John Davies: photographing the Mersey

A new photographic gallery – EDGEspace – has opened on Slater Street and this afternoon I went down to have a look at the opening exhibition, Two Rivers – a selection of photographs by John Davies.

The exhibition brings together a selection from series showing the urbanised landscape around two rivers – the Mersey from Stockport to Liverpool (photographed between 1986 and 1988) and the River Taff from the Brecon Beacons to Cardiff (1995-96).  I was particularly interested because of my own plans to walk the length of the Mersey this coming year, but, disappointingly, there were only a few images from the Mersey series.

John Davies, who now lives in Liverpool, has gained an international reputation for his large-scale rural and urban landscape photography. In the 1980s he began to document urban Britain, concentrating on the changes provoked by the industrial and post-industrial landscape. In recent years he has broadened his attention to focus on the landscape of different European countries. His large-format photos are refined, almost austere, pure black and white images, which usually emphasise the vastness of natural space and industrial architecture, seeming to dwarf any human beings in the frame.  ‘I try to look for the best view to show features in context, and aim to get the maximum detail from my photographs,’ Davies has said.

This is impressive photography, though the urban shots tend to be austere in the manner of an architectural record.  Panoramic views like the one of the Victorian railway viaduct in Stockport (above) reveal the layers of architecture and building history in view. In this image we see the railway viaduct, built in 1839 towering above a calm river Mersey beneath its arches. Reflected in the water are enormously varied architectural forms: the columns of the viaduct, the brutal form of a modern tower block and the more mellow textures of the warehouses on each bank.

Davies always attaches detailed explanatory labels to his photos which draw attention to the social and economic history of the area, and the architectural features.  So, for example, Mersey Square in Stockport (above), photographed in 1986, carries this label:

The production of felt hats was a thriving cottage industry in Stockport during the mid 17th century, and by the 18th century the town had become a major industrial centre. Water-powered mills dominated the banks of the Mersey there,with factories producing silk and, later, cotton fabrics. In 1844 Frederick Engels described the town as ‘one of the dustiest, smokiest holes in the whole of the industrial area’.  By 1884, with over 50 firms, Stockport was at the centre of the country’s hatting industry, exporting more than 6 million hats per year. The Wellington Mill is one of the last remaining Victorian mill buildings along the Mersey, and in 2000 it re-opened as a hat museum.

Perhaps the most remarkable photo on display was ‘Reddish Vale, Stockport, 1988′ (above – click to enlarge).  This image also appears in John Davies’ impressive book, The British Landscape, published in 2006.  In the introduction, Jonathan Glancey writes of this image:

It depicts what at first sight appears to be an uneventful English scene, in countryside with none of the drama of the Lakes or Snowdonia – the sort of countryside where people say nothing ever happens. Always the same. Now, look again. The all-but-dormant Arcadian world that two fairy-tale young girls appear to be discovering for the first time, is far from still. On the left the river – into which neither you, me, those girls, John Davies … could ever step twice – has carved its way over centuries. Its waters are far from still; restlessly alive, it continuously alters its course through Reddish Vale. In the mid-distance, meanwhile, a concrete road bridge under construction over the valley. lt is as if a cartoonist had decided to draw a modern structure across Constable’s Dedham Vale. Davies’s ReddishVale is in the
act of changing before our eyes.

Though I have suggested that Davies’ vision is a touch austere, his pictures often reflect a humanist outlook, concerned to explore the impact of the environment on the people in the pictures. His widely reproduced image, Agecroft Power Station, Salford (above), which was taken in 1983, speaks of the scale of industrial architecture overshadowing the human figure. Under four towering chimneys in a bleak industrial landscape, players on a football pitch are reduced to mere specks.

A fundamental aspect of my approach to landscape is the sense of power it can symbolise and evoke. Images of land, water and sky can become metaphors, which reflect our emotional and spiritual states. But the landscape can also represent power in terms of land ownership and material wealth. It is this dual and often ambiguous representation of the metaphysical and the material in the landscape that underlies my photographic work. I believe in the beauty of truth rather than the truth of beauty even though the meaning of visual truth can be challenging and often fluid. My work attempts to raise questions about our collective responsibility in shaping the environments in which we live.
– John Davies

‘Runcorn Bridges, Cheshire 1986’ (above) is labelled:

Designed by William Baker, the high-level railway bridge crossing the Mersey Estuary and the Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1869, shortening the journey from Liverpool to London. It was named Aethelfleada Bridge after a daughter of Alfred the Great whose castle once stood beneath the path of the bridge. Openedto traffic in 1961, it featured the longest single-arch span in Europe. It was widened to four lanes in 1977 and renamed the Silver Jubilee Bridge in honour of Queen Elizabeth II.

And this is his view of Widnes, on the opposite bank of the Mersey:

To view the landscape as a pictorial composition of elements is simplistic. To perceive the landscape within a set of rules (art, science, politics, religion, community, business, industry, sport and leisure) is a way people can deal with the complexity of meanings that are presented in our environment. We are collectively responsible for shaping the landscape we occupy and in turn the landscape shapes us whether we are aware of it or not.
– John Davies

John Davies’s work belongs to the world of contemporary documentary photography. Faithful to a refined, pure black and white, taken on as the absolute rule of a subtle, analytic style. He chooses the vastness of space inhabited by the powerful elements of nature and the contradictory ones of culture to operate in two directions. On the one hand, the evocation of emotional states through the photographic rendering of a space-light that is alive, almost metaphysical, and recalls the symbolisation of the forces of nature in Turner. On the other, a crystal-clear gaze that sounds the material aspects of the contemporary landscape which is tied to the development of the productive activities and concrete structuring of the world through the molding power of economy and property.
– Roberta Valtorta, photographic historian

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5 thoughts on “John Davies: photographing the Mersey

  1. I get a bit worried when I see photos like these. I ask myself whether, with a little thought, I could take pretty much any serviceable bunch of snaps, and smooth a veneer of explanation over them, rendering them ‘significant’.

  2. In technical terms they’re faultless. But as I’ve indicated in my post, I feel that most are lacking in another vital element of photography – the framing of the shot, which in itself reflects the idea or feeling that the photographer wishes to communicate to the viewer.

  3. Gerry,
    if you are still planning to walk the length of the Mersey, you are very welcome to stay over with us here in Stockport.
    Too many years, and so much water under the viaduct…

    1. Kevin – Isn’t t’Internet amazing! Could we have imagined, back in 148 in the 1970s that we might re-connect like this…it would have seemed like science fiction. I would certainly like to meet up again as I pass through…

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