“The conservative government was in power with reports of David Cameron and his infidelities with swine breaking the news Murdoch-owned dailies”
Estate by Robert Clayton was published in 2015 and I am in no way trying to declare any different, but 2015 was a very different year for Britain. It was the year before Brexit would be announced by din of its almost unbelievably narrow margin. The conservative government was in power with reports of David Cameron and his infidelities with swine breaking the Murdoch-owned dailies. I lived there at the moment. It was the last glorious year of my occupancy there and I still lament leaving its green and sometime pleasant land. But, some things have changed, politics have remained largely the same and the volume of acrimonious assault on Europe has retired little. It was my own England of yore and I do miss it. I have begun to play prey to nostalgia as I look backwards on such a fortunate time of my life, all pig-fucking prime ministers aside.
In escaping the changing winds of England, I have been drawn to its canvas from afar. Some of my closest friends are British-isn’t that what we say in Europe when trying to hide our disappointment in ourselves and our follies of flight away from a very British problem? England is in transition. It is finding its voice through the self-order app at Wetherspoons and its realisation that Kronenberg 1664 is an import. Red Stripe is however safe from price increases as is Strongbow to my knowledge. Rest in benevolent slumber scions of true beverage beatitude.
In looking backwards through the prism of a Britain that I believed that I understood, I am confronted with my task of seeing its charm and worry through the lens of photography, both historic and contemporary. I have been trying to understand the post-war face of England through its photography. I have been concentrating on image-makers coming out of the 1970’s roughly through the 1990s and there is a bevy of them who in my estimation, like the great Graham Smith, are owed a considerate amount of attention. There are the knowns and the lesser knowns who were both making incredible work during these decades. Rob Bremner is one and Robert Clayton is another, though there are more and I would be exaggerating if I did not mention that they did not err on the side of the documentary tradition which is, photographically speaking, one of England’s greatest exports within the arts.
Robert Clayton’s Estate is a book of magic. It is a thorough investigation of the Oldbury Estate of 1991, just two years before some of it it would be razed in the Midlands. Its name is derived from the Sandwell Priory. In popular culture, one may also reference it through the birth of the British Murder Boys and later Sandwell District, British pioneers of dark and minimal techno that has its electronic foundation based in the mythology of working class Mid-England with its debt to rave and Heavy Metal alike. The conjuring of Robert’s book is based less on its popular myth than its actual reference to the Lion Farm Estate that he photographed. Clayton cautiously photographed the inhabitants of the Estate inside their own flats by leaving a request in their letterboxes asking permission. The results of the portraits are humane and polite. They are a record of the domesticity of the time, but they are not my primary source fo interest within this book.
The estate that Robert photographed between 1990-1991 no longer exists in the same manner. A number of the towers were torn down and the land in which they stood was turned over to developers. The money from the re-development of the area was paid to the council with a proviso that they could not erect new council flats within a large portion of the area effectively gerrymandering the development and segregating the poor to the outer climes of the area where they could continue to be marginalized. The images that Robert made of both the estate itself and its inhabitants were swept up in a call to economic progress. If you look at the estate today, it looks something closer to blocks of re-vamped student housing, the brick and dull throbbing ache of those post-Thatcher years have been erased or covered in shrewd capitalist modesty. Playgrounds are less about concrete and skinned knees than they are about swings and rubbish bins for young mothers to deposit their lattes into.
“Rob’s choice of color is from the palette of humanity. In the work, we are not left with gloom and rust, but rather an exorbitant use of sun and color which helps to dispel what could otherwise be construed as mis-stepping towards poverty porn”
Through Estate, Robert has made an alarmingly brilliant study of British Council architecture from the roof to the courtyard of the buildings that he has photographed; their interiors and the estate itself from his overlook perch on the hill in the distance are photographed with sensitivity. The church, the offie and the shops underneath the estate all sing out in radiant and colorful glory. Rob’s choice of color is from the palette of humanity. In the work, we are not left with gloom and rust, but rather an exorbitant use of sun and color which helps to dispel what could otherwise be construed as mis-stepping towards poverty porn.
Robert dutifully manages to capture an atmosphere and geography of England locked in a duel in which the economic role of the stereotypical council estate image is spruced up by sun and a wider examination of place which does not simply focus on rubble, piss-stained corners or the pitiable excuses of photographing people by motivation of plunder. It is a brilliant book and the essays by Jonathan Meades is exemplary in its reach, warmth and pursuit of historic detail.
I highly recommend this book. It is a few years old, but there is something worth investigating in Clayton’s work that can help us understand the past, but also the moment now with its severe complications and changes to our access to England’s green and pleasant land from abroad. It is a gentle reminder that England, like America and most imperial countries before or after their glory should be examined through the lens of their great masses and not the architecture of their pig-fucking governments.
I applaud Robert and this book. I feel like it, along with Rob Bremner’s book, are two of the missing links to a generation who were about to see the best years of their country in many decades shine through the cockroach-minded smile of a Blairite regime and the burst of the un-dammable brilliance of 90’s British culture when they were engaged with making their work. If you are at all interested in the documentary tradition, architecture, or humble and driving photographic work, look no further afield than Estate.