‘Invariably Eden – Stephen Gill’s Hackney Wick’
by Christoph Schaden

Nowadays, those who go off in search of special territory would do well to inquire as to the meaning of the name the designated locality has in store. Even more so if it is a place of collective longing and projections.

Etymologically, Eden, the biblical paradise, can be traced back to the Sumerian word adina or adana, which means both ‘garden’ and ‘green steppe’. Its dual meaning already marks out a line of development that causes us to sit up and take notice, because with time, this territory, which once flourished, became increasingly infertile. Eden later meant uncultivated grassland, particularly since the word generally designated hinterland far away from the centers of cultural life. Religiously charged by the expulsion from Paradise described in the Old Testament, the inherent climatic change of a locality has since then served as a culturally pessimistic background for a history of civilization that is largely characterized by guilt and loss.

Those with a good knowledge of photography know that as a technical medium committed to the modern age, photography was prepared to compensate for this loss very early on by showing blossoming primal landscapes. In this connection, the Arcadian restagings by the likes of Wilhelm von Gloeden or Guglielmo Plüschow toward the end of the nineteenth century consciously followed an impulse to sacrifice every thought of a pictorial nature to a naive fantasy of the Garden of Eden. In light of the burden of so much meaning, it is surely not surprising that contemporary artist photographers who have used their instrument to consistently keep track of the present have used the projection background of Eden merely as ironic commentary. With his book of images from East Europe, in the mid-1990s the Belgian Magnum photographer Carl de Keyzer dared to journey only East of Eden; and in his book of photographs Other Edens, which was published at about the same time, the British photographer Nick Waplington embarked on an introspective search for evidence. As Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times Magazine noted at the time: ‘The title Other Edens suggests that this is a genesis story and Waplington a newborn Adam. Actually, he stands in for everyone who fears that this century has given birth to a civilization that even its makers can't be bothered to comprehend. The blank look on Waplington's face registers our perplexity that modernity has estranged us from the world even as it has accelerated access to its farthest corners.’ In 1999, Robert Adams finally succeeded in capturing a nameless truck stop in Colorado in seventeen brilliantly laconic black-and-white images, which he published in a slim catalogue. The fruitful essence of this utterly barren American scenery is likewise summed up in the title E D E N, whose four letters have been printed in four different colours.

Typically enough, this is the only colour element contained in the book project. In contrast, the British photographer Stephen Gill has embarked on a search for the terrain of Eden without irony. He, too, has almost unavoidably had to adopt the eye of an archeologist in order to expose a fertile area from below layers burdened with civilization. Those who hold his most recent book of photography, Hackney Wick, in their hands will notice a slightly pungent odor even before they have opened the pages. The motif on the cover, which shows a naively drawn map on cloth, also makes it clear that Hackney Wick must be a special place on Earth. It is located on the outskirts of London to the east, surrounded by the River Lea, the Grand Union Canal, and the motorway. A biting place in which one only finds oneself by accident or by Providence.

In Hackney Wick, Stephen Gill tells several stories, the first one beginning with a discovery. While taking photographs for the project A Book of Field Studies, which was published in 2004, on a Sunday in January 2003, the Londoner by choice ended up in this inhospitable place. To his surprise, Gill stumbled upon an enormous marketplace where mountains of washing machines, video cassette recorders, and refrigerators were being offered for sale. The desolate site made no secret of the fact that the goods were stolen and that the immigrants and asylum-seekers selling them were struggling to eke out a meager living. The scene would have been an ideal stage for a critical social reportage. But Gill observed the hustle and bustle more closely, and beyond the chaos and the noise he noticed a fascinating spectrum of different lifestyles with a completely separate set of laws. The Brit bought a plastic camera with a fixed lens for fifty pence, which from that point onward he time and again aimed at the chaotic trade center.

Stephen Gill’s strategy was therefore ‘form follows technique follows topic.’ If you open the volume of photographs and carefully study the comprehensive series of images, to your surprise you will observe that these technical determinants have in no way forced the images into a too tight, formal corset. The colour medium-formats may record a latent to open unsharpness; however, it leads neither to affectation nor mindless harmony. Rather, with light-handed balance the aesthetic structure exposes the anarchic vitality of the traders, who are openly recapturing their habitat. Someone is working under a car here, inspecting goods there, and somewhere else someone is drinking excessively. It remains excellent that in this study, Stephen Gill avoided the numerous restrictive traps that judgment mechanisms and prejudice generally have in store. No idyll, no crime scene, no actionism, no stagnation. And yet because a profoundly open and non-judgmental eye forms the basis of the photographs, there is a little bit of everything.

