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Heart of Darkness: Nick Hedges' Photographs for Shelter

Currently being exhibited at the Science Museum, these pictures may not be architectural photography in any sense of the phrase - but their importance in our consideration of the field of architecture is major

One of the reasons why Walker Evans is such an important figure in the field of photography is that he could do two things brilliantly. He was able to discern the impact of a particular environment in a human face. Think of the blasted gaze of farm workers he photographed during the Depression. Yet he was also able to present that environment as an expression of human behaviour. Think of his picture of the Chrysler Building under construction which very literally reveals a building as a product of human activity. On one hand you have the Evans who established the whole field of photojournalism and the way it prioritises the impact of events on the human face and figure. But then on the other, you also have the Evans who examined the language of modernity: cars, billboards and buildings, recasting them as complex expressions of human endeavour. Ed Ruscha understood that better than anyone.

Walker Evans features in the Constructing Worlds exhibition − a sprawling survey of architecture at the Barbican. But that exhibition has a strange gap in it. There is a historical leap made by the curators between Evans’ work and those of contemporary photographers like Bas Princen and Simon Norfolk; photographers who look at buildings as a means of understanding some of the most extreme aspects of human activity: man at his most warlike, most oppressive. While we can point at the New Topographic photographers as stylistic forebears to work by Norfolk and others such as Donovan Wylie, we seem unable to understand where their fiercely critical, overtly political impulse comes from. Where did these talented photographers who look at industrial complexes not just as topographical interventions but systems of ordering human behaviour get their animus from? For a photo-saturated society and profession we are strangely illiterate about the medium’s history.

Another exhibition at the new Media Space − an exciting new outpost of the National Media Museum’s work hosted within the Science Museum − provides an important answer. This small sample of work by Nick Hedges is taken from a huge collection amassed during his time as the first official photographer for the housing charity Shelter. The exhibition and the collection is of huge importance for many reasons. Hedges was interested in the same incredibly complex dialogue between man and his environment that Evans was and looking at his work you realise how much we have lost in our contemporary preoccupation with landscape. Conversely you can see how our ability to deal with class issues has become debased. A photographer like Martin Parr may have begun − particularly in his Hebden Bridge photos − by making a similar inquiry into man’s intimate relationship with his surroundings but now prefers to catch them looking stupid at the beach.

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‘Kitchen of Slum House’, Birmingham Duddleston, August 1970

This exhibition of Hedges’ work reminds us where this heavily politicised perspective on the built environment went during the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed curators Hedy van Erp and Greg Hobson have given us Hedges at his most critical and most emotive. The buildings in Make Life Worth Living are effectively prisons, either holding back their inhabitants or engulfing them. A woman bathes her child in a kitchen under a single electric light. A third of the picture is the darkness that surrounds them. An old Jewish man sits on a bed, his face half in shadow while next to him an old photograph of his friends or family is clearly lit. The peeling wallpaper may hint at the main reason for the photograph but does not determine its full humanistic function. The power of this work, like Evans, is that it does a job − showing the disgusting conditions in which large numbers of the British working class were housed in the late 1960s and early ’70s − but also ennobles those that it pictures, not as ciphers or objects deserving of pity but as figures with their own stories. A young woman looks pensively out of the window. A father stares back at the camera accusingly.

According to van Erp, who deserves great credit for championing Hedges’ work, the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt said after having photographed poor black Americans that he would never have been able to do the same in England because they wouldn’t have welcomed him. Yet here we have Hedges going to the very heart of the human problem, unafraid to enter and to ask people to reveal themselves and their home.
These pictures may not be architectural photography in any sense of the phrase but their importance in our consideration of the field of architecture is major. For a start, their impact was huge on how we thought about housing. This work helped to define a huge tide of opinion that saw the improvement of the housing conditions of working people as a vital task of British society and as such they were an important presager of some of the great acts of Modernist planning and housing provision. (Although other pictures in Hedges’ wider collection are equally critical of the world that these planners created.) In his eye for signage or other architectural details, he detects a sense of humour and a spirit of resistance at work.

Yet there is an even wider significance that architectural photography has never really addressed; namely the relationship with the human figure. The absence of the human form from photography that both criticises and champions architecture is not some strange fussiness. It is a fundamental construct of the medium. Although these pictures may have been didactic in intention, the problem of poor housing was so widespread and Hedges’ ability so great that he was able within his task to build a hugely important history not just of a social phenomenon but of precious individual lives.
We need to see more of this work. It would also be amazing if we were to see young photographers dare today to attempt the difficult task of exploring the relationship between man and his environment in the most disadvantaged sections of society.

Make Life Worth Living: Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter 1968-72

Where: Media Space, Science Museum

When: Until 18 January 2015

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