It was 1977, and Patrick Keiller realised he had spent a decade living in London. To mark the occasion, he decided to document the buildings that most caught his eye.
“They seemed to admit the possibility of a more inclusive transformation of everyday surroundings,” he writes in the introduction of his new book A View From the Train, “And I began to think they might be subjects for cinematography.“
In this attempt to understand through film how a city might “replace its built environment,” a remarkable career was born. Keiller, now 63, is one of Britain’s foremost documentary photographers, filmmakers and essayists, a man uniquely capable of communicating the relationship between architecture, photography and film as a way of understanding communal urban life in all its ceaseless complexity.
Born in 1950 in the seaside town of Blackpool and raised in Northumberland, Keiller arrived in London a few weeks after his seventeenth birthday to become an architecture student. He went on to work, variously, as an architect, photographer and filmmaker, artist, teacher, journalist and essayist. Perhaps most significantly, he became a dedicated flâneur – a wandering explorer and social observer.
“The present-day flâneur,” he writes, “carries a camera and travels not so much on foot as in a car or on a train. There are several reasons for this, mostly connected with the decline of public life and urbanism, but also because there is something about a photograph or a shot in a film that exactly corresponds to the frisson that Aragon identified. In his first published writing, he wrote: ‘Likewise on the screen objects that were a few moments ago sticks of furniture or books of cloakroom tickets are transformed to the point where they take on menacing or enigmatic meanings.’”[bjp_ad_slot]
Living near Parliament Hill in Hampstead, working between Clapham and Walthamstow, Keiller travelled the length and breadth of the city, discovering the architecture of the outer-zonal sprawl from the passing windows of commuter trains.
In this kinship between travel and buildings, he refers to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Surrealism’, identifying: “the revolutionary potential of ‘everything we have experienced on mournful railway journeys…on godforsaken Sunday afternoons’.” Keiller then realises: “I have produced, so far, a body of work that begins and ends with views from trains.”
Noting them down as he passed them by, he would later return on his bicycle, photographing his chosen locations with intimate care and detail on monochrome, 16mm celluloid. He still to this day uses a dark room to develop his photographs, and rarely feels satisfied by his images. As he writes in the essay The Flâneur: “There is the lonely life of the street photographer, who acts the flâneur in the hope of recording little glimpses of the marvellous with his camera. His is a difficult task, for poetic insights so rarely survive their capture on the emulsion.”
The locations chosen aren’t necessarily grand or highbrow. More important, it seems, is a humble sense of past significance – old cemeteries and overgrown allotments, closed markets and workplaces, abandoned factories and industrial machinery, dilapidated suburbs, estates in decay, unused bridges and dark tunnels. In an interview for this article, he talks of the history of supermarket car parks. But for all the careworn familiarity of his chosen locations, they are often arresting to behold. They compel Keiller, he writes, because of the significance they once held, and could hold again:
“I deliberately depict places that are nearly or altogether devoid of human presence and activity, but which because of this absence are suggestive of what could happen, or what might have happened. They are places in which events might take place, and the events are seen rather as possible contemporary myths.
“But the myths have a history – maybe they are history – and this history can be constructed as a narrative – a reconstruction of a past daydream or the construction of a new one – which links still images or provides a setting for a film.”
The essays found in this book were written to accompany and “populate” these films. Using London as a launch-pad for Britain as a whole, Keiller’s essays are about the newly urbanised country within which we live. He views the cityscapes we see in our everyday lives as a way of exploring how Britain functions, how it perceives itself, how it has changed. It proposes the radical idea that, if we try and understand the English landscape, we may better understand the origins of some of our most deep-seated socio-economic fractures. “Instead of building homes,” Keiller says, “we might try to better repurpose what already exists. That may help us avoid the same old economic mistakes.”
As Tate Britain curator Katharine Stout wrote at the Tate’s 2012 exhibition of Keiller’s art The Robinson Institute: “What lies at the heart of his work is the idea that economic and political aspects of the current global predicament can be seen written into the UK’s landscape.”
Keiller’s best-known films are London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010). He describes them as a “primitive homage to film noir,” in which the fictional and elusive character Robinson wanders the English landscape, recording his chance experiences and encounters on an old cine camera.
Over an image of the moving surface of the Thames, Keiller narrates in London: “Robinson believed that, if he looked at it hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.”
Keiller is beset by the idea old structures might reveal something about our present and also, perhaps, our future. In a Time Out article about the BFI’s 2007 exhibition The City of The Future, Keiller wrote: “The decade of early cinema (1895-1905) was one of rapid technological change, migration, imperialist adventures, and fears of catastrophe (shipwreck, earthquake, war). It was part of a period of globalisation that began around 1880 and culminated in the outbreak of the First World War. It suggests comparisons with our own time, visible and otherwise.”
Fittingly, A View From The Train ends close to where it all began, on a chance revisiting of the set of his first film. “On an overcast afternoon at the end of August 2008,” he writes, “I was cycling along Harrow Road, in north-west London, towards Harlesden.” The wall of Kensal Green Cemetery had collapsed and Keiller, peering in, realised he had serendipitously happened on the location of a film shot 25 years previously.
“I’d photographed the cemetery from a train in December 1980,” he says, “The picture is now on the dust-jacket of the book. I’d cycled back there a few days later to take more photographs, and I hadn’t cycled up Harrow Road, or seen the cemetery, ever again.”
In Imaging, the book’s final essay, he writes: “The view of the cemetery had seemed to me a curiously northern-looking landscape to find in outer London, and I had thought it might be a subject for a photograph, which it was; but it led me to another, more compelling spatial subject for both a photograph and, a few months later, a first film, so that this earlier bicycle journey had been, for me, a significant, perhaps even life-changing, event.”
The cemetery’s walls were 12 feet high – the graves inside had not been privy to public view since 1832, but now they were laid bare to all of Harrow Road. Two weeks after that day, Lehmann Brothers would collapse, triggering a global financial meltdown, government endorsed bail-outs and a long, slow struggle through recession.
As Keiller writes: “In 2008, cycling along Harrow Road, I did not encounter any explosion of the intense forces of atmosphere that are undoubtedly concealed there, but unexpected memories of earlier discoveries, at a time when it seemed possible that a dysfunctional economic orthodoxy was finally collapsing, suggested that such experiences still have some value.”
A View From the Train is available now, published by Verso.