November 27, 2005
Photographer David Spero is not interested in recording the material wealth of the 21st century. ‘That’s all pretty unimportant really, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘It’s outside the mainstream where I get interested: I like to witness a certain ingenuity and spirit, because it’s an incredible thing to see.’ This explains why he has spent the past three years photographing structures built in conjunction with ideological beliefs, and avoided the set-pieces that dominate the architecture of our time in favour of revealing those human haunts that we often fail to see. He started with a project that uncovered informal churches – places of worship set up anywhere from warehouses to suburban semis – and this in turn led him to ‘Settlements’, his latest project, which captures a series of low-impact dwellings situated in British woodland.
Granted, choosing to live year round in a yurt, roundhouse or bender is not many people’s idea of reality. There are still only about a dozen fully fledged low-impact developments (LIDs). However, the ones Spero photographed – Tinker’s Bubble and King’s Hill in Somerset, Brithdir Mawr in Pembrokeshire and Steward Woodland on Dartmoor, each home to between 10 and 20 residents – are culturally significant by virtue of the fact that they are environmentally insignificant.
The toll that these structures take on the physical environment is so slight that it makes the government’s sustainable development agenda look like eco hooliganism. There are several defining characteristics of LIDs, but certainly no rule book. Simon Fairlie, a former co-editor of the Ecologist magazine and trustee of Tinker’s Bubble, defines a LID as a development that ‘through its low negative environmental impact either enhances or does not significantly diminish environmental quality’. His own community typifies a LID’s aspirations: Tinker’s Bubble is a small-scale, low-impact farming community that shuns carbon-fuel imports and uses the products of the landscape.
Residents build their shelters with their own hands, pooling knowledge of materials – which are recycled or biodegradable. While mainstream society is busy erecting monuments to perpetuity, low-impact livers construct their dwellings from rammed earth, mud, straw bales and local timber, often reclaimed. Rather than being built to last, these are homes built with the end in mind. Uninhabited, a roundhouse will degrade peaceably into the earth in under 10 years.
‘If you build your house with your own hands,’ explains Mary Hancock, course chair of the MA in energy and sustainable building at Oxford Brookes University, ‘the amount of materials you need is sharply reduced.’ Hancock has studied the roundhouses at Brithdir Mawr and is impressed: ‘They take ultimate responsibility for their impact, managing with no, or very little, incoming fuel, using compost loos and processing the waste – whereas most of us rely on drainage to flush the problem elsewhere. And they burn wood, which they grow for heat, that is completely carbon neutral. But aside from the practicalities, there’s a really interesting sensitivity to the building. And the actual dwellings also occupy a much smaller space than most people’s houses.’
The minimal resource use and impact of these alternative communities is impressive. Look carefully in Spero’s pictures and you’ll see that these communities are off-grid, generating what little power they need through on-site renewables. There’s a chimney from a wood burner which uses wood coppiced from surrounding trees, or the odd solar panel. One community recently bought a wind turbine. There is very little outside influence; the phone line at Tinker’s Bubble is a rare exception, but it was put in by Radio 4 so they could interview the residents for This Week. According to Hancock’s research, these are all features that pay dividends in terms of decreasing carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming. Her comparative study of housing stock shows that the roundhouse, with its straw bale and mud plaster, reciprocal frame roof, straw insulation and thick carpet rugs made from wool shorn from Brithdir Mawr sheep, clocked up a daily CO2 emissions rate of just 1.35kg in winter and 0.27kg in summer, as opposed to a mainstream build, which clocked up 16.32kg in winter and 7.9kg in summer.
Some of Spero’s pictures are the sustainable living equivalent of playing ‘spot the ball’. As you stare at the verdant canopy, a dwelling will slowly reveal itself to you. Legend has it that the house built and occupied by Tony Wrench – now an authority on low-impact roundhouses – at Brithdir Mawr was completely secret until 1997, when it was spotted by a pilot flying over the Pembrokeshire hills. No doubt Wrench has lived to rue that day, after which his 35ft diameter, beautifully constructed roundhouse became a planning cause celebre when Pembrokeshire county council threatened to pull it down. The struggle was featured on just about every news network, while marchers from other low-impact communities rallied to protest.
Not surprisingly, the communities are rather used to being judged by the outside world, and often not very favourably. When the Steward Woodland community bought its 32-acre site for £50,000 in 2000 and began putting up timber and canvas benders, the Dartmoor National Park Authority was horrified. The intention was that the self-sufficient community would exist by managing the forest around it, through sustainable forestry, including coppicing. Forestry, on a non-commercial scale, is a cornerstone of the low impact ethos: the idea being that if you don’t have to pay high prices for a rural property, you don’t have to commute to work (using petrol) to pay a mortgage, leaving you free to manage the trees on which you rely for heat and some income.
