This exercise, to produce a photo essay based around a journey, is related to Robert Frank’s epic road trip which resulted in his highly influential book The Americans. What is perhaps pertinent is that Frank being born in Switzerland allowed him to look at 1950s USA from a foreigner’s perspective. “As an outsider, he regarded cherished national institutions and pastimes with detached skepticism, while his sensitive eye transformed situations into metaphors for the factiousness and consumerism of American postwar society.” 
It is also relevant to note that Frank’s images were always meant to be seen as a group rather than individually.
With all this in mind, yesterday I visited Vauxhall for the first time in my life.
My research had thrown up some interesting information: the origins of its name (Faulke’s Hall); the fact that Vauxhall became the Russian word for a central railway station due to a misunderstanding; Bonnington Square (now incredibly gentrified) was a key part of the squat scene in the 70s and 80s; Vauxhall has a ‘gay village’ (often referred to as Voho) and there are lots of Portuguese people in the area.
In my planning, after working out my journey (boringly on the tube) I identified a few landmarks I felt I should see such Brunswick House, the Pleasure Gardens and The Tea House Theatre (a repurposed pub, immortalised in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). The reality, of course, when I arrived was that there were lots of hidden surprises which caught my eye. The weather was beautiful and the low winter sun created incredible textures and shadows which resulted in some of my final images being more abstract than they may have been in flatter light.
Brunswick House was only interesting in contrast to the giant new builds around it. There is a great deal of construction in the area and, as with much of London, it feels like a place on the verge of change. The railway arches used to house the underground club scene in the area – now largely replaced by Topps Tiles and The Bath Store. A delightfully seedy Chariot’s Spa endures. The large green space so near to the station and the City farm were a revelation and that combined with the genteel Tea House Theatre café left me with a sense of Vauxhall being a delightful place to spend an afternoon.
The key things I have included in my photo essay are the highlights from the things that interested me the most (the construction, the contrasts of the rural and the urban and of old and new build, the ethnic diversity, the gorgeous light, small textural and colour details).
Before we get too carried away, we should remember the wise words of author Caroline Kepnes: “A photo essay (otherwise known as a fucking slide show)…” I can see that it would be easy to get laborious and cliched with photo essays, in an attempt to show all aspects of the story. By the same token it is hard to be prescriptive in advance as one has no idea what to expect. Essentially my editing choices were to include the images I felt were most visually interesting and which caught something of the overriding sense of the place. On a micro level, if there is a story here for me, it is that Vauxhall was much more pleasant that I had expected so I tried to capture that in this set.
I need to practise this art more often as there seem to be specific storytelling techniques which can be brought in to play. About the photo essay grand master Walker Evans: “In 1927, after a year in Paris polishing his French and writing short stories and nonfiction essays, Evans returned to New York intent on becoming a writer. However, he also took up the camera and gradually redirected his aesthetic impulses to bring the strategies of literature—lyricism, irony, incisive description, and narrative structure into the medium of photography.” (2) As I saw last weekend Alec Soth is a contemporary grand master of the art of visual storytelling and I can certainly see the appeal for the image maker and spectator.
- Rosenblum, Naomi (2007) A World History of Photography (4th edition). New York: Abbeville Press