ArtLyst Review -Very few photographers have come close to capturing a city bathed in night as well as George Brassai. He peopled the streets of Paris with heavy burdening mists and lights that pierced through the dark rather than human beings. He captured an other-worldly aspect to the city that very few ever take the time to explore. A British photographer has emerged eighty years later who has emerged from the same thick mist that Brassai had successfully captured on the slick and shiny streets of Paris. William Eckersley has emerged out of the history that Brassai and a few others managed to capture before. This time Eckersley looked to capture not the streets of Paris but London, in a profoundly disturbing way.
Before exploring the lonely plains and nocturnal valleys London has to offer Eckersley studied both at the London College of Communication and Central St. Martins. Following his time at university he co-founded Stucco Press with Alexander Shields leading to the publishing of Left London. The strongly pulls at the heart of both artist’s work. There is a very distinct line drawn between the work published in Left London and the series of work that Eckersley is displaying now at Vegas Gallery entitled “Dark City”. Both collections of work tend to look at the decomposition of the city in a way that a medical examiner may tediously study a similarly fragmenting body. In both of the works, scrutiny is top priority, allowing the viewers to longingly gaze at a city they found once upon a time to be a realm of familiarity. “Dark City” is the next major step for Eckersley and a very logical one to follow up the magical collaboration with Shields via Left London.
“Dark City” is all about lights. The most successful photographs about the night are often not about darkness, shadow or even blackness. Even though Eckersley addresses shadow in a playful and diligent manor, night photography pays particular attention to accents of light which becomes all the more important to the work of the photographer. Even in Brassai’s collections, the lighting within an image largely complements the shadow, while the shadows would on occasion illuminate the light. In Eckersley’s series the light of a tunnel or a crumbling and forgotten arch is at the forefront, taking the place of human beings which have a tendency to frivolously meander about the image. The shadows, never forgotten entirely, remain an absolutely essential appendix, postscript, or appendage that helps to enforce the lighting which it always accompanies.
The darkness in Eckersley’s series is not comforting. “Dark City” is full of twists and turns leaving any person viewing them utterly lost amongst the streets and tunnels which have been turned against them. Walking out of the exhibition and into daylight brings an appreciation for the familiar names of streets, faces of people and shops that are welcoming. That is not to say that the images are not captivating, they certainly are. There is a certain strain to find a symbol or a clue to point out where this distant world has taken shape. Eckersley has valiantly created a world within a world and a chance to view the mundane within new skin. Many of the buildings in his images tend to take on a haunting presence, they not welcoming to the viewer. Even though they are constructed by humans and mark a human existence within this world they appear mechanical. To say that they are phantoms within the setting would be suitable, yet at the moment this is uttered into existence they have dissipated into the sodden blackness of the entire image. Eckersley expands further by saying “the built environment, deliberately contrived to services the needs and desires of humanity, makes sense in the context of human teeming life – without this however, it’s inherent functionality no longer visible, our urban spaces appeared to stand forlorn, waiting to be judged on their genius or folly, beauty or ugliness”.
While Eckersley has a romantic, if not twisted view of the city and it’s structural occupants, he does not approach the images in the same way that Brassai did. Eckersley takes a distinctly German approach to his photographic process, which he continues to develop in this series. This collection of work for Eckersley has been appropriately compared to the style emphasized in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf which also spawned the likes of Bernd and Hilla Becher, along with Thomas Demand, and Andreas Gursky.
The void of people and expanding desolation that fill Eckersley’s photos largely contrast the popular hyper-commercialized images that are running rampant in the lead up to the Olympic games in London. It is particularly astute of Vegas Gallery to highlight this show when so much of the city has been turned into a 24/7 parade of engorged muscle images. Not only is there a saturation of photos that show a bustling and smooth-running London full of eager tourists, presumably they are also all Americans as they tend to be brimming over with white-toothed, full-faced unending smiles. It is encouraging to see that a gallery and an artist agree that there is more to London that can also be experienced not only by locals, but those aimlessly digressive tourists looking to find their way from Bethnal Green to the Olympic sites.
William Eckersley’s show “Dark City” on now at Vegas Gallery in Bethnal Green until the 18 of August, is a unique look into a city that is rarely seen. As night falls people rush home to comforting homes which cradle them as they have dinner with families never thinking again about the world that exists as soon as the lights go out. From Left London in which Eckersley examined the decaying of urban architecture, he takes a particularly haunted look at the very existence of the night and the light that shapes it. The series not only looks at the disintegration of the city but also approaches the human-less landscape that unfolds without will or pressure. This is not the London that tourists seek for Olympic indulgence, but London just as it is, with, and mostly without anyone.
Words/ Image by: Portia Pettersen Copyright Artlyst 2012