On Tuesday night I was able to have a sneak preview of this exhibition by OCA Photography student Sarah Deane.
I had never visited the site, despite only living only 50 minutes away from it. So I was surprised to find that the Royal Gunpowder Mills is actually spread over 170 acres and was still in use by the MOD until 1991. Having tutored Sarah on the Landscape module I had got to know her work very well and this particular series had bounced back and forwards between us several times while she worked towards her final edit.
The final exhibition is a wonderful accomplished piece. Sarah has engaged with her subject matter and fully understood how to compile an engaging set of images that simply leave the viewer wanting to know more about the place, to visit and explore it for themselves. What I find refreshing about the work was how Sarah was open to exploring her local area for the assignments. Too often photographers think we have to ‘go’ somewhere to take images and neglect what is right by our own front door.
By revisiting the site many times, Sarah has been able to build up an intimate series of images that can only come about by shooting, editing, researching, then reshooting and repeating this process as many times as it takes. Whilst I was viewing the exhibition I had a chance to ask Sarah some questions about her work.
How did the project start?
I live in the Lee Valley in London, on the site of the former Royal Small Arms Factory, home of the Lee Enfield Rifle. Further north, The Royal Gunpowder Mills can be found and it is here that my interest in conflict developed particularly from the perspective of the Home Front. In early 2014, I volunteered to work in the Archive at The Mills – a role that would mainly involve photographing various artefacts, maps and plans. I decided to volunteer because I wanted to learn more about the history of where I lived. In the Archive I had access to an enormous amount of information, including photographs of The Mills in operation. I also had the opportunity to meet a number of people who worked there when it was a research establishment, which was a very special experience.
At the time I was studying the Landscape module and I was beginning to interrogate the landscape and how I see it. Simultaneously, I was forming a strong connection to The Mills site. When the time came to submit my proposal for my self-directed project, my subject had very much chosen me and Powder was born. For over 12 months, I devoted my time to the Mills, to researching and planning the project and to photographing and embedding myself within the landscape.
How has your relationship with your local area changed by completing the projects?
I would say that I actually have a relationship with my local area now whereas I simply lived there before. My interest was sparked when I met a man who lived in the area as a child and told me all about the factory days. I think that’s when Pandora’s box was opened. I found that the more I learnt through my research the more engaged I became with the area.
All my assignments for the course focused on different elements of the Lee Valley from the site of the Royal Small Arms Factory to Gunpowder Park. However, my relationship with The Royal Gunpowder Mills is a very special one that has grown over time. The site is closed to the public in the autumn and winter, so most of my shooting was done during that period. The site was virtually empty on Saturdays giving me a unique opportunity to work, reflect and explore. As time progressed, a deep personal relationship with the land was forged as the layers of history began to reveal themselves.
What are you most pleased about by completing the Landscape course – how has your photographic work/style changed?
I really enjoyed this course because from the beginning it challenged the way I thought about landscape photography. I quickly discovered that landscape was a genre that I could work in because it offered endless opportunities.
I was fortunate to have a subject that I really engaged with for the course. I never thought I would become so interested in how conflict is represented in photography, but with the history on my doorstep it was difficult not to. I spent as much time as I could at The Mills, not always shooting but observing and noting the subtle changes that you only see with familiarity.
Prior to this course, I tended to shoot my assignments in a matter of days, weeks at most. For this module, I spent 18 months focusing on one area, which I believe, not only changed the way I approached my subject but also the work I produced. Working at a slower pace without deadlines or restrictions gives you a certain freedom to see more clearly and I think this is reflected in my work.
I am really pleased that I have now experienced developing a project from the initial concept stage to exhibiting the final images.
What has challenged you the most in completing the work?
I think I challenged myself the most! Because I had invested so much time in the project I felt that the end result had to be really good or all that work was for nothing.
I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to achieve for my self-directed project and it was a difficult journey getting there. I wanted to submit my project as a photobook of no more than 20 images with accompanying text. The text had to be just right, to give just the right amount of information but also to add intrigue to the images. Of course what worked for the book didn’t necessarily work for the exhibition, so once I was preparing for that I found myself presented with a new set of challenges.
When you shoot for such a long period of time you also build up a huge amount of images. This made the editing process a lot more difficult than previously experienced. I would say it took weeks to get the final set of images together.
While it is great to have a lot of time to work on your project it is difficult to keep the momentum going. There were days that were filled with nothing but frustration, when the images you had planned just weren’t working or the weather let you down.
Despite all this, I have believed I have learnt some valuable lessons over the last year or so and my photography has improved because of it.
What does it feel like to see your work on the wall?
It’s an incredible feeling to see my journey that started off as being so personal become so public. I always felt very privileged to have the opportunity to photograph such a wonderful place and it is very special to me to have my work on show there. I was a bit apprehensive at first about showing my work to people that have a long history with The Mills including many who worked here during its period of operation, but so far it has been well received.
Would you recommend holding an exhibition to other students?
Yes, I would but you’ve got to be prepared for a lot of hard work. It is easy blogging/talking about how you would exhibit your work if the opportunity came along but actually doing it is a lot more challenging. I had a lot of big decisions to make and I worried a lot about whether I had made the right ones or not.
What’s next (photographically)?
I will be signing up for another OCA course. I think I would like to do Documentary. There are a lot of volunteers at The Royal Gunpowder Mills who have stories to be told.
Do visit the exhibition if you are in the area or passing through on the M25 – Waltham Abbey is just minutes from the motorway. Power runs until 31 August at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey, Essex EN9 1JY
Andrea Norrington. OCA Tutor