The Wicker Man

PHOTOGRAPHING Hackney Wick has become somewhat of an obsession for Stephen Gill, one which he is hoping to end with one last collection of photos. 

The latest in the series, The Hackney Rag, takes the format of a limited edition 40-page newspaper of fine-art photos printed in Japan to mark his first solo exhibition in that country. 

Gill’s original book of Wickery – simply entitled Hackney Wick (2005) – gained him international renown for its pictures in and around a (now defunct) flea market, taken with a plastic Coronet camera bought there for 50p.      Since that time this forlorn corner of the borough has gone on to feature in a number of Gill’s collections: Buried (2006), Hackney Flowers (2007), Archaeology in Reverse (2007), and Warming Down (2008).

“Already the book Warming Down was an attempt to bring the work to a halt”, says Gill, but he then goes on to admit that:“perhaps The Hackney Rag is not the end of these slightly obsessive series”. 

The publication certainly has the feel of a summing up, however. The Hackney Rag includes a compendium of photos from these previous series, plus several new ones; each copy of the ‘newspaper’ is also accompanied by an original signed print. 

The title The Hackney Rag was chosen with the journalistic genre in mind, but in the background were echoes of jazz: “The word Rag of course has links to newspaper, also thoughts of a kind of jazz song for me were also there”.

What tune might Gill have had in mind when contemplating the area? Wick is different. If you got off the train at Wick station, you might well say ‘there’s nothing here’. 

And you’d be right, in a sense. But in another sense you’d be wrong, and in still another sense you’d be missing the point, as Wick’s absences and gaps are perhaps as eloquent as the various structures and objects here. 

The perpetual changes in Wick are among its most striking characteristics. The flea market so carefully documented in Hackney Wick, the graffiti for which the area is also known, and the area’s ramshackle collection of industrial buildings are all marked by a transience captured so well in the faded and distressed textures of Gill’s photographs. 

But a sense of impending change is not the only thing that causes the disorientation one immediately feels on entering the Wick ‘zone’. It is perhaps the juxtaposition of unlike and unlikely constructions that is most jarring, giving the area a multi-layered feel. 

One cannot fail to notice the huge Victorian school, the baths, the overwhelming St Mary of Eton church towering over their immediate neighbours. Then hard by, you see an estate of suburban-style bungalows, nestled next to the ageing hulks of mostly disused industrial buildings. 

Recently erected is a Hollywood-style ‘Hackney Wick’ sign – testifying to the increasingly self-conscious feel about the place that has come in the wake of a recent influx of artists. 

The Hackney Wick depicted in Stephen Gill’s photos is anything but self-conscious. 

Yet like Wick itself, Gill’s photos represent a palimpsest of artistic endeavour. The layers in the photos are intimately linked to the physicality of the locale they represent. Some of the images have been re-photographed with flowers, berries, seeds, bits of electrical equipment and other found objects on them. Others have been buried in Wick soil or splashed with Wick mud. (Actual soil falls off copies of the volume Buried when its purchaser opens it). 

The photos’ incarnation in the newsprint of The Hackney Rag adds another layer yet – a layer of ephemerality, as the paper creases and frays when handled. 

Of this ‘degraded’, disintegrating medium Gill says: “I feel newsprint marries well with some of the subjects that I have approached, perhaps as so many of the images I have taken or assembled have been made from objects, paper, plant cuttings, flowers and seeds sourced from the area.” 

Promising even more dramatic change is the 2012 Olympics, which since 2005 has cast a long shadow over all that still lingers here. Yet Gill is not as vehemently opposed to plans to develop Wick as are many Hackney residents. “Some things I am really sad to see go,” he says: “I am not afraid of change, but I do hope we will make things well and not just bash things out with no care or love”.

The Hackney Rag is published by Artbeat Publishers and Nobody Books, 2009. 

Limited edition of 1,000 copies. £38 including 8” x 6” signed print.

Full interview with Stephen Gill

HC: Where did the idea for the Hackney Rag come from?

I wanted to make a publication that brought together images from the various series that I had been making that had been made in or inspired by the borough.

HC: I recognise many of the photographs in the Rag from your books, but they look quite different on newsprint, especially as the paper creases and frays when handled. This is highlighted in particular by the high quality of the signed print included as part of the publication. How do you understand the relationship between the photos and the ‘degraded’, disintegrating medium of newsprint?

I feel newsprint marries well with some of the subjects that I have approached, perhaps as so many of the images I have taken or assembled have been made from objects, paper, plants cuttings, flowers and seeds sourced from the area.

HC: In this connection, is there any special significance to the choice of the word ‘Rag’?

The word Rag of course has links to newspaper; also thoughts of a kind of jazz song for me were also there.

HC: Notwithstanding the previous two questions, the quality of the photographs themselves is excellent – far better than humbler local papers can achieve. How did you manage this?

I worked very closely with the printers and designers; matching, proofing and colour, density and contrast stages were given much attention. Plus as this newspaper was made in Japan, the presses there seem to really care and try to make it as good as close as possible to the originals.

HC: Do you think you’ll continue your Hackney Wick-themed work, or has this project truly come to an end?

Already the book Warming Down was an attempt to bring the work to a halt, but perhaps The Hackney Rag is not the end of these slightly obsessive series.

HC: What do you think of current and planned developments for Hackney Wick?

Some things I am really sad to see go, I am not afraid of change, but I do hope we will make things well and not just bash things out with no care or love.