JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1981 and 2001, in a mix of vintage and modern prints. The prints are each roughly 15×22 inches in size (on 20×24 inches paper), and are available in editions of 5, 12, 15, or 25. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2006 by Chris Boot Ltd. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: For much of the first half of the 20th century, the widespread transformations of industrialization were a rich subject for photographers from around the world. Almost regardless of a photographer’s particular home country, the pictures that were made began with muscular and romantic views of powerful factories and the optimistic promise of new infrastructure, and were incrementally followed by more nuanced studies of how industrialization was changing the rhythms of life both in big cities and in previously rural or agricultural districts.
In many countries, especially in Europe and North America, that churning industrialization cycle has now come full circle, and over the past few decades, photographers have begun pointing their cameras at the realities of the post-industrial world, trying to make sense of the remnants of factories, rail yards, and warehouses that now lie largely shuttered and empty. For many, the temptation has been to steep themselves in these wastelands and ruins, finding moments of unlikely beauty in that pervasive decay. But that aesthetic path has quickly become a cliche, turning actual hardship and decline into surface decoration.
The British photographer John Davies has approached the post-industrial changes afoot in the United Kingdom with a broader and more subtle documentary perspective. He has stepped back from the up close (and perhaps now obvious) details of aging industrialization and instead considered the slow and often expansive evolution of the British landscape. Taken in the 1980s and 1990s, his rich black and white photographs look down on verdant valleys, sweeping vistas, and sprawling low-rise cities, making conscious note of the historical layering now visible. In picture after picture from across the nation, he finds the understated roots of the anciently natural and very old intermingled with the harder edges of the once new but now declining (or even entirely gone), and these complex juxtapositions are what give his images their depth and resonance.
The easiest of Davies’ images are straight comparisons, like the paired train and automobile bridges in Cheshire (in conveniently contrasting dark brick and light iron tones) or the low stone and towering steel and glass buildings of Newcastle-upon-Tyne placed right next to each other amid the modern hustle of the city. But more compelling are his slightly elevated views of larger sweeps of country, where the once sharp industrial forms have settled a bit, nestling into the undulations of the land with a bit less sore thumb ugliness than they once had. That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of nuclear power stations, factory smokestacks, railway bridges, and other blocky architectural forms that interrupt the gentle sight lines in these pictures. But Davies seems to have accepted them as the equivalent of Roman ruins in a 19th century landscape, almost like small insertions that can enliven a composition.
Many of his photographs use humble row houses as a primary visual feature that wrestles with the typical village surroundings of hills and valleys. From there, the slashing arcs of railroad tracks further scar the landscape, with active trains still curving through a few towns, but more often, the rusted, unused, or overgrown tracks are seen melting back into the land. Davies also repeatedly finds the unexpected – the back and forth between the dark weathered headstones in a cemetery and the more modern smokestacks in the distance, or the balance between a neat arrangement of trailers placed inside the rough untamed cliffs of the surrounding hills.
The scale of Davies’ prints ends up being an important factor in their success. The images are larger than we might expect (printed on 20×24 paper), so the complex sweep of the landscapes is filled with a significant amount of engrossing detail. Reddish Vale, Stockport from 1988 seems to have everything – a gentle bend in the river, a wide expanse of recaptured greenway, a construction crane and roadway bridge in the distance, and a playful genre scene in the foreground with two girls, their abandoned bicycles, and a majestically aging tree. It updates the aesthetics of late 19th century landscape painting, finding weary reclamation instead of grandeur in the modern greyscale setting.
While Davies’ work hasn’t been seen in the United States much (this is his first solo show in America, in conjunction with a new representation arrangement with the gallery), the consistency of the complexity found in his compositions and the overall quality of his prints ought to find friends and admirers here. His use of broad scale sits well within the wider movement toward landscape bigness that took place at the end of the century (and continues today), and his understated, patient approach to documenting the nuances of the post-industrial world has allowed overlooked facets of the story to present themselves. In the end, Davies presents no overly easy conclusions, save that while industrialization may have both come and gone, its effects linger in the topography of the land and the organizing structures of our communities far longer than we might have ever predicted.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $2000, $3000, $5500, or $6750. Davies’ work has a limited secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.