"A city," says Geoffrey James, a Welsh Canadian, "is the ultimate collage. In order to see it you have to walk..." and for the last thirty years or so he has been walking around various cities, in Italy, the USA, France and Canada, taking photos of the contrasts and contradictions he observes.
Between the idea
And the reality [...]
Falls the shadow
Having been a journalist once, he's still a documenter, most recently taking pictures on the edge of Toronto which he sees as "fertile farmland" being turned into "sterile exurbia." Uncharacteristically he has dispensed with black and white film for this project; the vulgarity of these housing developments "seems to demand colour." Previously, he'd photographed the Bain Housing Co-op in a more central part of Toronto to show how that utopian bit of town planning (inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Welwyn Garden City and the like in England) had not lived up to the planner's expectations. (Nor has Welwyn Garden City, by the way. Nor has Philadelphia lived up to Penn's vision of a "greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome.")
In 1988, Geoffrey James became interested in the idealistic landscape architecture of F L Olmsted (1822-1903) who designed New York's Central Park and other such famous green spaces in Washington, Buffalo, etc. What fascinated the photographer, who really appreciated the point of the parks and spent the next seven years cataloguing sixty of them, was the inevitability of their modification. No matter how rigorous or robust the original plan (as the exhibition notes put it),
...most of what [Olmsted] has done has been profoundly altered by neglect, fashion, changing social needs, and the passage of time.
In the Boston park for example, intended as a meadow in which sheep should graze, latter day planners have incorporated exotic flower beds, a golf course, sports fields and a zoo.
Mr James' other projects have been to create panoramas of European formal gardens, to take pictures of the area around Lethbridge on the "desert-like" prairies, of asbestos mines (scars on the landscape in eastern Quebec), and of places that caught his eye in Paris. He loves to be in "places where things are rubbing together", the old and the new, the ugly and the beautiful. In Paris he homes in on geometric shapes, taking bridges and other edifices from unusual angles, making the most of lines of perspective, contrasting surfaces and shadows, reflections in puddles and the complexity of trees. There's a series of tree portraits in one of the galleries, interesting to the photographer because of their "infinite variety."
The most striking photographs, I thought, were the ones he took in San Diego and Tijuana of the U.S. border fence and its immediate surroundings. Made of corrugated metal strips left over from the Gulf War, he says:
What drew me to it was its great incongruity. It doesn't look as if it has been made by the world's only superpower, but rather by some Mexican body-shop guys ... so crazy and contradictory that I had to photograph it.