People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


Assignment 5: Disappearing Britain


The full (fictional) brief is written up here but in summary, the main points are as follows:

Provide 8-10 images (4-5 will be selected) that meet the following criteria:

  • Common 10-20 years ago, rare now
  • Particular (though not necessarily unique) to Britain
  • Reason for obsolescence is one of following factors:
    • Technological progress (engineering, IT etc)
    • Economic progress (capitalism, globalisation, infrastructural etc)
    • Social progress (behavioural norms, demographic shifts etc)
  • A combination of subject types, such as (not limited to):
    • Public objects
    • Private objects
    • Professions

Produce images that are creative and visually engaging in composition and style – otherwise we could just go to a stock library! The article is as much about the images as the words.


UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENTtutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and contact sheets are available as a downloadable zip file.

My intention with the set of images is twofold:

  • Cataloguing: to record these objects now for future viewers, as artefacts of British life in the 20th century
    • These subjects were chosen against the brief of ‘disappearing’ (or become obsolete, or extinct) and I see this series as a form of ‘virtual museum’ of impending British obsolescence. I thought of it as capturing them before they disappear – “last chance to see”
  • Remembering: to trigger memories in contemporary viewers of objects from our shared British past
    • My secondary objective is that any viewer of my generation (born in the 1970s or 1980s, raised in Britain) will not only recognise but have some association with these subjects. I’m aiming to conjure up a sense of Britishness (à la Assignment 4), but a sense of Britishness associated with a collective past, rather than a contemporary depiction

I examined the different views on these objects that could be taken by contemporary and future viewers in a research and reflection blog post. First, a gallery view showing all the images as a set.

Now follows a brief analysis per image:

1. Sweet Shop

Dedicated sweet shops stocked with shelves of jars are becoming a thing of the past, superseded by newsagents, convenience stores and supermarkets. Whilst I found local examples of deliberately retro sweet shops that have opened up to ride the wave of nostalgia, here I found an original example of the genre, still quietly plying its trade of “a quarter of…” to the local school children (but only five in the shop at any one time…!)

Sweet Shop

Sweet Shop

2. Charity Box

I may be going out on a limb here in terms of whether this is an object that many people would associate with a bygone era, but for me it holds strong connotations of 1970s/1980s Britain, as such collection boxes were certainly common in the north-west of England. I had this specific guide dog design in mind and looked for several weeks until I saw one in a farm shop yard. Getting the juxtaposition with the passing dog was a bonus.

Charity Box

Charity Box

3. Phone Box

This was the iconic British image that triggered the idea. I must have taken more photos of phone boxes than everything else put together (they are more common than I thought, which maybe undermines the conceit). However, until I found this abandoned one I didn’t have an image that actually had any context or inherent narrative. I liked the fact that this had found a new use as a kind of community notice board… so from one type of ‘communication point’ to another, albeit even more primitive! An even better juxtaposition might have been to catch someone using their mobile phone in the vicinity but unfortunately in the time I had, I wasn’t that lucky.

Phone Box

Phone Box

4. Phone

In the construct of the fictional magazine brief, I’d suggest that either the phone box or the phone should be selected for the final article, but not both. In this shot I wanted to depict a first-person viewpoint, inviting the viewer to imagine (and indeed remember) using such a device. I was pleased to find a brown example, as in my mind brown is the colour I associate with the 1970s.



5. Milk Float

The milk float was a peculiarly British invention: the practice of having milk delivered was more common in Britain than anywhere else, and the specific battery-operated vehicle designed for the purpose was unique to us; in 1967 Britain apparently had more electric vehicles than the rest of the world put together. Ironically, electric vehicles are now seen as a symbol of innovation and the future, so Britain was ahead of its time (albeit limited to 16mph…). Along the lines of the phone box shot, here I wished to depict the milk float in a state of disuse; abandoned and unloved in a yard on an industrial estate. This is intended to evoke a connection with the independent dairy industry being made obsolete by the supermarkets.

Milk Float

Milk Float

6. Milk Bottle

As with the phone / phone box, I’d suggest that either this or the milk float be used as a subject in the magazine article, but not both. Like many of these items, the milk bottle is an iconic design its own right, and one that is increasingly rare. In this image I wanted the bottle to be a secondary focal point after the viewer has taken in the general scene of the door. The state of disrepair of the door holds some kind of analogy of neglect that it shares with the milk bottle design; they both belong to another age.

