Song for Occupations

01Apr09

new_england55-27-11-2007-copy1

Copies have already left the warehouse but from tomorrow, bookshelves will be stacked with The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. A timely work itself between essayist Alain de Botton and myself about the modern workplace, industry and occupations.

To travel and photograph alongside that commentator on art, aesthetics and of accessible philosophy, was an assignment I somehow brought on for myself three years ago during which time I was ‘a photographer in tow’, a companion, a researcher and fixer.

Wanting to work with him in the hot-house climate of the livre d’artiste meant at first, stalking poor Alain in the hope of catching his eye by turning up at his talks on architecture then furtively slipping my card on the table where the arty faithful queued for signed books – plus sending him my own book of RAF reportage (Red Arrows, 2005).

In The Art of Travel he has written glibly about photography itself. Of the camera instrument he says: “.. It blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing .. to help us notice what we have already seen.” Re-reading this notion before we set out to explore offices and shipping lanes, processing plants and warehouses, I felt intimidated enough for a small breath of wind to be taken from my sails as I imagined him being suspicious and dismissive of my first collaborative work for him.

Only once did travel weariness and the SAS of tropical mosquitoes puncturing our pallid skins happen to contribute to something like a lovers’ tiff in a space agency car park. For that I also blame the instant replay facility to view the recorded image on the back of the modern DSLR – a delightful feature for any nervous co-worker but a full-stop for the visual creator still capturing in mid-sentence.

For the author, their words are laid out on sacred ground so for the more subservient artist, the picture’s acreage is at the expense of a word count of 800 lost prose. The poetry of each medium squeezing each other for precious space never seemed a problem for Alain who was both my travel buddy and commissioning editor. He chose many of my pictures himself to position as adjacent or standalone photo-essays (designed by Joana Niemeyer) though I ensured that better alternatives got in. More engaging choices however do not appear in print, replaced by the bland that suits the tedium of the open-plan office, for example.

Months back we were like excited schoolboys when the bell goes. Sharing the parallels of eras between modern air travel and the centuries of sail, we spotted (just as Beaudelaire watched longingly at ships departing from the quays at Honfleur) wide-bodied flying machines taxiing away from Heathrow’s T5. We itched and worried about new journeys: To the Indian Ocean where on a Wi-Fi-enabled atoll, someone would help us find a dhoni that set forth at dawn for yellowfin tuna. For the fish, its story of surviving the Boxing Day Tsunami, then violently yield to provide a nourishing meal in England the Friday night after, is a narrative of the insatiable, modern age of logistics and convenience. With Poe in mind, we pondered tourists who perish in paradise and Boeings that die and recycle in the desert.

I would be the first to read the dissected anatomy of this book when he sometimes sent me lengths of writing, urging a reaction from his forming ideas.  He might suggest an overnight shift at a giant logistics warehouse just off the M1 where supermarkets and the Royal Mail have their distribution centres with the resulting: “One looks up at their cathedral-like ceilings and finds, instead of angels, workaday, economical spans of steel punctuated by fluorescent strips ..”

In offices, I looked for Hopper’s women; in biscuit factories there was Fritz Lang automation and experimental dough to chew on; amid the Kentish landscape and its snaking electricity lines, there was an urban incongruity versus dead wildlife; or the “aesthetic aspects of technology” along the Thames Gateway where the Goddess of the Sea container ship nudged closer to Tilbury Docks to be unburdened of its divine deposits.

We would join the daily grind of London commuters and afterwards I relished reading his thoughts based on my images: “The train moves off, resuming its rhythmical clicking along tracks laid down a century and a half ago, when the capital first began plucking workers from their beds in faraway villages whose outlying farms had once marked the boundaries of their inhabitants’ known world.”

Onwards the passengers paced to their accountancy atriums and I was handed scraps of A4 wish-list reminders: “.. A PA .. an intern / junior .. a beauty .. a lift scene .. WC .. lobby area / receptionist / people waiting .. the view .. lunch sandwiches .. the logo ..”

brief title

Our brief partnership is pretty unlikely (he, a polished Swiss-Frenchman and I with the stretched limousine vowels of  estuary English) but Herne Hill is one connection. It’s where I live now but is the same London village from where the favoured dB protagonist John Ruskin escaped for the Lakes – before the urban spread swallowed his creative juices, thereby helping create a lifetime aversion to technology and progress.

If ever there was a review to savour, it should be Ruskin on de Botton.

See also Faces of Gods.

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5 Responses to “Song for Occupations”

  1. I have read two reviews, heard Alain de Botton talk at the RSA and with Steve Wright on Radio 2 today, and they all overlooked reference to the superb photographs in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The photos are more than illustrations for each chapter, they are visual stories in their own right.

    Excellent photography, Richard!

    http://pannage.blogspot.com/2009/04/photo-reportage-on-workplace.html

  2. 2 Heidi Lighten

    Thanks for the great photos. I really enjoyed this book (I have all Alain de Botton’s and was given this one for Mothers Day last Sunday) as the first chapter was really something I could relate to but the photos were the icing on the cake. Having been brought up in Little Thurrock (I now live in Australia) the riverside, Grays and Tilbury are really familiar to me. St Clements with Proctor and Gambol next to it just jumped out at me. Brings back memories. Thanks so much.

  3. Heidi,

    I’m delighted that this seemingly far-flung corner of your once-familiar world was included in the book. E-mail me privately and I’ll send you a little something.


  1. 1 Renaissance « England’s Pleasant Pastures
  2. 2 Faces of Gods « England’s Pleasant Pastures

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