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- Designing “Tideway”: a photography book on River Thames
- A celebration of River Thames: “Tideway” by Matthew Joseph
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A celebration of River Thames: “Tideway” by Matthew Joseph
We sometimes take it for granted, the Londoners I mean, by River Thames is a key landmark of London. British photographer Matthew Joseph has spent a huge chunk of the last few years hanging on bridges and walking in sewers (literally) to document the river and its people.The result of his hard work is now compiled in an exhibition free to public at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in London, until 3rd of June. Named “Tideway”, the exhibition contains portraits of river workers, river traffic shots and beautiful views of London around the Thames. They are also included in the book I had the priviledge to design, also called “Tideway” on sale here and at the venue.
The Creative Post: When and why did you move to London and what were your first impressions about the city.
Matthew Joseph: I was born and raised in rural Norfolk in the picturesque village of Winterton-On-Sea – a really beautiful and safe place to live your childhood, but far removed from London in terms of what was on offer! I left Norfolk to study music in Guildford, Surrey (a suitable stepping stone from the countryside) and after 5 years I realised London was where I needed to be. Whilst studying music I had simultaneously built up my photography and despite its close proximity to London, being ‘in’ London was very different to being near it. I arrived in 2011 and the first year seemed to be dominated by the anticipation of the Olympics, and the city-wide transformation and excitement that ensued. It was definitely a great time to ‘land’ and I’ve loved it ever since.
I was perched as high as any person can be on top of Tower Bridge – in the north tower, outside, harnessed up with a chaperone.
I could only be there for 60 minutes, shooting at the time of day when the sun was strongest.”
T.C.P.: What makes the London landscape interesting for photographers?
M.J.: Whilst I try and remind visitors that London doesn’t really represent ‘real’ England, its global hub status has produced a metropolis that is ever changing. Things are always happening, in every sense of the phrase, and with that comes people… lots of interesting people. People make any place great in my opinion and the trickle down effect of that is an explosion of cultures all contained in one city – it’s a place that people from all across the world want to experience. Investment, jobs, infrastructure, global cuisine and languages all follow – all of which bring accompanying problems of course – but this just adds to the recipe. London seems to be in constant flux and as a photographer that is exciting. Without meaning to, simply by taking a photograph of the Thames, you’re documenting a part of history – this time next year, there’s a good chance it will have changed in
T.C.P.: How, when and why did you decide to focus on the River Thames? Were the photos of this book taken around the same period and for the purpose of this theme, or are they a compilation of photos taken over the years?
M.J.: I never set out to photograph the Thames – I didn’t have a secret fascination with rivers or anything like that. It was initially working as a commercial photographer that took me to the Thames specifically. Thanks to a chance meeting with an old school friend in a Tooting pub, I started working for a client in 2013 whose job it was to update the Victorian sewer system across London. Their first phone call to me was ‘how do you feel about small spaces…. would you mind coming on a sewer visit with us?’. Of course I said yes – that kind of thing fascinates me – and it has continued from there. I’ve been able to see so many things that the public either couldn’t or would just simply not know were there, and I started to realise the fundamental importance this river held to London as a city. I was learning all about our capital from the river’s point of view, so many Londoners or commuters are confined to the underground and miss a lot of it. Slowly, as a photographer, I started to see more things and notice more cultures attached to the river – this intrigued me. I also feel that subconsciously, the ‘country boy’ in me was seeing this as a way to ‘breathe’ in a bustling city – nowhere else can you find as much open space in central London as you can on the Thames. All the images in this book have been taken between 2013-2016. Three years is a mere heartbeat in the context of London’s history, but already so much has changed. The work collated for ‘Tideway’ comprises three main series that I have produced for various reasons over this timeframe – they all differ in technique but I like to think they collectively show three facets of London life.
T.C.P.: From your ‘River people’ shots, what have you learnt about the River Thames that you didn’t know before?
M.J.: River People was a fascinating project – it was genuinely a privilege to produce. To have the excuse to meet such a (let’s face it) random group of people was a lot of fun. It was also the most difficult project I’ve ever undertaken – dealing with people always makes things more difficult. By that I mean, for all London’s attributes and greatness comes a lot of red tape, bureaucracy and health and safety etc. But, you get used to this and if it was easy it would be boring, right!?
I learnt so much through the process but if I was thinking of some highlights I would definitely start with sifting through Maria Arceo’s (the artist) collection of ‘rubbish’ she has salvaged from the Thames. You name it, think it, she has probably found it: soles of Tudor children’s shoes, Roman coins, guns, Gameboys, bike parts, car parts. Three of my subjects were heavily involved with the filming of the latest James Bond film ‘Spectre’ – and myself being a huge Bond fan, grilled all three about the logistics of shooting some of the scenes. I would love to have remembered all the facts that Glen (the Tower Bridge driver) was able to reel off to me about the history of the bridge but I was too busy taking in the awesome bascule chamber whilst trying to remember the technicalities of what I was actually shooting.
One fact I can recall is that if you want to pilot your ship under Tower Bridge, and it requires the bridge to be lifted, the City of London does it for absolutely no charge. I had no idea the City of London did absolutely anything for free!
T.C.P.: What do you enjoy more, photographing people or landscapes?
M.J.: That’s a tough call. There wasn’t a huge amount to do where I grew up and public transport was pretty useless so I just got good at cycling everywhere and my first obsession with a camera was what I called sunset chasing. It’s like a much less manly version of the storm chasers in America’s Tornado Alley whereby I spotted a sunset from our house, and if it started to develop nicely I would jump on my bike and pedal my heart out until I reached certain vistas which I loved to shoot. In other words, by default, landscape photography was where I started, which was then cemented by frequent family holidays to The Lake District and The Scottish Highlands. I started properly photographing people later on and now the majority of my work is all about people. People can either make a situation amazing, or they can make it really difficult – it’s just the nature of human beings. Speaking completely honestly, as I look back at all the shoots I’ve done over the last few years, it’s always been the ones involving people that have given me a real buzz and sense of complete job satisfaction. Just being given the excuse to meet such a plethora of people from all walks of life, different professions, different positions etc is the best part of the job. For a portrait to work, people have to be prepared to be a little bit vulnerable and often what I can get in an hour is more than some of their colleagues (or even friends) can experience in a lifetime of knowing them. Photographing people gives you a glimpse into their lives. Often I never see them again, but I have to make sure I’m leaving with at least one image that sums them up – that’s a huge challenge. Contrary to what I’ve just said, landscapes don’t get shy, embarrassed, awkward, they aren’t late or unreliable! It can be more relaxing shooting landscapes, but I have to submit to whatever nature gives me in terms of light. It puts me in my place and takes me back to my roots, so will always play a part in my work to some degree.
T.C.P.: Could you tell us which of the images were more challenging to take, and why?
M.J.: Without doubt – the image shot from Tower Bridge in London’s Super Highway. In reality, there are loads in this book that really pushed me technically due to having to deal with practical logistics, timings and most importantly weather and light – however, the Tower Bridge shot definitely stands out to me. The project as a whole was a slight gamble. The success of each image hinged on a perfect combination of absolute technical precision, actual traffic coming through the frame, the weather – in particular, light and also fool-proof post production. It was the consistency of light that made this one so challenging. I was perched as high as any person can be on top of Tower Bridge – in the north tower, outside, harnessed up with a chaperone. I could only be there for 60 minutes officially and it meant I was shooting at the time of day when the sun was strongest (not advised by any landscape photographer worth their salt!). The whole project was being composed in post production and whilst I wanted to make it look unrealistic, to prove a point and to make people look twice, I also wanted it to look as flawless as possible which is what would challenge people to think, ‘no!… is it?… isn’t it?… surely that isn’t real?… wow isn’t the Thames busy!…’ etc. Anyway, it was a challenge, but nothing that days in retouching couldn’t fix – it definitely made me think hard about where I chose to reveal each boat.
The success of each image hinged on a perfect combination of absolute technical precision, actual traffic coming through the frame, the weather – in particular, light and also fool-proof post production.”
T.C.P.: In a digital world you decide to put your photos on paper in this book. Do you think it is the best format to appreciate good photography? What advantages and disadvantages do you see between analogue and digital photography?
M.J.: Yes, absolutely. ‘Everything is better printed’ is a phrase I regularly find myself repeating. My whole life is spent looking at images on digital screens – which can be amazing and there are so many benefits to this – however, what the digital culture has brought about is a new appreciation for what we always used to have: images printed on paper. Whether it’s in a book, on a postcard or ideally on fine art Giclée paper, it’s always enjoyable to look at work once it’s printed. Printing an image also goes some way to making it feel slightly less disposable in a world where the general value of photography has been diminished by the digital format and the access it brings.
I love film/analogue and I’m fortunate to have started photography early enough to have to learnt by shooting this way. There has also been a slight resurgence in the last few years, as it has become fashionable to shoot film – which is great but it could end up just being a trend that dies out again. We have to remember that there was a reason someone came up with the idea of digital photography – to improve on what we already had! Now I’m still a firm believer that there are still qualities which film gives you that digital can’t replicate – a big one for me being the leniency and forgiveness that film gives you when it comes to light and shade in an image. Digital is .. well ‘digital’ so it’s either on or off, yes or no, black or white etc so you can’t get quite the same character and warmth as you can on film. For decades, we accepted the science of film photography and it didn’t really alter much, but digital is changing and improving constantly. What you can do with digital is just amazing and it provides endless opportunities for creativity that can’t exist within the technical limitations of film. I’m really aware that digital can make you lose your sense of composition a bit. By not being limited by the number of shots, we generally over shoot and do less time thinking and more time clicking and deleting. Having said this, I wouldn’t have been able to produce any of the collections in this book without digital. River People is the only one that would have worked but it would have looked a lot different due to utilising lighting and post-production techniques that have been conceived in the digital age. Analogue is slow and expensive and clients definitely wouldn’t be able to comprehend that when they can take a quick snapshot on their phone and send it to PR in seconds. My collection of film cameras sit proudly on display in my studio and enjoy the occasional outing, but on a commercial basis, at least, I don’t think there’s any looking back now.
T.C.P.: Tell us about your current and future projects.
M.J.: I have recently won first place in the RICS 2016 Infrastructure Photography Competition for an image of The Lee Tunnel I shot for Thames Water. So, I have a few commitments with that including an exhibition at their headquarters in Westminster. Aside from my ongoing commercial jobs for various clients, a lot of my energy is going towards an exhibition of the River People series this spring. I have an ongoing project called Horizon which is very much… ongoing! It’s where I take a very simplistic view of the world and its varying landscape as I travel to different places. It also firmly ticks the landscape box for me. London Sleeps gently continues in the background – I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it as long as I live in London and continue to discover new things or to see the obvious in a new light.
“Tideway” is a free exhibition open to everyone at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in London until 3rd June. More info at https://www.ice.org.uk/events/private-events/river-people
Some takes of this exhibition below.