The mud slinging that followed – including the headline ‘Tree people work under 15 mins a day’ in the local paper – is reminiscent of the way in which Tinker’s Bubble was originally dismissed by critics as a refuge for the Twyford Down road protestors of the early Nineties: in short, a base for troublesome swampys and the terminally workshy.
Every one of the four low-impact developments featured by Spero has had at best a ‘tussle’ and at worst become ’embroiled in a battle’ with the planning authorities, which have largely chosen to ignore the fact that sustainable development is now supposed to be the bedrock of planning. Factor in planning laws that penalise LIDs in effect for being too low impact and not generating enough money, and add on other legislative directives which have targeted the composting of waste (by Defra, and now under review), and living a subsistence lifestyle becomes virtually illegal, which makes the fact that these settlements exist at all even more remarkable. Strikingly, these LIDs do not seem to have any international counterparts. Perhaps it takes a peculiarly British eccentricity to live without a fridge, heat a bath over a wood burner, or live in a wattle-and-daub structure with recycled windows.
Communities such as Tinker’s Bubble have succeeded in raising some crucial questions, not least: what do we really mean when we say we want a sustainable countryside, and who exactly do we want to live there? Recently the Countryside Agency stated, albeit guardedly, that it thought LIDs could make a ‘positive contribution to sustainable development in rural areas’.
Spero’s settlements project might then coincide with a new paradigm for low-impact communities, one where they are considered progressive rather than retrograde – and finally brought in from the cold. Not that they are cold, physically speaking. As Mary Hancock will also tell you, when she analysed the Brithdir Mawr roundhouses in terms of comfort, alongside conventional builds, they ‘performed rather well, maintaining a comfortable temperature thanks to very good insulation’. Perhaps a design for mainstream life after all.
David Spero: Settlements is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London WC2 from 1 December – 5 February.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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
No.67 ‘Special Issue on Photography’, 2004
Startling in their simplicity and beauty, the images in David Spero’s ‘Star Series’ depict the night sky. Produced between 1999 and 200, many of these photographs were taken in the desert with long exposure times of up to 45 minutes. They show sights that would be invisible to the human eye: the swirling passage of the stars across the heavens. Depending on Spero’s proximity to the equator, the celestial bodies trace spirals or rain streaks against perpetually azure or indigo skies. It is only after studying these images for a while that it becomes clear that it is not the stars that are moving. More correctly, of course, the camera documents the movement of the earth. The appearance of a host of shooting stars is created as the camera shutter stays open and the earth rotates in its orbit: a Copernican realization writ small. Images that at first sight appear to document a direct engagement with nature, capturing unique moments of unmediated experience, are only visible because of the camera. Far below the stars are other street lights that signify a human presence, distant street lamps or the glow of a town on the horizon.
In a sense the ‘Star Series’ explores the universal need to come into contact with the spiritual, to experience a moment of epiphany. The desire and the experience pf epiphany are paradoxically commonplace. On a flight, for instance, when one’s attention is caught by a particularly beautiful arrangement of clouds outside the airplane window or a gaudy display of weather and light during an accelerated or prolonged sunrise or sunset.
Images from Spero’s Aircraft Series(1997-98) capture the combination of wide eyed excitement and world weary familiarity the view from an aeroplane window can provoke. In Untitled No.1 (1997-8) the window’s elliptical shape frames the view of a hazy red-tinged landscape which could be somewhere in the American Midwest – big open country where generous expanses of space are echoed in the endless blue of the sky at the top of the image. Peeking into frame in the top left corner is the aircraft’s shiny white wing.
Spero’s photographs comment, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, on our attempts to find meaning and belief. After leaving the Royal College of Art in 1993 he produced images investigating how value systems are implicit in constructed environments. ‘Parks’ (1994-5) and Waterfalls’ (1994-5) depict places constructed to give visitors a watered down experience of the sublime, moments of respite from their otherwise prosaic lives. After this, projects such as ‘Star Series’ and the ‘Aircraft Series’ moved to a more direct engagement with natural phenomena that still have the potential to provoke a sublime response in a technologically mediated age. Spero’s more recent work acknowledges that the sublime may exist in the most unlikely places; the potential for epiphanies exists everywhere.
