City in transition
It is a difficult task to make the mundane interesting. When everyday events and objects are allowed to speak for themselves, very often the results are no more than a banal representation of the subject. In this way, holding a mirror up to the commonplace may enable us to reflect on what we would otherwise ignore - but often we ignore it for good reason. A number of modern photographers attempt this style, but few manage to produce anything other than a catalogue of boring snapshots. The photos in John Duncan's book, however, achieve where others fail.
A lack of artistic intervention in the subject under consideration teaches us only what we already know. This is not knowledge, but reinforcement. Clearly, the role of creative interpretation is to add another dimension to our appreciation and thus to add depth. Photographs of the everyday need to have the same standards of composition and structure applied as would be the case with more classically 'interesting' topics.
This is where Duncan succeeds.
Documenting aspects of urban life in Belfast - exploring the manifestations of regeneration and of tradition of this city in transition - he has a keen eye for irony. The casual appearance of fences throughout the book is a general symbol of division; ranging from crude utilitarian steel and concrete barriers to fancy railings at gated developments. Duncan certainly has a whimsical take on the fact that the symbols of separation have become a design feature.
The photos of the massive security camera poles symmetrically interspersed between the trees along Limestone Road, or growing out of the security fence in Windsor Park, also make an interesting commentary on the natural and the man-made world.
I found myself looking at the pictures as a version of Where's Wally; attempting to locate the foliage in each picture (some more obvious than others), believing that this was the theme conveyed in the title. In fact, in turns out that Trees from Germany relates to the fact that many of Belfast's trees, for use in urban regeneration, are imported from there.
The accompanying essays have a broader remit than simply to describe and comment on the photographic work, with one contributor, David Brett, suggesting that Duncan's pictures should be seen as more than just a record of post-industrial Belfast.
This is true, but his view that taking pictures is 'a purposive act that produces a form of knowledge' is questionable.
Ultimately, though, this is a straightforward and enjoyable example of how documentary photographs should be shot.