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The British Landscape, CUBE

Natalie Bradbury finds a strange beauty in photos of industrial and post industrial Britain

Published on April 14th 2009.

The British Landscape, CUBE

The British Landscape is collection of photographs by John Davies. Taken between 1979 and 2005, his imposing black and white shots document a changing Britain. They trace the way its natural landscape and urban centres have been altered by the processes of industrialisation and modernisation; the march of motorways across hills and valleys, the rebuilding of cities after the war, and the spread of 1960s office complexes and tower blocks. It's similar from town to town and city to city.

The way in which we influence our landscape is obvious in these images, particularly in those of Welsh mines. But we’re left to reach our own conclusions about how the environment around us influences our lives. People are strangely absent from most of the photos, which either show the closed structures in which our lives are contained (the offices, multi-storey car parks and tower blocks where everyday events take place) or the traces left behind once these projects are abandoned and exhausted.

The photos are static and eerily quiet – when humans appear, as in one image where insignificant figures pick blackberries by an abandoned railway line, they’re almost quaint.

From the toy town houses of Hulme, criss-crossed with roads like a planner’s model, to a Stalybridge skyline dominated by mills, and a hulking Stockport viaduct (accompanied by Engels' quotes on urban deprivation), the built environment towers forebodingly, way above the level of human life.

In a 1982 photo, the players in a football game are tiny specks in comparison to the massive Agecroft Power Station in Salford; it's almost as if they're there by accident. Even a horse, incongruously small and lost in the foreground, seems to be staring at it in awe. Four huge monolithic towers, blackened at the top, rise over everything for miles around and spill smoke into the air, as if to prove Davies’ point about man’s huge footprint on the world.

Implicit in the often desolate emptiness of Davies’ photos is how lives have been changed and uprooted to make way for the new, from slum clearance and the demolition of back-to-back houses to the Conservative government's programme of mine closure.

We’re shown the remnants of a community that was built up around Easingdon Colliery in County Durham and told, ironically, that the houses which survived featured in the film Billy Elliott and are now regarded as ‘classic’.

Hulme provides another example of how trends in urban living come round again like fashions; housing left over from the industrial revolution was knocked down to make way for 1960s high rise housing estates, before being rebuilt as traditional low rise houses again in recent decades.

Many of the scenes look old fashioned now, depicting a bygone way of life – for example, a shot of racing pigeon sheds overlooking Sheffield, and many of the buildings pictured, including Agecroft Power Station, have been long since demolished.

What links all the photos across the 30 year timespan is that they have an unusual beauty. A few photos of nature’s natural monoliths; the peaks and mountains of the Lake District, show Britain in its pure, unsullied glory, but Davies’ shots seem to say that our landscape is still majestic even after the intervention of man.

CUBE (113-115 Portland Street, cube.org.uk, johndavies.uk.com). Until 18 April.

Photos copyright of John Davies

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Hieronymous BiffApril 14th 2009.

It's actually open until the 18th April (this Saturday) not the 14th. It's well worth seeing, as are the Capturing Manchester photos downstairs.

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