Capital Culture: Visual Responses to Urban Change

Elephant, from the series Metropole, 2015 - 2018, Lewis Bush

Published as part of the featured project

London Knowledge by Max Colson

In a climate of urban “renewal”, rising rents and growing inequality, writer and artist Lewis Bush examines how – in the context of gentrification – photography has been appropriated with both good and bad intentions. Referencing a range of contemporary projects, Bush suggests that in the right hands, photography might constitute a valuable tool in challenging the worst excesses of the neoliberal city.

The dualisms of photography become particularly evident when considering the various roles it plays in relation to gentrification, a term coined by the British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to describe the influx of middle-classes displacing lower-class worker residents in London neighbourhoods. But what had preceded the process Glass identified was decades of degentrification, manifested in middle class flight from inner cities to the new suburbs, something which had begun to reverse itself following the Second World War. The inner-city area of London where I grew up is a case in point. Built by affluent Victorians, by the mid-twentieth century it had degentrified to the point that it was viewed as dangerous and undesirable.

I wonder if photography is so suited to exploring a topic like gentrification because of its conflicted temporal identity, as something which is both immediate and present, and yet which always depicts something past. This familiar dissonance has an amplifying effect when it comes to reflections on very stark change. An example of this idea is the strategy used by the Burning Museum Arts Collective, an assembly of South African artists active in Cape Town’s Woodstock area. Working with archival imagery from an important local photographic studio, the group posts portraits around the district as a reminder of the forced removal of people of colour under apartheid, drawing parallels between contemporary gentrification (which invariably impacts ethnic minority and immigrant communities most severely) and a longer history of violent displacement.

Installation view of The Boys, from the series Native Land Act, 2013, Burning Museum Arts Collective

Photography is also a tool of record-making, and work made in the context of gentrification often ends up looking like an anticipatory archive of what may soon be completely gone, despite the photographer’s hopes to forestall these processes. Rhianne Clarke’sThere’s Room Enough for Both of Us focuses on the redevelopment of her native Greenwich, another area of London which has experienced a seesawing history of affluence and neglect. Her quietly composed images and the live-and let-live attitude of her title suggest a delicacy out of sorts with the brash financial district of Canary Wharf which lies directly north across the river from Greenwich, and which has increasingly colonised its southern neighbour.

A Modern Plant, from the series There’s Room Enough for Both of Us, 2017, Rhianne Clarke

The relationship between the arts and the communities undergoing gentrification are not straightforward. There is a justifiable sense amongst community action groups that artists sometimes instrumentalise the very human consequences of gentrification and redevelopment, which often see entire communities scattered into the winds. As a result, photography as a collaborative process is another valuable strategy deserving of far greater attention. Much of Eva Sajovic’s practice focuses on the largely Latin American community in Elephant and Castle, a part of London gripped by a massive redevelopment scheme which threatens drastic changes to the area’s demographic complexion. Sajovic employs multiple approaches, from portraiture and interviews, to collections of objects and community-focused events and workshops.

Film still from UnEarthing Elephant, 2017, Eva Sajovic

What the last example indicates is that gentrification needn’t be a topic which plays out only in changing architecture – its effects are also frequently inscribed on to those who are subjected to it. In A Tropa de Elite by the Brazillian Trema Collective, residents of São Paulo’s Pinheirinho squat are depicted equipped with the homemade armour and weapons they fabricated in order to defend themselves from eviction. Wearing motorcycle crash helmets and carrying dustbin lid shields, these images look like something from a post-apocalyptic future, but in fact depict a dystopian global reality of highly precarious living conditions.

Images from the series A Tropa de Elite, 2014, Trema Collective

Images from the series A Tropa de Elite, 2014, Trema Collective

Gentrification is of course not freestanding, but driven by other, deeper factors. In some countries, one such driver is the far larger issue of urbanisation, the mass movement of people to cities as a result of economic pressures, which in turn shifts and reshapes the demographics of the city. China has experienced these processes on a massive scale in recent decades, making them an unsurprising talking point for the country’s photographers. Zhu Lan Qing’s A Journey In Reverse Direction focuses on the photographer’s home, the island of Dongshan in the southern Fujian province. Urbanisation has wiped away the place that shaped Zhu as a child, leading her to create a photographic guidebook of sorts as a way to retain her memories of the island.

Untitled, from the series A Journey in Reverse Direction, 2014, Zhu Lan Qing

Another factor that becomes mixed in with gentrification in many cities is a form of aggressive property redevelopment driven not by natural demand for housing, but by multinational corporate interests and by local officials keen to “socially cleanse” the areas over which they preside. Interestingly, photography is at so many steps woven into that very process; a complicity which is ripe for artistic subversion.

Felicity Hammond scours urban landscapes before and after their redevelopment, often rendering the results as cyanotype prints. Her work is sculptural as well as flat, with Hammond reworking the promotional material of property developers, printing them as acrylic sheets which are then manipulated into drooping, oozing forms – like a Salvador Dali dreamscape merged with a developer’s advertising. With similar concerns, Max Colson employs technologies at the very limits of what might be considered photography, recently using LIDAR scanners, a laser-based surveying technology used by architects and engineers to document sites prior to redevelopment.

Fragment 08, 2018, Felicity Hammond

Stills from London Knowledge, 2018 - present, Max Colson

Lastly, photography can point towards the contradictions that underlie these pernicious forms of urban change. In my own series, Metropole, I employ complex multiple exposures to document London’s burgeoning luxury developments. This technique is partly designed to subvert the outward appearance of these buildings, which are meant to be looked at and photographed. But more than that, my photographs seek to remind viewers that the foundations of these towers are not the concrete piles driven deep underground. In reality, they rest on shifting sands of highly opaque ownership and complex networks of off-shore shell companies, often at the very fringes of legality. Metropole, I hope, is a reminder that however local gentrification can feel, it is frequently global in both cause and consequence.

Walworth, from the series Metropole, 2015 - 2018, Lewis Bush

Off Plan, from the series Metropole, 2015 - 2018, Lewis Bush

What is photography? To say it is all things to all people is to attempt an all too easy escape from a difficult question. Perhaps what photography really represents is a set of contradictions, and that might be what actually makes it so interesting. Evidently, photography’s technical simplicity, its temporal uneasiness and its relative muteness make it prone to appropriation of both good and bad sorts. Just as it can pave the way, or at times actively promote the worst excesses of the neoliberal city, it can also – in the right hands – become a witness, an advocate and a provocateur against them.

The above is an abridged version of Lewis Bush’s Capital Culture from Unseen Magazine Issue 6. For the story in full, order your copy at

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