His recent series ‘Churches’ (2002-3) depicts evangelical places of worship in the most unlikely of venues: converted bingo halls, cinemas and pubs. Even more humble and unlikely sites for the Christian ministries include East End workshops, a lock-up garage and a terraced house, its frontage dominated by a large cross. Often catering to the disenfranchised, these are temporary, transitory way stations for the divine, places that offer solace by seeking to save the spirit from the material world. It makes sense that their outward appearance is materially abject. A sociological reading of these images might highlight the proximity of the Power-House International Ministries and Tata Shoes Ltd. In one particularly down at heal building, and question the overlapping motivations of capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity, but Spero’s project is gentler and less cynical. Whatever else they may signify, these images testify to a need to seek out a state of grace.
Sometimes a state of grace can be achieved by seeing things a different way. Spero began making his ‘Ball Photographs’ (2001-3) after the ‘Star Series”. He had amassed a collection of small rubber balls and he first thought he might use them to replicate various constellations. Instead he began introducing the balls into otherwise unremarkable spaces, usually domestic interiors. Placed in an apparently random formation around a room, balanced on furniture and fittings or resting on the floor, the ball seem to have descended on mass in a surreal, benign visitation. Despite their playful appearance, the balls enhance a quality of stillness. The sites they inhabit tend to be in flux, rooms that appear to have been abandoned mid-renovation. The boxes on the floor in Poppit I, Cardigan Bay (2003) suggest that someone has been interrupted in the course of packing or unpacking, only to come back to a room transformed by the mysterious arrival of colourful spheres. The balls suggest the human presence that is always inferred but almost never directly shown in Spero’s work. They make the familiar strange. It is as if each ball represents a point of focus in the picture, heightening to overload the detail in each image in the series and reminding us of the wonder that we can find in the everyday.
Rachel Taylor is an assistant curator at Tate and a freelance writer.
© Rachel Taylor
The Tabernacles of the Poor
David Spero: Churches
Source 49, Winter 2006
This book is the outcome of a very large photographic project on which David Spero has been engaged for at least two years – a typology. Its subject bears some comparison with the Becher’s huge survey of water towers and other industrial installations, but it is not an architectural survey. He has spent a great deal of time spotting a characteristic class of institution – that of the self-initiating religious congregation – and photographing their many varied and usually very humble premises. He has presented them in the most simple way possible; here is such and such. The kind of photography required for this task is of the dumbest kind, but that is a photography not easily achieved. It is, in fact, very hard to remove yourself in this objective manner. To compile such a collection requires a degree of self-abnegation and refusal of expression that commands our attention. We are not far from the world of the scientific illustrator or the collector of specimens, the person on whom all subsequent study has to rely.
David Spero has hit upon one of the most persistent features of Christian religious life, which has a very long history as honourable as it is eccentric. Amongst the great monuments of this sodality are the Quakers, whose fingerprints are everywhere, and the Shakers, who produced an architecture and design of the the most spiritual functionalism that can be imagined, but are now essentially defunct. We must also include the various classes of presbyterian and ‘puritan’ sects from which most of our modern political culture sprang. And of course, behind them all, the early work of the Man himself, whose followers gathered in a rented upper room of no other consequence.
I have described this as an eccentric tradition; and it is exactly that – removed from the centre, but setting itself up as a countervailing force, thus creating a new centre for its participants. This is perfectly described by John Robinson, the pastor on board the ‘Mayflower’. ‘The Papists plant the ruling power of Christ in the pope, the Protestants in the bishops, the Puritans in the presbytery, we in the congregation of the multitude called the Church’. The question, as always, was of the location of authority.
This included the kinds of premises that were typical of these early dissenting congregations; in ‘a lighter in St.Katharine’s Poo” in ‘a chopper’s house nigh Wool Quay in Thames Street’ and at the houses of a carpenter, a goldsmith and of a servant of the Bishop of London. All of these recorded 16th century upper rooms were in the heart of the commercial and manufacturing capital – the City of London. Those collected by Spero are also in the capital, within the beltway of the M25, but all are in otherwise empty industrial or commercial premises, often in poor and degraded urban environments.
These are, in the main, the tabernacles of the poor; just as these empty cinemas, decaying shop fronts and back street warehouses are the litter of a withdrawing wave of investments, so (we guess) are the congregations – people beached on the flats, abandoned by the full tides of money. Many of them are West Indian, drawing on three hundred years of Afro-American tradition; others can trace their lineage back to the little cults of Old London – The Ancient Deists of Hoxton , the Southcottians, the Christadelphians and Sandemanians – who only just fit into the capacious bag of Christian theology. They grow on the splitting principle, like the political groupuscules they much resemble. And we should never forget that this ground has nourished remarkable phenomenon, of which William Blake and his work is only one example. Michael Faraday was another, and the concept of electrical ‘current’ can be traced back to his Sandemanian belief that God is best thought of as a great river flowing through the world, in it but not of it.
