Hot on the cultural heels of the Association of Photographers’ online group exhibition, ‘British Spirit’ comes a solo show from acclaimed contemporary photographer, James Bell. The exhibition, which runs from 13th September until 10th October 2012, showcases Bell’s imaginative, sweeping panoramic shots of London’s skyline, taken as part of his on-going ‘Super Wide City’ project.
Bell used to spend time on rooftops in the City, photographing business executives as part of his day job. Inspired by the views of London he had the privilege to see from his lofty position, he began ‘Super Wide City’ in 2007. Beautiful Crime managed to grab half an hour with him to find out more on the photographer’s take on London.
So how did this exhibition come about?
The Association of Photographers emailed and asked for submissions, so I submitted my project. It’s documenting history so it’s not finished, it’s an on-going work – but it’s getting harder to access rooftops now because people think you’re a terrorist…!
You say that you’re interested in the surreal in your work – anything surreal in Super Wide City?
Well, you’ll see I’m also interested in ‘the epic and the everyday’ – this project is more about that. But I’ve tried to keep it artistic, with the times of day and the lighting. It isn’t too surreal, but there’s a different dynamic because it’s ‘Super Wide’ rather than ‘Super High’. You see photographs of skyscrapers in Manhattan, for example, and they’re very tall… to me, London is wide.
I suppose there is a sort of surreal element as well because there’s so much architecture in London that just looks kind of… wrong.
Like St Paul’s against a backdrop of all that glass?
Exactly. (Primrose Hill #3 demonstrates this juxtaposition perfectly.)
And I noticed the Tower of London peeking into shot in City Hall #2 (2008) – an unchanging constant, I suppose, while the City grows up around it.
Yes, that is interesting. The history of the City is fascinating and it’s changed so much. When I started this project I was assisted by the (now-defunct) London Development Agency, and through their contacts I was able to take photographs from the top of the Barclays building in Canary Wharf. When I was up there I looked over at Stratford – nothing had been built for the Olympics/Paralympics and it was just flat as a pancake so I didn’t take any photos. I wish I had though, because if you hold those up against what it looks like now…
And it keeps changing – the Gherkin was there when I started the project, yes, but now it’s been superseded by The Shard. There’s going to be a viewing platform at The Shard, so I’m going to go up and take some photographs.
Are you a Londoner? That presumably would affect how you see the city.
I am, I’ve lived in south west London all my life. When I was growing up I’d look at the city from the suburbs, across Richmond Park to this amazing wide expanse, and then I ended up working there, so this project is a personal journey for me. The knockout shots for me are the ones of Central London, but for other people who see it… their own relationships with London come into play and determine which photos are their favourites.
What do you think makes this project stand out from other photography projects about London?
I was asked to do a recce of a 17th Century illustration and it was really difficult to find the view because there was such a false perspective on the drawing – you know how the perspective is flat in those drawings and everything looks like it’s close to you and in a line? To capture that idea in some of my photographs I used a telephoto lens that compressed the perspective and brought all the buildings into line. Most people will use a wide-angle lens for cityscape shots, so you get loads of sky and land and just a strip of buildings in the middle. That’s another artistic element that keeps ‘Super Wide City’ creative.
You can track the progress of James Bell’s ‘Super Wide City’ which is available to view online from the 13th September 2012
‘Super Wide City’ runs 13th September until 10th October 2012
Association of Photographers Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS
Opening times: please contact the gallery
by Jennie Gillions