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Crispin Hughes: ‘a street needs at least one figure in it to be deserted – otherwise it’s merely empty’

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The monumental offices of the City of London – empty during lockdown – make for the subject of Crispin Hughes’ recent project Hulks

Producing the AJ involves a continuous schedule of commissioning photographers to go and shoot buildings, make short films, compile material boards and – in summary – furnish our art editor with great imagery to bring architects’ drawings and models and the text of the building studies vividly to life.

Covid-19 has put a freeze on the regular rhythm of things, but we are still keen to feature and promote the work of photographers navigating this unusual time. From regular contributors to newcomers documenting the different facets of the built envornment in the time of coronavirus.

Crispin Hughes is a London-based photographer documenting social issues in the UK and internationally. He has worked with Níall McLaughlin Architects photographing the residents of the practice’s Stirling prize-nominated Darbishire Place in Whitechapel. During lockdown he has been working on a series on London’s empty office blocks and skyscrapers, called Hulks. We asked him to provide an explanation of the creative stimulus and technical details, and other questions about his current picture-taking life.

Hulks by Crispin Hughes

London’s ‘modern’ offices are empty, and beginning to seem monuments to a before-time of commuting and communal workspaces. My editor at Panos, Michael Regnier, refers to them as hulks. 

The building at 22 Bishopsgate may turn out to be obsolete, even before its completion.

I’ve been reminded of past futures that didn’t quite arrive: Concorde, colonies on the Moon, flying cars, the Metropolis of Fritz Lang, von Harbou, Kettlelhut… 

I set about giving these towers an elegiac and newly old-fashioned look. By photographing new and nascent things in an old style, I hoped to invoke a nostalgia for something that’s still under construction. The towers are mostly glass-faced, so I used a physical polarising filter to ‘dial-in’ appropriate levels of reflection. This is one of the few functions that must be effected pro-actively to the incoming light, rather than retro-actively to its digital record.

The photographs were shot in high dynamic range; three originals of each image, exposed two stops apart, are merged and treated as one. (The longest exposure allows retention of detail in the shadows, the shortest retains details in the highlights.)

The merged digital images were then converted to black and white, and split-toned – a process I used to perform in the darkroom. In past times this meant immersing a fixed print into selenium toner, that gradually replaced metallic silver with warmer-toned silver selenide. The trick was to stop the process midway, leaving the shadows warm-toned while the highlights were still ‘cool’. This method is exactly replicable in digital processing.

Still in the physical space of my old darkroom, I hunted through plan-chest-drawers of mounts, clamps and other gizmos to retrieve a specific ‘negative-carrier’. Back in the 90s I’d filed the image ‘frame space’ so that the rebate had a slightly ragged edge. Enlarging (ie.printing) with such a border would make the edges of the frame very evident – showing ‘truth to materials’. 35mm photographers would do this as a way of demonstrating commitment to the modernist aesthetic, and skill in getting the image right ‘in real time’, within the camera.

So I scanned this mutilated but precious object, and matted the outline over my digital frames. 35mm’s aspect ratio, 3:2, originated in the re-purposed cine film used in the revolutionary portable still cameras of 1913. It has persisted and been handed down to modern digital SLRs – so the format match was perfect.

Perhaps these empty buildings are vestiges of a similarly outmoded, analogue, way of working.

I hope the photographs help us question ideas of the future of work and architecture in the wake of Covid-19.

When was the last time you took a picture?

Yesterday. I’ve been photographing the London Mayor’s Streetspace innovations; how people are tentatively venturing out onto the new extended pavements and pop-up segregated Cycleways. I’ve been in touch with architect Deborah Saunt, who is working on this now.

How has coronavirus lockdown affected your work?

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There is now a stark divide between interiors and exteriors. In an inversion of our usual associations, rooms have become more dangerous than streets. My work since the pandemic has been entirely in the open air.

In 2015 I photographed the inhabited interiors of Níall McLaughlin’s block in Whitechapel for Peabody, Darbishire Place.

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In discussion with Níall we decided to try and photograph the flats with the residents in situ. Housing blocks don’t interest me much without inhabitants, and this elegantly low-key, unpretentious building is designed around their lives and needs. Unlike boutique designs for wealthy clients, these flats must adapt themselves to a wide range of cultures, tastes, religions and cuisines. So they concentrate on getting the fundamentals right: light, space, movement, air, potential for sleeping, and so on.

I tried to present the residents using the depth of their spaces, often showing them looking out of the frame to help us consider the rooms’ shapes and limits. I want the viewer to see them as individuals using and enjoying the architecture, rather than just happening to be people inside it.

It is likely to be some time before these domestic spaces become safe places for a photographer to work.

Does the potential for deserted streets appeal to you as a photographer of architecture and the built environment?
Yes, definitely. But I learnt early on in the lockdown that a street needed at least one figure in it to appear deserted – otherwise the street is merely empty. Our need for narrative drives an identification, or at least a projection, onto the figure.

A near deserted street can have a richer potential for human interest than a crowded one. I’ve been looking at paintings by De Chirico online.

I think restrictions are often a spur to interesting work. I would recommend Lars Von Triers’ film The Five Obstructions as an example of this. During the initial, strict lockdown I attached a small camera to my bike, on my once a day exercise outing, and set myself clear rules:
- Set the camera to shoot a frame every five seconds
- Cycle for 45 mins
- Touch nothing
- Stay on the bike

I would then edit the resulting 500 or so images down in the hope of catching something fleeting, but telling, about London at this singular time.

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I deliberately left the wonky angles uncorrected to maintain the fugitive and snatched quality of the photos as I cycled. I also left the wide-angle distortions in place to maintain a sense of the buildings collapsing or morphing in this ‘time out of joint’.

Once we were all allowed to stay out of doors for longer, I returned to the empty skyscrapers I’d previously whizzed past on my bike, with my DSLR.

What is your dream location/building?
My dream location remains a flooded sea cave, or at least the half-architectural, half natural, world beneath urban wharfs. The cavernous space beneath Dark House Walk in central London is a favourite. The implacable tidal rhythms continue here, oblivious to the pandemic.

How has the way you think about photography more generally changed?
My recent work has been very influenced by my scientist-turned-filmmaker wife, Susi Arnott. Coming from observational documentary, she’s always been happy to allow natural processes to govern compositions and points of view in her experimental films.

Taking a lead from this, my own recent work has flipped between order and chaos. Between careful, preconceived, rectilinear compositions, and images derived from cameras left in the hands of the sea, or other randomising elements. The control and strictures of the lockdown versus the chaotic flux of the virus seem to mirror this. I’ll be trying to build this dichotomy into what I do next.

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You can explore more of Crispin’s work on his website here. He is also on instagram and twitter.
All photography © Crispin Hughes.

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