Photos of a London Untouched By Gentrification
In the mid-2000s, before the Olympics came along, Polly Braden and David Campany documented the "untamed wilderness" of Lea Valley.
Polly Braden and David Campany
Some parts of London do a particularly good job of illustrating what's changed since the 2012 Olympics. Stratford, for instance, with the addition of its monolithic Westfield centre and £450,000 one-bed flats. Or Hackney Wick, which used to be full of artists' studios and locals whose families had lived in the community for generations, and now is not.
But an area that's remained relatively unchanged – bar the addition of an enormous building dedicated solely to bicycles – is the Lea Valley, whose Olympic velodrome borders Stratford and Hackney Wick. Prior to the pre-2012 "regeneration", the area was described by photographers and partners Polly Braden and David Campany as an "unplanned patchwork of nature reserves, social housing, yuppie apartments, small industries, scrap yards, football pitches… and vast areas of nothing in particular". And, by and large, that still stands up today.
Braden and Campany shot extensively in the area in the mid-2000s, documenting the area's strange blend of untamed wilderness and post-industrial artefacts. And seeing as the duo has now compiled that work into a new book, Adventures In the Lea Valley, I caught up with them to discuss the collaborative nature of their work, how locals have responded to their shots and what they make of the area today.
VICE: Adventures in the Lea Valley is made up of photos taken in 2004 and 2005. How do you feel you developed as photographers over that time, individually and as collaborators?
Polly Braden: We made an early decision to only photograph together, in each other's presence, with only one camera, one light meter and one tripod. Photography is often regarded as a very singular and solitary activity, especially observational photography.
David Campany: There are photographic duos, notably in commercial studio photography, but far fewer in documentary work. But it seemed natural to us that if we were sharing our fascination with the place then we could share our photographic exploration of it. There are many images that either of us could have taken, and we can't actually remember who shot what. But Polly is a far better portraitist.
Polly: Sometimes something would catch the eye of one of us and that person would shoot it. But doing so with the other watching meant that we soon grew to understand each other's way of noticing and shooting. David likes landscapes with strange incidents.
You've described blending landscapes, portraiture and street photography, but did any particular aspect take precedence for you?
David: No, nothing. As well as being a synthesis between the two of us, it was also a chance to see if we could make a body of work that brought together images from many genres – landscapes, portraits, street photography. There's also a performative aspect: we shot a lot of staged pictures of strange enactments. The book has a few of these, hopefully just enough to unsettle the general air of lyrical realism.
Which, if any, feels like the most important shot?
Polly: You can't really get the richness and complexity of the whole area in one image. That was something that attracted us to the place. Of course, when you're shooting you're always trying to make the best images you possibly can, and we have several favourites. The white stretch limo, glimpsed across the water through the trees. The children playing in the rubbish, caught in delicate morning sun. The portrait of Jean and Flo, two regulars we used to see. The portrait of Dwain Chambers the disgraced sprinter, training with a friend, hoping to get back into the Olympic squad.
How have people from the Lea Valley reacted to your images?
David: At first there was little interest. Things changed in the summer of 2005, when it was announced that the Olympics would be coming to the lower end of Lea Valley. We decided to stop shooting, knowing that the area would soon be full of cameras. Suddenly our project began to be seen as survey of a landscape that was about to change forever. We showed several prints and a digital slideshow at the Institute of Contemporary Arts that summer, and the project seemed to be positioned in relation to the unknown effects of the future Olympics.
Polly: That wasn't our intention. It was accidental. We decided to let the Olympics come and go. David and I got married, had two children and pursued other projects. We weren't even in the country when the Olympic games was here.
Having returned to the Lea Valley since the Olympics and the real gentrification of the surrounding area, does much of what you loved about it remain?
David: Yes, it does. While some don't like the changes brought by the Olympics, that project had a much smaller footprint than was feared. Most of the Lea Valley is untouched by it, and the changes are, as you say, largely to do with the spread of the gentrification that has come as a result of the housing shortage and the ongoing rise in property prices.
Polly: The most rapid and widespread change has been the sprouting of what developers like to call "luxury apartments". These were already coming when we started shooting back in 2004, but they're everywhere now.
David: In 2005 we photographed a little Victorian footbridge over the canal, on which someone had daubed "Fuck Seb Coe". There was a lot of resistance to the Olympics. That bridge was surrounded by wilderness. Now it's right at the foot of the main stadium. We include both views in the book.
What are you working on currently?
David: I do a lot of writing and curating of exhibitions. I've got a show coming to the Whitechapel Gallery in June, titled "A Handful of Dust". Polly's in the middle of a long-term photographic project that explores the lives of people living with learning difficulties and autism.
Polly: In 2007 we spent several months in the Chinese city of Xiamen. By coincidence that was another place undergoing rapid change. Again, we were both photographing together, in each other's presence, although this time we each had our own camera and made our own photographic responses. We've been looking again at that work, the difference and similarities. It might become another joint book.
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