With a remit that covers battlefields and beaches, as well as parks, gardens and historic buildings, Historic England is a public body charged with protecting England’s historic environment. The Historic England Archive acts as a national archive for records of historic places, buildings, archeology and social history, and consists of over twelve million photographs, drawings, reports and publications from the 1850s to the present day.
In a unique undertaking, Historic England has recently added 200 new images to the Archive in the form of the Picturing Lockdown Collection. Intended to provide a record of experiences of lockdown in England, captured during the COVID-19 pandemic, the collection contains contributions from Historic England’s own photographers, as well as ten specially commissioned artists. In addition, for the first time since the Second World War, members of the public were asked to make their own submissions. In a seven day call-out from 29th April to 5th May, 2020, nearly 3000 responses were received, with 100 public submissions being chosen to enter the Archive.
To understand more about the creation of the collection, The Net Gallery spoke to Ellen Harrison, Head of Public Programming at Historic England, as well as two London-based artists, Polly Braden and Roy Mehta, who were commissioned to take part.
The Net Gallery: How and when did the idea for Picturing Lockdown first develop? And, given this is the first time you have invited the public to contribute to the Archive since the Second World War, what was the reasoning behind launching a public call-out?
Ellen Harrison: The idea came about not long after lockdown was announced. As a public organisation, we knew we wanted to help people to pause, reflect on and express their experiences of lockdown. We also, in a small way, wanted to support a number of artists at this time and ended up commissioning ten across England.
We also wanted people to help shape what we, as an organisation with an Archive, remember about this time. We knew we had to ask people to show us what was happening on their doorstep, so we could build a national picture and that’s why we asked the public to work on this with us.
TNG: What was the selection process for deciding which submissions from the public would go into the archive, and was it difficult to select 100 images from a total of nearly 3000?
EH: It was very hard to select 100 from 3000! It was made slightly easier in that we wanted to have equal representation across all of England so split the country into ten for that purpose. After that it was a case of looking for the most inspirational, informative and evocative examples in each shortlist. We then had to make sure that we weren’t sugar coating what we’d received. We needed to show that for every rainbow or clap for carers image, there was real hardship and isolation as well.
TNG: How were the ten professional artists selected, and how would you say their contribution differs from what the public have provided?
EH: We wanted to make sure that the artists represented England as it is today, and give a platform to a variety of voices. So we decided that we would work with Black and Asian artists, working class artists, artists who talk about mental health in their work and disabled artists who were having to shield from the virus. It was important to us that we saw work from those artists that told a story around their own personal experiences with Covid-19. Their contributions differ in how they might convey that experience, so for example Aidan Moseby in the North East used everyday surroundings to express his own feelings of isolation with the fantastic “You are the only one here” image. While an artist like Coralie Datta, who represented Yorkshire, took to her local streets in Leeds and captured portraits of those in lockdown. I have to say, though, the public submissions were of a really high quality and it shows that photography is one of the most accessible ways to express creativity.
TNG: Around 50 images were provided by Historic England’s photographers. Can you give a sense of who these photographers are and the work that they normally do for Historic England? What types of images have they contributed to Picturing Lockdown, and what kind of access have they been able to have during lockdown?
EH: Our Historic England photographers mainly focus on architectural photography, so this project was an invitation for them to branch out from that and capture a moment in history. They followed the same brief as the artists we commissioned and so we had a really good insight into their own experiences of lockdown. They weren’t given special access to anywhere, this was about them showing everyday life with their families and in the communities they live in. There are some great results, from portraits of walkers in country lanes to life with a new baby.
Polly Braden is a documentary photographer who has produced five books – including one titled London’s Square Mile: A Secret City – with her work also shown in solo exhibitions, magazine features and national Newspapers. A previous winner of The Guardian Young Photographer of the Year, and the Jerwood Photography Prize, Braden has engaged with a broad range of subjects throughout her career, from producing photo-essays on location in places such as the Middle East, Morocco, Kenya and China, to focusing closely on people with learning difficulties and autism.
As Braden explains, the dramatic changes brought on in response to COVID-19 provided an opportunity to see Central London in a way that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible:
“At the beginning of lockdown, I started going into the City taking pictures. I’ve made a book in the City, so I know the Square Mile really well. Instead of going to the park to do some exercise, I cycled to the Square Mile, to Oxford Street and into China Town, and as far as the river. It was really amazing. I went out again recently and now there are people around, but during the early weeks of lockdown it was incredible. It was eery and quiet. There were no cars, no people, just the occasional security guard and street cleaners, so no litter. The thought of all those empty offices, shops and restaurants and the livelihoods being lost added to the surreal, sad tension. The only real noises were the sirens of ambulances and police cars.”
