This blog was originally written for Toddle in the City
There is no doubting that London is a great city, brimming with wonderful places, fine buildings and an intricate and fascinating story on every turn.
Well, that’s perhaps only half true, depending on your outlook, your definition of London and most of the other adjectives in that sentence. For the most part, the centre of London, where the tourists go, is densely diverse and absorbing and it will leave you wanting more having spent an intense two week holiday here. For those of us who live here, yes, London does reward greater scrutiny and turning over the rocks on the city’s surface will reveal the minutia of its history that is buried beneath. But, as humans, we often lock ourselves into our little worlds and become oblivious to the wonder around us; the daily routine, the trudge to and from work and the familiarity of our neighbourhoods can lead to complacency and boredom. Of course, every place has its rich past – we just have to pick up those rocks.
Having taken my kids out into the big world, often with a camera to record their trips, I’m looking to interest them in what they see. I want to inspire them as well as them being able to inspire themselves about the place where they live. I want them to feel connected and have the capacity to dig deep into the world that is their home and their community. The way we treat our world, and the way we protect and develop it is important to new generations, and is part of our sustainability.
For the past two years, I’ve been creating a ‘London Alphabet’ from photographs taken around Greater London. The idea was inspired by the city of Chicago and, back here in London, I search places hoping to find shapes and patterns in the built environment that will suggest letter shapes. I’ve complemented this by looking for unique letter forms and fonts. In this two years I’ve taken around 500 pictures and completed around 10 full alphabets.
People who see the letters – and I sell them as cards and prints – love the simplicity of the idea. I make a point of telling people where the images are captured. If a person knows that place, they may then recognise where the picture is taken, or want to know where it was taken. If they don’t know the place, it brings it to their attention, widening their knowledge of the city. I like to think that my images draw out the distinctiveness in places, drawing out the tinier elements that make communities unique from other communities. I think everyone has a little sense of ownership and pride in their part of London, and I think that people do respond to that.
What is also compelling for me is the sense that modern buildings and modern architecture are less distinctive than their older counterparts (and I’d use The Great War 1914-1918 as the dividing point). This might seem obvious from the perspective of buildings, but it’s also true from the perspective of the finer details in buildings. Newer buildings – on the whole – are less rich, more monotonous and less inspiring. There are obvious and numerous reasons for this, and the less wealthy parts of London suffer the most.
In compiling my photographs, I know that if I go to better off, or more creative, neighbourhoods I will find a greater respect for the detail in shop-fronts, for the rhythm of the patterns in housing, for the treatment of streets and street furniture, in the quality of public and street art. I also sense that there is a general reduction in the importance placed on the fragments of craftsmanship that go into making one high street different from the next. London is a less rich place because of it.