Milk Bottle

Milk Bottle

7. Mini

Another personal connection, as my first car was a Mini. The original Mini was recently voted the greatest British car design ever, and its BMW replacement is a pale (oversized) imitation of the design classic. Here I wanted to get over two things: firstly, the diminutive scale of the thing (striking in real life but not sure how well it translates here), and secondly, the care the owner takes of it, like he’s preserving a little piece of British history.



8. Pint Pot

There was a time when every pint of beer in Britain was served in such a sturdy container, but I guess for reasons of cost (or maybe health and safety) they had to die out. I was pleased to find one that had branding from an old London establishment, even though I spotted this in Yorkshire. Maybe they are in such short supply that people seek them out.

Pint Pot

Pint Pot

9. Cobbles

Cobbles were commonplace in my (northern England) childhood, on every back alley and a surprising number of residential streets. Now they are anachronistic, usually only seen on Coronation Street on television. At the seaside I spotted a stretch of cobbles that curved nicely to form a pleasing compostion. Of the many options I had on this shot, I chose the one with the old man at the peak of the shape, so that your eye is drawn to him. It seems to me to be analogous to looking back to the past.



10. Flat Cap

The wearing of flat caps by men is something that I’ve seen die out in my lifetime. This is subtly different to the practice of hat-wearing in Britain generally, which has been in decline since the 1950s; the flat cap specifically has northern English and/or working class connotations, and was a common sight even on working men in their twenties in my youth. I was delighted to see this chap wearing his very proudly in my home town.

Flat Cap

Flat Cap


This assignment pushed me out of my comfort zone far more than any of the others. I deliberated (both before and after making the decision on the brief) as to whether to make the final assignment a continuation of my style/preference (put simply, candid portraiture) or a departure. I chose to make it a departure and wrestled with this decision throughout. During the assignment I went from being unhappy with my work, to being uncertain, to eventually being sufficiently content. I’m still not wholly sure to be honest – I see this end result as somewhere between a flawed success and a noble failure! Specifically, I struggled somewhat with making the images match my visualisations. I had what I thought were good subject ideas but in the limited time available to do the assignment I did have issues aligning the following:

  • finding the subjects themselves
  • finding them in locations where I could revisit at the time of my choosing
  • finding them in the right weather and lighting conditions
  • being able to get the distinctive compositions I wanted – specifically, to incorporate the subjects in a wider setting that helped get over the message I was aiming for (juxtaposition with other elements, objects in use by people etc)

This is not to say that the concept itself was fundamentally flawed, rather that I overestimated my ability to find and capture the subjects I wanted in the eight weeks or so I gave myself for the assignment. For example, I wanted originally to include disappearing professions (e.g. coal man, rag and bone man etc) but did not find such subjects in the time available. I may actually continue on the project beyond the assignment deadline, as I feel it may work better if I allow myself the time to find the most interesting subjects and settings.