In our times it is hard to imagine the American Civil Rights Movement and similar inspirations growing the way they did and do without these kinds of roots.
I ask myself, looking at this book of specimens, this cabinet of curiousities that David Spero has collected for us, whether or not it too contains unsuspected energies, centres that can reform the worlds around them.
Looking back in hindsight we can now see that the craftsmen and servants who met beside what is now St.Katharine’s Dock next the Tower, were the core of the core of the social formations that came to power in and after the Civil War; that the little cults of the great cities of the 19th century were the progenitors of modern consciousness. They were, in effect, governments in waiting. Can this be said of ‘The Glory House’, the ‘Vineyard’ and the ‘Prevailing Word Ministries’.
In one respect they seem much too embedded in the inner-city culture to be transformative agents; their signage, graphic style and poster displays are at one with the visual culture of bingo-halls, cheap sales outlets, karaoke nights and market stalls that they physically inhabit. But I think we ought to be looking more closely at what appear to be certain essential principles. They are self-governing. When they form unions, these are federal and cooperative. They act, frequently, as associations of mutual support. A good number run a range of self-help courses from ‘Bible Studies’ to ‘IT Skills’. (At this point we seem to be looking at a whole chunk of the population endeavouring, in alliance with local government, to lift itself up by pulling on its own shoe laces.) Also frequently, they have maximal ambitions and minimal resources. They are without a trace of pomposity. Such principles, which they share with political anarchism, are in a perpetual state of feud with the world of ‘targets’, ‘quotas’, and any form of bureaucracy. I guess many of them look upon the established powers as the children of Israel looked on Pharaoh. It is heavenly food they are seeking, not ‘consumption’.
To organise your life and associations on these principles is to live a life of Faith. Does it matter that the religious concepts involved are beneath the notice of most people? This writer certainly does not share them. But the capacity of men and women to organise themselves outsied the given stuctures of society at large is a preciuos resource; and the priciples of organisation involved are the essence of liberty.
© David Brett 2006.
Clare Richardson & David Spero
APERTURE No.186, Spring 2007
From its inception photography has always been a bearer of conscience. Long before the traditions of reportage or socially engaged or ‘concerned’ photography emerged, the medium’s capacity to produce an afterimage of reality meant that the past could, for the first time, persist into the present. Instantly evoking nostalgia, these fragments of the has-been would reproach the easy contentment of the here and now. As early beholders of daguerrotypes intuited, it was as if the past was looking out at them. ‘We didn’t trust ourselves at first to look at the first pictures he [Daguerre] developed’, wrote one. ‘We were abashed by the distinctness of these human images, and believed that the little tiny faces in the picture could see us, so powerfully was everyone affected by the unaccustomed clarity and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerrotypes.’
Yet if a century and a half on we have outgrown or at least suppressed that instinctive reaction, photographs still remind us of the contingency of our present. Forwarded across space and time, these uncanny emanations from elsewhere create a ripple in our consciousness. And since in front of the intractable stillness of a photograph it is we who undergo change, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that photographs behold us at least to the same degree as we behold them.
Over the years photographers have harnessed this principle in various ways. The genres of photojournalism and social realist photography customarily depict a fractured world in order to prod our conscience. But this is not the only way the medium can steer our emotional and moral outlook in new directions. Recently, as disenchantment with contemporary ways of living and anxieties about impending environmental catastrophe have continued to grow, a handful of photographers have discovered a new Romanticism, turning their attention – and by extension ours – to various arcadias, in particular those that would lead us back towards a promised land.
For her series Harlemville, the young British photographer Clare Richardson spent several months over a period of two years with a Steiner community in upstate New York. Founded by refugees from late 20th century capitalism, Harlemville is a town where every attempt is made to live in harmony with nature. As part of the Steiner educational philosophy children are sent into the woods in order to experience and understand the continuum that must exist between ourselves and our environment. It is their immersion in the natural world that is the focus of Richardson’s series.
Unlike so many other recent bodies of work that have chosen adolescence as their theme, these photographs portray this purportedly troubled period of life as a time of wonder and growth and serenity. Richardson’s approach is observational, as though her subjects are unaware of her presence. In her hands such a style fosters an intimacy that surpasses mere candour. To look at the images that constitute Harlemville is to find ourselves linked in a chain of empathy that would have us become part of the picture too.
