A Tale of Two Streets
'The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there' - J A Baker, The Perigrine (1967)
During 2018, Niall McDiarmid will be photographing the people of Far Gosford Street in Coventry, a area of diverse tastes and cultures. At the same time, a team of graduate photographers from Coventry University will immerse themselves in the much larger Foleshill Road, exploring private and public lives in private and public spaces. Books and exhibitions in 2019 will present their work.
What is it to understand a place? It's a difficult task. Return to a place you think you know well. Cloaked in the weather of the day, being in a place can be intensely physical as you negotiate the terrain and absorb what is going on. It can also spiritual as you connect your past to the present, searching for continuity and change. Look closer and you begin to unpick a story.
The Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, who spent her life walking the Cairn Gorms, explored those mountains as a friend to know, not as terrain to conquer. Her intimacy came from an awareness of how rock, plants, birds, light, wind, people, water (lochs, streams, rain, ice, snow, mist, fog) all combine and diverge, to create a shifting place of wonder, interest and excitement.
Shepherd did not seek to produce the definitive description: her stance was that we all have our own Cairn Gorms. She offers us an approach to thinking about places as a way of getting at that story. Shepherd suggests we look for an interplay between the intimate actors, including the elements, as well as creatures and plants, to see the angle that defines the poetic moment. With that in mind, we can make our own excursions and try to begin to see familiar places anew.
Revisiting a place is very important to this process. The Irish poet Pat Kavanagh has it that a man's life isn't long enough to describe a hole in a hedge. So much goes on in these small, mundane spaces. As with Nan Shepherd, Kavanagh asks us to struggle with philosophical ideas about identity and belonging and ownership of places. Both remind us of the necessity of art to distil the essence of that connection between the moment and our shifting spiritual, natural and humanist lives, and how the mundane, prosaic spaces we call home are connected to the great questions about why we are where we are.
Photography, though a different form of literacy from writing, offers a chance to capture that connection. Niall McDiarmid's street portraits do just that: we see people, their apparel, the effect on them of the rain or wind, but we also see the background, lines of brickwork, a window frame, street or shop signage. The connections we make between the sitter and their place begins to evolve into a story, and we can become familiar with the unknown.
Tale of Two Streets will see photographers renewing our understanding of two great streets in Coventry: the Foleshill Road and Far Gosford Street. Books and a touring exhibition are planned.
Below are images from the collections of the photographers involved.