What is the role of the photographer in preserving that which is to be destroyed? How can photographers reveal stories that lie buried in buildings and in the ground? Is photography as an art form particularly adept at capturing the character of people living on the fringes of society?
OCA level 2 student John Walker has been drawn to these questions since he began studying photography three years ago. Through the parallel journeys of creating and reading, he has found his creative voice as a photographer. The journeys have also taken him back – to a childhood passed among the bombed-damaged buildings of Hull in the north of England and to a working life spent supporting those whom society sidelines. Notions of urban decay and marginalisation have accompanied him from childhood and through adolescence and adulthood. At last, John is making the work they demand.
Herbert Ballard was a commercial photographer in John’s home town. At the age of 18, he went to work there. Photography had captivated him sufficiently by then that he already had a darkroom at home, above the pub that was the family business. There he developed old family photographs and, later, his own work. (The small boy running purposefully along the kerbstones, a bedroom fireplace exposed to the open air ahead of him, is one of John’s early shots.) But photography had not captivated him sufficiently to stay with his employer.
During four decades of working life, John had concentrated on photographing landscape, plants and insects. Examining his own portfolio once he had started his degree course, he saw how few pictures of people were included. It was an absence he wanted to counter.
Powerful personalities dominate the series 100 Strangers, a project John used for the level 1 course Identity and Place. He approached people on the street and took very quick but high-quality portraits of them. Pete, #55 in the series, is a well known character on Norwich market, where he sits and keeps his son company on his food stall. The picture has attracted more than 22,000 views on photo-sharing site Flickr since August 2014. He recognises now that his 100 strangers are people with whom he is in fact familiar: he spent his professional life among them.
Over the last three years the Victorian Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh has been converted to 21st century homes and holiday cottages. New buildings have been built. Old artefacts have been thrown away – arches, window frames, doors, bricks – and with them, craft, skill, history, habit. John’s recording of the old which has made way for the new is informed by what The Tate describes as the ‘banal aesthetic’ of the mid-1970s new topographics.
Half an hour up the coast from Snape Maltings is Beccles Airfield, an RAF base during the Second World War. It’s now an adult playground for skydivers and parachute jumpers. A casual conversation on a visit there revealed to John the story of a murder that took place on the airfield in 1943. An RAF man killed a WAF (a woman serving in the air force) and buried her body in a ditch. What had been a piece of featureless earth when John first looked at it has acquired a character and a history.
John Walker’s public exhibition Issues in the Frame is at the Coconut Loft Art Gallery, 8 Waterloo Road, Lowestoft, Norfolk, from 15 to 27 February. It features a series of photographs that have been published in The Big Issue in the North over the last three years through OCA’s partnership with the magazine.