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Technically I’m happy with the quality of the images; one (Milk Bottle) I took with a ‘non-serious’ (small sensor) camera with the intention of returning with better equipment, but every time I’ve been back there’s been no milk bottle, so I ended up using what was meant to be a test shot; looking closely you can tell the quality difference
    • From a stylistic point of view, I chose early on not to use black and white, sepia or any other vintage effect, as I am depicting these subjects in the contemporary age, at this (late) point in their lifespans. I wanted to depict the subjects strongly and clearly, in good light wherever possible – to make them look as ‘real’ as possible
    • Shooting over a long period of time, in different conditions, with different types of subject, I feared that the set might not hang together as a coherent whole; I’ve arrived at the conclusion that whilst the set is eclectic, the commonality in the underlying story of the subject matter dying out is (just about) enough to hold the set together conceptually
    • I used a range of shooting angles and focal lengths in order to inject some visual variety; where possible I tried to incorporate other elements in the frame to provide context, or a juxtaposition/counterpoint
    • As I find myself doing increasingly these days, I tried to pay attention to the geometry of my pictures – leading lines, shapes, giving the eye a path around the image etc
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • As noted in the summary text above, I’m less satisfied with the quality of the outcome of this assignment than previous ones
    • Some individual images I am very happy with, others I know in my heart of hearts don’t represent my best work, but I took the pragmatic decision to complete the assignment rather than agonise for weeks or months
    • My indecision and lack of confidence in the work in progress possibly tainted my view on the work, and maybe I’ll never be totally happy with it so should just move on!
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • This is an area where I believe I set myself something of a challenge from the start (some of my rejected Assignment 5 ideas were much more ‘conceptual’ in nature, but I ended up backing away from these ideas)
    • Given the everyday nature of the subjects, I tried to be creative in execution: choice of composition etc – but am not wholly convinced that this is really the case
  • Context:
    • A few books that I’ve owned for a while were revisited as part of my subject matter research: ‘Portrait Of An Era: An Illustrated History of Britain’ [1], ‘Britain’s First Photo Album’ [2] and ‘Retronaut’ [3]
    • I’ve also been a frequent visitor to the local flea market, antique shops and charity shops
    • While I was out shooting, I listened to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes From A Small Island’ [4] as this is kind of a love letter to a changing Britain as seen through the eyes of an outsider; it gave me a few subject ideas
    • In terms of photographic inspiration, there are four particular photographers that keep coming back to mind: Saul Leiter, Robin Maddock, Robert Frank and Martin Parr; I covered this in more detail in this prep post
    • As a side note, I’m finding that I can be inspired by photographers without wishing to emulate their style; increasingly it’s an understanding of what they were trying to achieve rather than specifically how they did it
    • In terms of the conceptual side of the assignment, as noted in the introduction, I undertook this brief with two parallel viewing timelines in mind:
      • Future viewers seeing these images as ‘catalogued specimens’ of lost British icons
      • Contemporary viewers seeing these images as ‘memory triggers’ from a generation’s shared past
    • I wrote about my research into this area in more detail in a separate blog post, touching on some of the theories and observations of Sontag [8], Barthes [9] and Clarke [10], along with the contemporary project Useful Photography [11]
    • The compendium Street Photography Now [12] and specifically the essay ‘No Ideas But In Things’ was useful as background; the essay is about the use of ‘found still life’ in street photography, which has parallels with this work
    • Last but not least, I researched how to do research (!) with the help of the Anna Fox / Natasha Caruana book Behind the Image [13]; this gave me some precedents and frameworks in which to carry out my subject research

To summarise: This has been the most challenging assignment on People & Place by far, possibly because of the choice of subject I gave myself. However, in a way it’s been the most fulfilling journey, as I made a decision to get out of my comfort zone, experienced the discomfort and came out the other side! Also, the more ‘conceptual’ side of the assignment – the examination of photography as cataloguing, as a proxy for memory, along a continuum of viewing on a timeline – I found to be genuinely fascinating to research and reflect upon.

  1. Gardiner, J. et al (2011) Portrait of an era: an illustrated history of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest
  2. Sackett, T. (2012) Britain’s first photo album. London: BBC Books
  3. Wild, C. (2014) Retronaut. Washington: National Geographic
  4. Bryson, B. (1996) Notes from a small island. London: Corgi
  5. Maddock, R. (2014) III. London: Trolley Books
  6. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans: special edition. Gottingen: Steidl
  7. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  8. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  9. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
  10. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  11. (accessed 19/12/2014)
  12. Howard S. & McClaren S. (2010) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  13. Fox, A. & Caruana, N. (2012) Behind the image. Lausanne: AVA


Assignment 5 research: cataloguing, memory, past, present, future

The subject I chose for Assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain” and is in part an exploration of photography as a tool for cataloguing, and as a proxy (or aide) for memory. My intention is to record some specific objects that are at risk of becoming obsolete by the march of progress. The whole exercise made me think about who I was making the images for: contemporary viewers, future viewers, or both?

I revisited some of the core theoretical texts – Sontag [1], Barthes [2], Benjamin [3] and Berger [4] – for their analysis of the nature of memory in relation to photography, but by and large they look at it from the other end of the telescope – photographs from the past being viewed in the present, and the associations with memory, e.g. from Sontag:

“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.”

