Exercise The Square Mile

The Brief:

In our earliest years we know a patch of ground in a detail we will never know anywhere again – site of discovery and putting names to things – people and places – working with difference and similitude – textures, smells – also of play, imagination, experiment – find the best location for doing things – creating worlds under our own control, fantasy landscapes.

(Professor Mike Pearson)

There is a concept within Welsh culture called Y Filltir Sgwar (The Square Mile), described above by Professor Mike Pearson. It is the intimate connection between people and their childhood ‘home’ surroundings.

Make a series of 6-12 photographs in response to this concept. You may wish to re-trace places you know very well, examining how they might have changed; or if you’re in a new environment you may wish to … explore your new surroundings and meet some of the people around you.

You may wish to explore the concept further, or you may deviate from this … focus on architecture and landscape … Try to make your final set of photographs ‘sit’ together as a series to communicate your idea. Give your photographs titles or write short captions if you wish.


Well, I could definitely not visit any childhood surrounds as they are over 16,000 km away from where I am now, so that concept was immediately nixed. I know my surrounds in my new city where I live pretty well and have seen many changes over the twenty years that I have been here in Vancouver.

However, ever since we made the move to Canada, I have been continuously fascinated by the concept of the alleys that run between the houses on a block, giving access to the back yards. This is something quite foreign to South Africans. You tend to have a driveway off the street and your neighbour’s backyard abuts yours.

In walking the streets during snowfalls one becomes disoriented, and can quite easily end up in one of the alleys.

It has always been a source of fascination to me to see that the front of the house that is presented to the “public” is usually well kept, tidy and neat, while the back yard and more precisely the area bordering on the alley can very often be the exact opposite of the “public” image. All sorts of disrepair abound. Fences are rotted and hang higgledy-piggledy all over the place. Unwanted items line the alley, waiting for a passerby to come and take them away. Moss overruns roof tiles and some old garages just need a big bad wolf to huff and puff and blow them down. Every alley is a potential playground for the local children.

Of course there are the houses that have the same “public” image in their back yard that they do in the front. But those back yards are not as interesting. I find them more bland and sterile. Perhaps it is their predictability that disinterests me.

Lately the neighbourhood is undergoing a rapid change. Old houses are being demolished and huge, new million dollar homes are going up in their places. The historical homes are fast becoming a thing of the past. (A historical home is classified as anything from 50 – 80 years here in Vancouver). Any wooden structure that survives past 80 years in this wet climate is just a mould trap.

In traversing the alleys around my home, one does come across some amusing situations, a few of which I have included below. This then is my Square Mile of Backyards as Seen from the Alley.

Brooms, snow shovels, moss and logs
Brooms, snow shovel, moss, logs, trashcans and composter
Mystery object under tarp secured with logs and crate
Mystery object under tarp secured with logs and crate
Wash basin anyone?
Wash basin anyone?
No speeding in the lane
No speeding in the lane
Hot house in the alley
Hot house in the alley
Owner is long gone
Owner is long gone
The builders only have to climb a three foot wall to use these facilities
The builders only have to climb a three foot wall to use these facilities
Little honey bee
Little honey bee
Three free chairs
Three free chairs
House demolished - time for new development
House demolished – time for new development
Straining to stay upright with this load
Straining to stay upright with this load

Since completing this exercise I have come across Michael Wolf’s work on the back alleys in Hong Kong in which he has documented typologies of the ephemera found in these alleys. His images are quirky and humerous. His subject matter ranges from mops, rubber gloves to clothing blown onto neon signs to broken chairs. The images abound in bright colours, imparting a playful impression on the viewer. How can we take these banal items seriously anyway?

Bibliography

Wolf, Michael (n.d.) Hong Kong Trilogy [online]. LensCulture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/michael-wolf-hong-kong-trilogy [Accessed 8 May, 2016]

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