separately, they are completely anonymous and even banal, but they all have one characteristic in common: they all show places like stores, houses, garages, workshops or showrooms that have recently been converted into churches. This is a work on the transformation of the periphery of cities, which shows significant changes in usage, since the churches belong to the most enduring urban traditions, but have thecharacteristics of our time. In the church-monuments of traditional cities,citizens knew each other and had participated in their construction in a collective effort. Compared with the homogeneousness found in Western cities of the past, which was cultural and racial as well as religious, Spero’s series offers signs of a heterogeneous society, not only in the most evident aspects, but also in other more hidden, almost imperceptible ways. Religious phenomena have a growing importance today and are the subject of complicated political debates and the cause of many conflicts, both in developing and industrialised countries. Many new citizens, not only recent arrivals, preserve their religious beliefs, which give them a sense of community, values sought by other citizens in order to bear the problems of urban existence. The loss of a community identity in the outskirts of the city coexists with desires to affirm plural identities. The multiplication of churches is a symptom of the segregation of city inhabitants in groups that fail to communicate with one another for reasons of race, income, sexual behaviour or faith, in spite of the good intentions of democratic constitutions.
The other series by David Spero, Settlements, offers images of another changing urban aspect that is almost unknown: the city’s spread into unaltered natural spaces that seemed impossible tourbanise without destroying them at the same time: the forests. The provisional constructions in forests that appear in Spero’s photos are notonly surprising from the urban planning or architectural viewpoint, they are also a demonstration of unknown aspects of the contemporary city’s globalisation. They have other meanings, not the least of which are those showing problematic relationships between the technical civilisation and nature or the progressive vanishing of the borders and differences between the city and the countryside, a disappearance already predicted by Karl Marx, who also characterised the rural environment as isolation and separation. Guy Debord commented on the effects of this disappearance in The Society of the Spectacle “Urbanism destroys cities and reestablishes a pseudo-countryside which lacks the natural relations of the old countryside as well as the social relations that were directly or indirectly involved in the historical city.” The planet’s survival depends on maintaining an equilibrium between population, material resources and the environment. Population growth is a threat to this equilibrium as are the potential renewal of resources and environmental degradation, which increases daily. Forests are environmental reserves, but they are in danger both from agricultural operations and from demographic growth, which always demands more inhabitable space. Although it seems an incongruity, ecological awareness caused some of the homes appearing in Spero’s Settlements series. Their builders moved to the forests to impede their urban development and defend them from real estate voracity; a trip with no return in which in order to defend these natural spaces from being converted into the pseudo-nature mentioned by Debord, it was necessary to live in them. An urban invasion of nature, with the consequent new types of houses and constructions, not as provisional as they may seem at first sight, to which new or at least different ways of living may now correspond.
© Horacio Fernández
David Spero: Settlements
2 December 2005 – 5 February 2006
5 Great Newport Street
Over the past year British artist David Spero has been photographing structures in low-impact settlements around the UK. He has chosen to focus on those dwellings that are self-built by communities wanting to live on the land in a sustainable way. Their aim is to be at least partially self-sufficient and for their dwellings and way of life to have a minimal ecological footprint. To do this, where possible, renewable energy sources are used and building materials are recycled or locally sourced, such as timber, thatch, daub and turf. Some structures are temporary and so made of canvas and tarpaulin, designed to be easy and quick to dismantle. In the exhibition several of the images show isolated, distinct buildings whilst in others, taken at different times of year and across the seasons, the structures are hardly visible, camouflaged in the rich and dense foliage that surrounds them.
The proximity to nature is essential to these communities who have chosen a much closer, almost symbiotic, relationship between their man-made environment and the natural habitat. The dwellings themselves seem reminiscent of a pre-industrial age when most of the population lived in small rural communities. Modern societies shift to a more urban existence has lead to an increasingly sanitised and remote relationship to the natural environment. Mainstream consumer society, with its focus on material wealth and mass consumption, stands in stark contrast to the way these people have chosen to live their lives.
In Low Impact Development: Planning and People in the Sustainable Countryside (1996) Simon Fairlie explains how settlements such as these have often been hindered, and at times prevented, by local and national government edicts and planning acts. UK planning laws since the Second World War have been predicated on the assumption that all forms of development, except agricultural, were an urban threat to the countryside and needed to be strictly controlled. Although this allowed the protection of national parks and forests, and the development of greenbelts around cities and towns, it also prioritised and encouraged large-scale industrial farming over small-scale land use. This has been especially damaging for small groups wishing to live an ecologically sustainable existence on the land. Over the past few decades, with a growing awareness of environmental issues, political awareness has started to change as the need to reduce pollution and waste, to limit the use of energy and raw materials and to protect fragile eco-systems has become more urgent and pressing. These settlements serve as examples and models of this approach.
The structures themselves have an organic, fluid and ramshackle appearance as they are predominantly hand-made and so have few straight lines and symmetry in their design. They are imbued with individual character which is also reflected in the titles which include the names of people who live there. These also reveal how over time the communities share spaces as the settlements evolve. Through these images we can start to understand and appreciate the beauty of the dwellings themselves and the surrounding landscape. Photographed in contemporary Britain they stand as a powerful visual and architectural testimony to people who have chosen to live according to their ideological beliefs.
David Spero has recently shown work at Photo España (Madrid 2005), The Art of the Garden (Tate Britain 2004), and Breathless! Photography and Time (Victoria & Albert Museum 2000). SteidlMACK will be publishing a book of a current project, titled Churches, in Summer 2007.