Jonathan Meades, one of our great commentators on the built environment, once wrote: “We are surrounded by the greatest of all free shows. Places.”
This idea drives Nicholas Sack’s Lost In The City, a new photobook published by London’s independent publishers Hoxton Mini Press, the eighth instalment of the publisher’s ongoing East London Photo Stories.
“This is an ongoing, long term adventure for me really,” Sack says in a bar in the Square Mile, the heart of London’s financial industry, and the locale for his photography series.
“I’ve been walking around this area for 30 years taking pictures,” he says. “What attracts me to the Square Mile is this collision of architecture, the old and the new; 17th century Wren churches slap bang next to a modern tower of glass and steel. That’s the joy of London to me, it wasn’t planned in the way that Paris was.”
The work of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, two of the heavyweight architecture triumvirate in the building boom of the 1970s and 80s, can be spotted amongst these arrangements.
But Sack is more concerned with revealing the tension which comes from placing man and all his loping imperfections into the contrived topography of the City. He compares his toy figure workers to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. “If you capture people walking at a particular moment,” he says, “they can look rather absurd.”
Sack’s photography acts as a study of the daily rituals and minor dramas which occur in London’s ancient walled labyrinth; the motionless buildings mirrored in the inscrutable faces of the white-collar workers and ‘cigarazzi’ below.
“My theme is to photograph figures, always people, overwhelmed by these public spaces,” he says. “I’m as interested by the spaces between people as the people themselves, because the spaces speak of a sense of estrangement, alienation”.
Sack has been capturing the city since the 1980s, when he worked as a photographer for a construction journal in Canary Wharf. In that time, he has seen an almost total transformation, from the banana warehouse he was once familiar with, to the imposing glass trade jungle that stands there today.
Sack credits his fascination of metronomic order with playing the drums when he was younger. This interest in symmetry and its subversion is what catches his eye; the repetitive, keyboard designs of buildings fronts, sun dial shadows and the seemingly choreographed movement of people in mass motion.
“I think the sound of our time is those wheeled bits of luggage trampling pavements,” he says. “It’s the theme tune for 2015 and beyond. Everyone seems to be in transit, hauling stuff around.”
He chooses to shoot mostly at lunchtime, a small slice of time people are curiously unburdened, infusing the collective with an eerie sense of calm for such areas of intense capitalist energy.
Inspired by the iconic American photographer Henry Wessel, Sack seeks to give his photography a comparable sense of timelessness, not easy considering the homogenous branding of our streets, and the omnipresent traffic of inner London.
“We’re a literary, word-based culture,” he says. “We look for signs and words all the time. I’m looking more for shapes, surfaces, textures”.
This sense of collage allows Sack to enjoy the visual puns and playful geometry which the cityscape throws up; Tromp l’oeil fill the gaps between facades, or the linear excess of Canary Wharf foreshadowed by a horizontally stripe as a lady steps into view, or road signage doubles up as Cupid’s white arrow, urging the romantic union of two office workers in awkward approach.
This sexual charge reverberates through Sack’s urban life. “They’re young but professional, there’s testosterone zinging around them, yet they’re almost in uniform,” he says. “They’re soberly suited which adds to a certain amount of tension”.
No shortage of stories can be projected onto these faces. They might be wired-in secret agents or Hitchcockian blondes, both pursuing and in pursuit.
But the real ambiguity is Sack’s title Lost In The City. Might it not just suggest losing oneself in the reverie of the streets, the thronging currents of people, the high-rise buildings of steel and glass? Might we also be lost in a moral sense, too?
For Sack has photographed the stomping grounds of an unloved industry. He photographed lolling automatons whom, in all their determination to get on in life, remain somewhat estranged.
Buy the book from Hoxton Mini Press.