Having captured the deserted streets, Braden posted some of the images on Instagram, not long after which she was commissioned by Historic England to contribute to Picturing Lockdown. Going back to some of the locations she had already visited in her previous trips, as well as some new ones, the images Braden produced for the project show an empty, but clean London: one where people are absent, yet where a sense of structure and order still remains. “It was” Braden says, “like going onto a film set before the crew arrives. It was preened and washed, empty of the cast, exciting despite the fact there was a pandemic going on at the time.”
Braden has worked before in potentially dangerous locations like Gaza, but she acknowledges that the strangeness and emptiness of lockdown London made it “a little bit nerve wracking to go out” on her own. “You got so used to being in your house, you became so isolated so quickly” Braden adds, “so doing anything outside of your house, you felt quite nervous about.”
Describing the initiative as a whole as “a brilliant document of lockdown”, Braden says that the public contributions are a great addition, particularly given that “the only way we could have seen inside people’s houses was for them to do it themselves.” Each of the professional artists who contributed to Picturing Lockdown were asked to select one publicly submitted image to include in the Archive. Braden selected an image of a young woman, Mya Scott, looking out of her bedroom window in Dulwich. A self-portrait, Braden describes the image as “a really quiet and beautiful picture that captured the sense of isolation many people were feeling.”
Roy Mehta is a photographic artist whose work ranges from evocative, emotional and attention-grabbing portraits, to contemplative images of nature and semi-natural environments. Commissioned by Historic England as part of Picturing Lockdown, Mehta was invited to provide a professional, but also personal perspective from the north London suburbs where he lives.
The Net Gallery: How did you become involved with Picturing Lockdown, and did Historic England approach you from the outset with a request to cover something along the lines of the final photographs – i.e. with a brief to look at nature or natural spaces?
Roy Mehta: Like so many people in the creative industries, when the ‘Lockdown’ period began, everything stopped. Alongside my teaching practice at UCA (University for the Creative Arts, Rochester) I had been working toward an exhibition of my work from 1989 about the Jamaican and Irish communities in NW London, part of the Brent 2020 London Borough of Culture.
With my partner, Sarah, we began making some walks early each morning to give structure to our day and I began to make some images of the unfolding spring around us. We were fortunate in having some clear days offering beautiful light to make some new work.
The first sensation that struck me was that there was a disconnect between the silence of the ‘real’ world around me and the plethora of news on the radio, online and TV. I wanted to explore that disconnect. In order to do that, I begin placing the images that I had been making with the new government legislation covering the lockdown process. However, it seemed too formal and did not seem to work. For me, work that has some element of ambiguity in it and that is more open to interpretation is more compelling. So I began to think about passages of texts from books I had read that described the landscape and natural forms, and hinted in a more subtle way at the impact that we are having on the ‘natural’ world. I found myself looking for words that used descriptions of landscape to express what I was feeling.
I started sharing these combinations on my Instagram page and was delighted when Historic England contacted me and asked me to contribute to their ‘Picturing Lockdown’ project. They asked me to make five new images for their archive and after discussion were happy for me to continue on the process and themes that I had been exploring.
TNG: How did you go about selecting the locations to photograph – did you have a plan of specific spots and viewpoints to focus on, or was it more a case of what caught your eye at the time? And are the images all either from your own garden, or places close to your home?
RM: Most of the images in the main series that I made were close to where I lived. However, the requirements of the Historic England commission is that the images had to be made within what were the current Government guidelines, i.e. within 500m from your own home, during daily exercise, or when making essential journeys. We have an allotment close to where we live and some woods, so the images were made in those locations.
TNG: Light is clearly always important in photography. Certain places, particularly gardens and semi-natural spaces, have a different feel or mood at different times of day, at least as we perceive them. So that being alone in a garden at dusk feels very different to being there in the middle of the day. During lockdown, have you found these sorts of things to be accentuated?
RM: The early period of lockdown felt very surreal for me and many of the people that I spoke to. The early morning and late evening light of the spring reflected this feeling back to me. Those times of morning and twilight have traditionally been used by artists as metaphors for a period of change, so conceptually it fitted in with what I was trying to say with the work.
TNG: You’ve written about how lockdown has had the positive side-effect of offering a respite to nature, in terms of the decrease in our damaging output and behaviour. How optimistic are you that some of these more positive effects can continue as we more forwards, and perhaps make us re-assess our ’normal’ was of doing things?
RM: I would love to be able to give you a clear answer, but only time will tell. The only text that I drew on which mentioned the pandemic directly and which I chose towards the end of the current series was the piece by Arundhati Roy, ‘The pandemic is a portal’ available on this link. I find her writing hugely inspiring. In the last paragraph she talks about ’imagining another world’. We can hope.
Article by Richard Unwin.
Images courtesy of Historic England and the contributing photographers.
You can explore the Picturing Lockdown Collection here.
To learn more about the work of Polly Braden and Roy Mehta, visit their websites: www.polybraden.com & www.roymehta.com