Bedford Creative Arts Gallery, Bedford


Michael Collins is an advocate of what he calls ‘record pictures’, a genre epitomised by the highly detailed photographs of civil engineering projects made by journeymen photographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2004 he published a book of photographs from the archives of the Institution of Civil Engineers (Record Pictures, Steidlmack), and his exhibitions of his own record pictures of British industrial and construction sites tend to be accompanied by historic examples of the genre. A 2006 exhibition of Birmingham factories combined his own work with factory pictures from Birmingham’s Public Works Department Archive, while the present exhibition on the Stewartby brickworks near Bedford – soon to be demolished for housing development – includes an album of record photographs of the site and nearby model village made in the late 1940s.

In his introduction to Record Pictures, Collins writes persuasively about the value of a style of photography that might at first sight seem dull. Such pictures are solely descriptive in intent; they minimise self-expression, symbolism, metaphor, superficial dramas such as weather effects, and social and political commentary. The photographer as author recedes, while the camera takes over. What could such apparently mechanical pictures offer? ‘By neither minimising nor maximising aspects of a scene, the [record] photograph is like an open-ended question,’ Collins writes. ‘The matter-of-fact appearance of this photographic genre is actually its mystery … Plausibility prompts conscious and subconscious associations for the viewer.’ Such pictures encourage the ‘long look’, the immersive gaze, and give rise to ‘the quantum leap of art, where the boundaries of understanding dissolve into the realm of intuition and imagination.’

There may be, as Collins writes, ‘no recognisable contemporary practice of record pictures’ – at least not within, or commissioned by, industry, where the customary practice today is celebratory photography for corporate PR. Yet within the wider field of landscape photography, record pictures in the sense of the ‘straight photograph’ are, and have always been, the dominant form, from the New Objectivity that swept Europe and America in the 1920s to New Topography and the large format revival on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s and 80s. The qualities of the ‘long look’ that Collins recognises can be found in almost any highly descriptive photograph, and particularly those that take a wide-angled view from an elevated viewpoint of a landscape full of man-made constructions and human activity. Their work may not be solely descriptive in intent, but Shore, Gursky in his early years, Basilico, Burtynsky and Davies have all produced many detailed, immersive photographs of this kind.

So how does Collins’s work measure up? The Stewartby show contains five large images, two elevated views and three made at ground level (there is also a fourth, not exhibited here). The principal overview of the brickworks gives us a tight arrangement of forms packed with interest, from the quirky details of the buildings to the variety of workmen’s tools and materials left lying about the site. We are encouraged to roam about, past the demolished kiln in the middle distance all the way to the village built in the 1930s for site workers in the background. For all its descriptive power, the picture retains many secrets and this is its strength. The site seems deserted yet the chimneys are smoking. Who is working the factory? And who owns the white hatchback in the foreground? Is the owner somewhere in the building, and what are they doing?

Collins’s aesthetic is undoubtedly austere. Colours are muted, skies are uniformly pale grey, the light is flat and signs of human activity have been minimised, particularly in his ground-level pictures of the stacking yard and clay pit. His is a highly ascetic approach inspired by the Bechers but not followed by Davies, Shore, Gursky et al, or by Stewart Bale, the site’s record photographer of the 1940s whose images are sharply delineated in bright light under thundery skies. Collins is interested in what he calls the ‘subtle details’, such as the colours and textures of earth, brick and paintwork, and he distances his work from that of Burtynsky (which is ‘loud’) and Davies, who ‘spices up’ his descriptions by figures in the landscape and formal qualities of the sky.1 ­There is spice in Collins’s work too, for example a lone brick crushed by lorry wheels or the swirl of tyre tracks – inclusions of formal and anecdotal interest which add little to the scientific description of a brickworks. For many, it is this spice which grips the attention but in Collins’s 60 x 48 inch prints it is a mild spice sprinkled thinly.

The appeal of descriptive photographs inevitably grows as time passes. All descriptive pictures from the past (even the recent past) are fascinating for the information they reveal and for their uncanny quality as messages from a world that is gone. One thinks, for example, of Carleton Watkins’s 19th century panoramas of the emerging cities of the American West – Oregon City, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco. The historian in us finds evidence of countless aspects of urban material culture from this time and place; for the poet, here are whole cities captured, taken out of time’s relentless flow and preserved at one moment in their history. These pictures confer a kind of paper-thin immortality on so many transient structures and their makers, but we know that most of what is man-made has since been transformed or has disappeared altogether. Watkins’s images, for all their descriptive banality, confront us with the transience of our own lives and environment.

            Once the Stewartby brickworks is no more, replaced by housing estates and a water park, Collins’s pictures will acquire a new edge. Too few photographers today make work whose main interest will be for future generations. Yet if we take a genuinely long look at why we make photographs and their value in the world over time, it is a practice that cannot be recommended too highly.


1 Pers. comm, August 2008