Barthes’ Camera Lucida in particular discusses the essential ‘past-ness’ of photographs and the melancholy that can accompany this:

“Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”

Capturing now, for future viewers

What I was interested in doing was kind of the other way around; photographing things in order to remember them later. It’s a form of cataloging these items, quite deliberately, before they are gone. I kept coming back to the premise that what I’m trying to do here is capture things before they become extinct. I can think of a number of projects that did this successfully for people-centric subjects (communities, tribes, enthusiasts, war veterans etc) and for places (towns and villages, city neighbourhoods), but not many for objects.

One of the contemporary bodies of work that I was pointed towards by my tutor was Julian Germain’s “Useful Photography” project [5], which catalogues specific categories of contemporary objects for future viewing. The description of the work is as follows:

“Useful Photography is a magazine which gives a platform to imagery that is part of our everyday lives but which is rarely studied or appreciated; for example pictures from catalogues, instruction manuals, text books, medical and scientific journals, packaging, CCTV, etc. Images that have been made for a practical purpose, whose makers remain completely anonymous.”

However, this is different again from my intent with this series; those images are collected and curated after the event, not taken for the specific purpose of cataloguing.

I went back to some reading I did last year in the early years of photography, specifically the ‘Photography and the Nineteenth Century” chapter in Clarke’s The Photograph [6], when one of the trends was for photography as cataloguing. Practitioners of what Clarke calls ‘mechanical photography’ would methodically record images of objects:

“The drive to collect and classify the world of objects and structures […] is reflected in such images as Daguerre’s famous Shells and Fossils of 1839, suggestive of an entire tradition and placing photographs in the context of this larger process of classification. It reflects both the developing museum culture, and the way in which the photograph was seen as an analogue of the real”

One interpretation of this is that it was the novelty of the medium that spurred this type of work, rather than the objective being the recording of the items themselves. Giving them the historical benefit of the doubt – that they were recording objects for posterity not novelty – I can see that this may be closest precedent to what I’m trying to achieve with my project.

Such ‘classification’ at the heart of photography is no longer an identifiable trend. Now that photography is not novel but ubiquitous, for what reason might one deliberately record an image of, say, a phone box? Aren’t there enough accidental (or incidental) images of such objects already in existence?

What I think is distinctive (and I’m not claiming “unique”) about this set of images is that I chose to photograph the specific objects; they are not incidental, they are the main attraction. Their impending obsolescence (and accompanying rarity) is reason enough to want to stop and capture them. I am curating – in advance – what I believe will be of interest to future generations.

Triggering memories of the past in contemporary viewers

Though this ‘future retrospection’ is my intention, I can see that there is simultaneously the nostalgic pull that reflects the theories of photography and memory outlined by Sontag, Barthes et al. Put simply, though my intention is to capture objects in 2014 for future viewers to see facsimiles of things that they can no longer see in real life, at the same time the reaction of seeing these images in 2014 will be, to some viewers, to take them back to a past time. So even though I may show a photo of a milk bottle in 2014, the image is – to the viewer of a certain generation – an incitement to reverie, an invitation to reminisce about the 1970s or 1980s. It is, in this sense, both contemporary record and ‘fake nostalgia’.

  • Viewers looking at these images now will experience memories of the past
  • Viewers in the future will be experiencing “now” as a (different) past, one which they may or may not remember

I found the whole thought process and research around this area fascinating. Considering the ‘lifespan’ of a photograph – how it can encapsulate both past and present, and how it may be viewed in the future looking back on both ‘pasts’ – was something that slightly made my brain hurt, but in a good way!

Forgive me the pretentious interlude, but a line from a 2014 Damon Albarn song “Photographs” [7] kept coming back to me:

“When the photographs you’re taking now / Are taken down again”.

To me this implies a potentially huge span of time: you take a photo now; you print and hang it; at some indeterminate point in the future you take the photo down, as it no longer holds enough meaning for you to keep it on display.

When you press the shutter, how far ahead are you thinking?

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  2. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
  3. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. (accessed 19/12/2014)
  6. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  7. Albarn, D. (2014) Photographs (you’re taking now). London: Chrysalis Music