Stephen Hughes: Photographs At Photofusion, 17a Electric Lane, London SW9 until 1 June
The final image in the catalogue to Stephen Hughes' first solo exhibition, shows a couple seated on a park bench in the shadow of the Atomium in Brussels. The park looks uncared-for and the couple and their surroundings are strangely disconnected.
It is an apt and melancholic conclusion to this impressive body of work, and provides a context in which the less familiar spaces photographed by Hughes might be understood.
The Atomium is a slightly absurd relic of a bygone age.Mastery of the material world is now a largely forgotten frontier of scientific endeavour (displaced by the challenges of the virtual, digitalised realm). Hughes' photographs remind us of man's continuing awkwardness in regard to a basic material reality: people, architecture and the landscape coexist in these pictures with a sense of estrangement from one another. The social emancipation once heralded by the Atomium fizzles out in these spaces into apathy and disenchantment.
Typically, Hughes is attracted to places where an urban fringe meets a vestige of the natural - places where land use is resolved on an ad hoc basis.This is exemplified in one of the photographer's better-known images:
a goalkeeper stands in existentially charged isolation on a once-grassy football pitch (now reduced to sodden clay), with a backdrop of bridges, housing, agricultural land and mountains. This is very much a nonplace: a transitional zone of discontinuous land usages, a somewhere (or nowhere) defined by being in-between.
Often, these places are close to the sea, where an improvised architectural vernacular delivers the promise of fun and leisure with casual aesthetic brutality. People appear almost always as a solitary figure and they are never shown engaged in productive, mainstream, economic activity. This is a world populated by disorientated recreationalists and individuals eking out a precarious existence. One image shows a man scavenging for sand beneath an imposing bridge in Port Talbot. Another man cuts plastic piping with an axe on an expanse of land prepared for development.
It is a recurring feature of this work that the land depicted is barren and infertile either simply wasteland, or building lan Only three images out of the 21 reproduc in the catalogue (the exhibition has a slight reduced selection) feature grassed areas. T Hotel Beatriz in Lanzarote, for examp stands isolated on a dry infertile plain. T wasteland surrounds it in an almost pred tory way; the separation between buildi and environment is stark.
In Benidorm, Hughes takes a high va tage point to depict a cascade of wh apartment blocks. In the bottom right of t picture are the unfinished foundations of abandoned development - a few heaps rubble and weed. It is a negative porten suggesting something of the contingency these structures. It hints at the previous sta of the land, or its possible future.
Hughes' work belongs to a well-esta lished photographic interest in margin spaces.Unlike his immediate contemporari (such as Gerhard Stromberg, who is al showing in London), Hughes does not seek bring these spaces back into an aesthetic fo There is no latent sentimentality in his visio These spaces occasion little hope or energ To say this is not, however, to criticise t work. Photography (both in the docume tary and fine art traditions) remains a k medium by which the relation of man to h material environment can be understood.
Paul Tebbs is a writer and critic