It is a difficult task to combine certain genres within photography. For example, historical documentary and constructed fine art is not often a pairing that goes together seamlessly and well; however, British photographer Peter Spurgeon has done just that.
In his project Decoy, Spurgeon is inspired by real-life history and takes on the subject with an approach reminiscent of the New Topographics movement, yet a slightly more fine art feel. The resulting photographs are painterly — hard, grey concrete made gentle and unearthly by soft night-time mist and an attempt from nature to grow around and in these structures. Yet, they are also an honest document of what the structures and sites may have looked like when they were active.
Read about the project and more in the full interview with Spurgeon below!
I grew up in St. Albans in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, and lived in London before moving to Bristol four years ago. Since I gained my first degree in Earth Science, I have worked with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) which involves the presentation and analysis of data based on location.
Do you ever mix this part of your life with your photography?
Some of my projects start by looking at aerial photography. For example, I was considering documenting the proposed London Olympics site and viewed the aerial imagery online. At this time, I noticed the Greenway and this is what led me to start the Lifelines project.
It was interesting to hear about the photographer Mishka Henner’s practice when he came to speak to my masters class at University of South Wales. He has linked public and unofficial data sources to reveal information about military and other installations.
For my Decoy series, large scale digital maps have been useful in locating and navigating to former decoy locations which are often remote and inaccessible. There is potential for greater use of mapping in future projects. The value of GIS stems from the ability to link datasets together, be they physical (e.g buildings) or human (e.g census data) and to analyse them based on location.
What kind of art are you interested in?
I am drawn to art that includes strong formal elements, that conveys some form of message but also incorporates ambiguity of meaning.
Edgar Martins’ series When Light Casts No Shadow exemplifies this approach. He meticulously documented moon-lit airports in the Azores with the aid of floodlights.
What’s your story?
Initially it was curiosity about my father’s cameras that drew me into photography, in addition to the “normal” photographic realms of family, friends and travel. Joining the London Independent Photography group introduced me to the idea of making a series of images around a subject.
I started working on my own self-initiated documentary projects. The Lifelines series concerned linear features that run through cities, whose function has changed over time. Examples include the Greenway in East London and the Promenade Plantée in Paris. My next project then focussed on the village of Sipson and its long-term residents; it was threatened with demolition due to the proposed construction of a third runway at London Heathrow airport. Since that time the threat has switched to the neighbouring village of Harmondsworth.
It was my 2007 visit to the photographic festival Rencontres d’Arles (Arles, France) that really inspired me. There was one project which left the greatest impression on me: Beijing, Theatre of the People by Ambroise Tézenas. He recorded the traditional alleys and collective houses in Beijing before they were demolished to make way for high-rise office blocks. The festival planted the idea of studying for a Masters, and last year I completed an MA in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales in Newport, Wales.
Let’s talk about your project ‘Decoy’.
I was sitting on a plane to go on holiday and noticed the crude copy of a plane fuselage at the side of the airfield. These structures are used for training by fire crews, and I thought that they might make an interesting subject for a photographic project.
An online search revealed that Richard Mosse had already documented them in his Airside series. But at the same time, the search also revealed fake planes that were constructed from wood and canvas, used on daytime decoy airfields. This is what led me to discover the subject of this project, and in addition to the wartime structures that have remained in the landscape to this day, my interest focuses on the theatre of this ingenious visual deception.
Decoy relates to a secret British Air Ministry project that took place during the Second World War. The Sound City film studios in Shepperton were commissioned to design fake cities, airfields, docks and oil refineries, the objective of this simulation being to divert enemy bombs away from the real targets.
The decoys were set up a few miles away from the true locations and constructed using fires and electric lights. Today, only control bunkers remain at many of the sites as crumbling reminders of this forgotten endeavour. They sheltered the crew and housed generators for the lights. This simulation diverted 5% of enemy bombs away from their intended destinations.
I am digging deeper into the archives to find out more about the people and places behind the design and construction of the decoys. I recently visited Shepperton Studios where the decoy department, known for reasons of secrecy as ‘Colonel Turner’s Department’, was based. I will also be meeting a local historian with an interest in Shepperton. I am currently looking at potential funding options to carry out a second phase of the Decoy project. This would encompass an expanded visual language and geographical spread of sites.
I would like to make a series based on the idea of ‘Deep Mapping’ (see below) and I am currently researching residencies that would enable me to do this.
What’s on your recommended reading/watching/listening list?
I am reading PrairyErth (A Deep Map) by William Least Heat-Moon. It concerns the landscape and history of Chase County in Kansas. Deep Mapping involves a transdisciplinary investigation of a particular location, for example it can look at the geology, ecology, history and contemporary culture of a site.
Finally, tell us about one artist who is currently inspiring you.
I attended the PhotoEspana portfolio reviews in Madrid this year. During my visit I spent some time in the La Fabrica bookshop and discovered La costa afortunada — ‘Fortunate coast’ — by Rubén Acosta. It is the combination of graphic compositions, quality of light, idiosyncratic nature of the architecture and simple but effective book design that attracted me to this work.
In this photobook Acosta documents idiosyncratic homes in his native Canary Islands. Their inhabitants have chosen remote locations and recycled materials to construct their dwellings, and Acosta was initially attracted by this unusual architecture and consequently began to appreciate their sense of community. He observes that the settlements share ‘a prevailing sense of soul, good humour and lust for life’.