James Smith’s Alter was a 2007 photographic audit of parts of Corby that were due to change as part of the regeneration of the town. The exhibition of James’ haunting photographs, including parts of the Arran Way, Lincoln Way and Danesholme estates that have now been demolished, is curator Graham Keddie’s pick for his Fermynwoods highlight of the past 20 years.
If you have lived on one of the John Stedman designed estates in Corby as I have, you would recognise the Mondrianesque shuffling of vertical, horizontal and overlapping rectangular dividing spatial plains captured in James Smith’s images. My memories of living in this architectural experiment were of an external and internal world, totally enveloping, overlapping, underlapping, right-angled, noisy, overlooked, intensely populated (by lovely friendly people and good company) but labyrinthine experience.
Walking in to Fermynwoods Contemporary Art’s then gallery at the Water Tower on a beautiful bright sunny spring day in 2007, I was immediately absorbed by misty claustrophobic urban spaces through the photographic images of James Smith. Records taken during the winter of 2006, of houses in Corby, Northamptonshire on the eve of their demolition.
As a research practitioner I am always interested in what, why and how? Peering into the images I began to balance the architectural evidence recorded in James’ images with Rachel Whiteread’s House from 1993 and David Hepher’s paintings of South London’s monolithic tower blocks. In all three cases, there were questions about relationships between architecture, place and time. The results seem to be that presence can be achieved despite the absence of people.
Presence through absence can be felt in the minute detail analysis of surface traces recorded in Whiteread’s use of concrete to cast the interior space. House had a ghost like cathartic presence. In Hepher’s work he combines observational scrutiny, the use of photography, concrete and paint in his paintings. They present complex patterns of struggles between monumental architectural control and patterns of individual behaviour illustrated via the uniformly focused exterior analysis of the Aylesbury Estate in South London.
Now this might sound odd, but what infiltrated my everyday looking at James’ photographs was how stunningly soundless they were. This was fascinating to me. The stillness and emptiness seemed to embody an almost ‘Under Milk Wood’ atmosphere. Experienced (if you can stay with my Smith inspired thought) on an anthropological stage set, pregnant with thoughts, dreams and memories. What James seemed to successfully document for me, was a thick rich scent of those places and people in time, which is still with me now when I look at his photographs.
Image: Lincoln Way 006, James Smith
Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects.