One of my favourite books is ‘Boring Postcards’ (Phaidon), a collection of postcards from the 1950s and 60s depicting exactly that: New Town shopping precincts, municipal buildings, stretches of empty motorway, caravan parks and bleak exurbia. Admittedly I have a complicated romance with such places, harking back to my slum-dwelling childhood where I dreamt one day the world would be in order.
In their homogeneity these post-WW2 developments represent the dashed hopes of a future, a promised land where everyone had a decent roof over their head, shops were conveniently located and provision was made for affordable leisure: libraries, swimming pools and community centres. In the intervening decades, housing schemes grew derelict and were either razed or refurbished, shops moved to remote edgeland sites and leisure venues were either closed or privatised.
This month I’m heading to England on a road trip. Following in Erica’s footsteps, I’m shooting the significant places of her life, matching them to archive film and photos shot in the 1940s-50s. The location list is long, covering places as diverse as a lost road sign on the A6 in the Derby suburbs, Didcot Bus Station and the site of the Croydon Savoy Cinema. I’m excited by the prospect – everything is interesting – but I’m under no illusion. I know what provincial English towns and cities look like but there’s always the prospect of uncovering the unknown or simply being in the right place at the right time.
In breaking down the script for “Voyaguese” I sense what I’m really looking for are ghosts in the shape of memories, images to reinforce the words on the page. Depending on where I stand my camera, I often attract attention from curious passersby eager to tell me their own stories. When I shot “The Devil’s Plantation” between 2007-2009, I shot hours of testimony, cautioning my unsolicited subjects that they wouldn’t make the cut yet for some reason they insisted on being interviewed or ‘perform’ for the camera while others would look directly into my lens, saying nothing.
The news recently reported that in the UK this year some 1.2 billion selfies were taken and that smartphones now outnumber cameras. Yet when confronted with a camera wielded by a third party, people’s behaviours are largely unchanged from that of say, 70 years ago. While editing my script, I was forced to omit an episode about photography and the fate of today’s snapshots. The same news report cites how the majority no longer display personal framed photographs, instead trusting their ‘moments’ to social media platforms via phones and tablets.
What happens, I wonder, if or when the Cloud crashes, the phone gets lost or the files corrupted? Even with multiple backups it’s easy to lose track of the thousands of images we take, images as irreplaceable as those acquired chemically. Cameras today may be idiotproof but unless someone invents a time machine, one’s precious moments can easily get lost or mislaid. Same applies to video. I’m highly conscious my road trip will take me to places that in all likelihood will be for the first and only time in my life. Will I ever return to Croydon Town Hall or a beet field near Bury St. Edmonds?
While technology makes it easier to shoot, edit and process video, it demands a set of protocols that, if ignored, risks losing every frame of a long-researched, hard-earned shoot. Already I envisage being armed to the teeth with various card readers and remote drives to make duplicate and triplicate backups of what I shoot. At least these days I don’t have to buy the once-obligatory ‘neg insurance’ to mitigate disaster or trust some shonky film lab to deliver the perfect product.
That said, part of me hankers after the days when a lab-coated Dave or Steve – always with an array of pens in their breast pocket – would greet me at reception before leading me to a screening room to view rushes and talk about the variance of bath temperatures and the vagaries of one-light processes that depended on chemicals, the people using them and the time of day or night my rushes arrived. As a pioneer of Digital Cinema I hate to think that these skills are in danger of extinction.
It’s impossible to recreate the exact sights and sounds or truly capture what London or Cambridge felt like to Erica in the early 1950s. Even when the buildings remain they no longer emit the same sounds. Mindful of this, I’ll record separate audio anyway for certain ambiences and spot effects, knowing the sound design will do a lot of heavy lifting.
As I light out for foreign territory, it occurs to me that I’m the Voyageuse. Barring my final choice of narrator/performer – a whole other story – soon I’ll sit down and put all the pieces into play – hopefully not in a boring way.
The above image is a composite of an old postcard with a Croydon stamp. Croydon is no longer in Surrey but part of Greater London.