A second story begins with the credits. On July 13, 2003, the market was closed down. The trade fallow is not meant to be recultivated until the Olympic Games in 2012. Hackney Wick really has become an Eden in the sense of ‘green steppe,’ a largely forgotten transitional realm. At the end of his book, Stephen Gill tracks down the natural aspects of the grounds in gentle images, the focus again on the vital element of reappropriation. And the poetic power of the images again resists even a hint of sentiment. Those familiar with the photographer’s oeuvre know why, because the real leitmotif of his work was already recorded in the preceding volume, A Book of Field Studies, which begins with a quote from John Cage. The brilliant composer, it says, once asked himself why it is that some objects are not beautiful to him. And it did not take long before he discovered that there was no reason at all. In this sense, Hackney Wick – which in his recently published compendium, The Photobook – A History Volume II, Martin Parr praised as being currently one of the most important books of photography – has turned into a tremendously beautiful book.

The photographs in this edition, which tell a third story, are testimony to the fact that Stephen Gill really does appear to have rediscovered a piece of Eden not far from where lives. It, too, deals with the reappropriation of a place; it, too, is already alluded to in the photobook. Stephen Gill addresses it himself in the accompanying text: ‘There is another side of Hackney Wick… The canals and rivers and secret allotments (known only to their dedicated gardeners) are home to many birds and animals. These hidden paradises have a vibrancy of their own which will soon be muted by the dust that will cover them.’ The text is flanked by an inlay with twenty postcard-format color photographs, which in a multifaceted and surprising way expose the photographer’s lyrical field of action. For his photoseries Hackney Flowers, Gill confronted his own images with overpainting and chemical processes of decomposition, which in an almost Buddhist way evoke new, lively results. On the other hand, he covered other photographs with seeds, blossoms, and berries he had gathered at the peripheral location. In a second working step, he transferred these overlappings and processes back into a photographic image by photographing them again.

And so once again it is the element of the reappropriation of nature that playfully recurs as a central artistic idea in the images in Hackney Flowers. A truck appears to be disposing of a sea of blossoms, a pylon is surrounded by a withered branch and blood-red berries, a sitting woman is covered with seeds. All of them composed with the calculation of a gentle shift of perception, the images function neither as a background for an apocalyptic scenario nor as mere aestheticisms of a falsely imagined romanticism. Rather, the Hackney Flowers series, which will be published in book form in April of next year, celebrates the vital reversal process of a place in which decidedly artistic action allows reexperiencing the present itself. It is this inimitably open view that Gill propagates and knows how to apply in all of his works. For A Book of Field Studies, for instance, he documented the dreary reverse sides of billboard surfaces in downtown London, which he confronted in the titles—and with a wink—with the advertising slogans on the front side, which are not visible. Among the other subjects are road construction workers, museum attendants, automatic teller machines, and pensive travelers in commuter trains traveling in the direction of Essex. A current group of works entitled Birds deals with the large number of species and the loneliness of occasional songbirds in urban space. The photographer of course once more discovered what he was looking for in Hackney.

It looks as if it will be a very long time before Stephen Gills’ view toward Eden is exhausted. In a reversal of archeological activity, his most recent intervention was an excavation action at Hackney Wick. He buried various color photographs, creased and put into small bags, on which he had documented the location, well aware of the fact that passing trucks and pedestrians would damage the pictures. One might say this is a symbolic gesture, which would, however, experience its concrete print in the object itself. For the photographer, this kind of action undoubtedly means a loss of control, but for the artist it is also an opportunity to read the traces left on the pictures and come closer to the phenomenon by the name of Hackney Wick. For the observer, though, the fruitful question arises of to what extent the old dilemma of presentation and representation, which is inherent in the ‘buried pictures,’ could not be solved in a dialectic sense. In any case, it would seem to be impossible to take up an optically ‘appropriate distance’ to them, as Georges Didi-Huberman critically noted with respect to pictures of the print, in their reception. Apart from the loss of control that the excavation action meant for the image results, for Stephen Gill, the action itself once more had unexpected insight in store. It is certainly not the last story about the Eden in East London.

‘When burying my first batch of prints, a man spotted me and asked what I was doing, not only did I not want to give the location away of some of my buried pictures, but it just sounded a bit weird to say that I was burying my photographs, so I replied I was looking for newts, as soon as said that I found a newt and lifted it up and said look there’s one.’

Stephen Gill: Hackney Wick.
Nobody/Archive Of Modern Conflict 2005, ISBN 0-9549405-2-0
Buried ISBN – 0-9549405-4-7