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Discover the new English landscape

[THIS WEEK] Find a familiar, unhomely world in Orton’s images of Essex, says James Pallister

I first encountered Jason Orton’s photography in 2006 when the AJ published some of his shots documenting the Thames Gateway (AJ 02.03.06). This was still boom time, and there were many discussions on the future of the strip of land stretching from Leamouth through 56km of Thames to Foulness Point. Terry Farrell had proposed a green ribbon, Thames Gateway National Park. Richard Rogers called for a 90km² tract of land to be made into a dense and compact city, in the style of Manhattan or Barcelona. Orton’s photos, spread over 10 pages, showed the former industrial sites, dirty scrubland, big sheds and even bigger skies that characterise this compelling Thames-side strip.

In the accompanying essay, David Price, former partner of Gordon Cullen, and Docklands CEO Reg Ward – both since deceased – warned that locals’ fears of their ‘pleasant land [being] turned into grim and over-developed suburbs’ were coming true. The ‘tide of gimcrack housing, banal shopping centres and business parks’ was upon them.

Orton had collaborated with the writer Ken Worpole on the 2005 book 350 miles: An Essex Journey. Worpole described this coastline as ‘moving from the Brutalist to the inspiring and then on occasions, to the transcendental.’ Their new book, The New English Landscape, argues for a broader understanding of contemporary landscape, shifting the home of the English picturesque downstream from the Thames of the Home Counties and Jerome K Jerome to the worked or working countrysides of Thames-side Essex. Orton works with a medium-format 65mm camera, shooting on film. The pictures use muted hues, wide skies and an ambiguous scale, sometimes corrected by evidence of human life: a windmill, fence or boat somewhere in frame. Uncanny, familiar and compelling, I’d encourage discovering the images and well-crafted essays for yourself.

Book

The New English Landscape, Jason Orton and Ken Worpole (Field Station 2013), £15

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