In one photograph a group of boys stand in a river bathed in Edenic sunshine. Fishing spears at the ready, their faces are a picture of concentration. In another we see a boy in the water underneath a riverbank, his eyes closed and head framed by the roots of a tree. It is almost as though he were dreaming nature into existence. In these, as in many of the other images, what we are privy to is not just the secret world of childhood. Instead Richardson’s sensibility allows us to enter into the youths’ rapt absorption and behind that their apparent oneness with their surroundings too.
Laughter features little in Harlemville, and if the pictures are full of seriousness it is because they are above all works of feeling. Where Joel Sternfeld’s recently published project Sweet Earth looks at various instances of Utopian communities in America with an ironical, distancing eye, Richardson is not in the least bit interested either in setting things in an historical perspective or in creating a conceptual framework for her work. Rather her photographs are brim full of the selfsame idealistic sentiment that they describe.
Yet while this series may forestall intellectualism, it is far more than an outpouring of sentiment. The lushness of the landscape and the way it fills the frame in so many of the images, deliberately engender a vision of plenitude. The young people who are the work’s central motif, embody what the families have moved here to create. In front of Richardson’s lens this future generation becomes a broader locus of hope, the children’s sensitivity to their surroundings and their capacity to exist within a landscape without despoiling it, exemplifying a possible salvation for us all.
At the heart of Harlemville lies the notion of sustainability. Not just in today’s common ecological understanding of the term, but in a deeper holistic way as well. For this is a body of work which both in content and in form would offer us moral and emotional sustenance, providing a glimpse into a different way of life, one which exhorts us to listen humbly to nature instead of being locked into a system that constantly obliges us to conquer and destroy it, and then eventually ourselves too.
The same idea underlies Settlements, a project by another British photographer, David Spero, who has spent close on three years taking pictures of environmentally low-impact communities in the forests of England and Wales. Although shot in an objective
almost Becheresque manner, Spero’s photographs are as much an expression of sentiment as Harlemville. As its name implies Settlements is a document of the dwellings that comprise these outposts of idealism. And if their inhabitants hardly feature it is because the photographer felt that it is the structures themselves that best describe the back-to-the-land ideology that led to their creation.
Looking at pictures such as Emma and John’s, Tir Ysbrydol (Spiritual Land), Brithdir Mawr, Pembrokeshire, you can’t but wonder at how this human habitation with its turf roof and mud walls melds so perfectly with its surroundings. In another picture – The Longhouse, Steward Community Woodland, Devon – we see how that building has almost disappeared into the adjacent trees. This seeming harmony between the natural and the manmade is a further reason Spero chose to tackle the subject as he did. ‘I was particularly interested in the lightness of these structures and in how the world you build around you affects your relationship to the environment’, he explains. ‘It’s quite amazing how close to the environment these people actually are.’
Spero’s frontal approach and preference for flat, undramatic lighting lend his pictures a decidedly factual air. Yet even the everyday clutter of washing up or of log piles or of pots heaped up beside the homes does not disturb the apparent deeper unity depicted here. Instead these mundane details seem to belong in the landscape, as though they are a necessary precondition for a realisable arcadia.
While such a tack is somewhat grittier than Richardson’s quasi-magical reverie, both Settlements and Harlemville envision a mythic wholeness that opposes what we understand to be our current fractured condition. The search for a lost plenitude is as old as civilisation. Here it is updated using the magic of photography, a medium whose close contact with reality sears the myths it describes with the stamp of veracity. When treated, say, in painting arcadia is likely to remain an idle if agreeable daydream. When represented in photographs it becomes a vision of something possible. And so however partial and to varying degrees Romantic Richardson’s and Spero’s portrayals of their rustic idylls may be, they contain an incontrovertible dimension of actuality which guarantees that they will be something more than just useful fictions.
Traditionally photographs reproach us with the unalterable past. By picturing communities that have broken step with the mainstream march towards global doom, these two British artists have instead chosen to put would-be futures on view. The number of people involved in Harlemville and in the forest communes of Britain may be tiny and their attempts to establish tangible ecotopias may be fraught with problems. But the fact these places exist at all is of no small symbolic importance. For like every Utopia they refute the inevitability of history. As we look around for models that would keep us going now and into the ever uncertain future, we could do worse than follow the gaze of photographers such as Richardson and Spero. Their focus on the realised fantasies that these experimental communities represent might just prick us into turning away from our engineered existences to seek a new life amongst the trees.
© Jason Oddy 2006