Behind the scenes

Stephen Gill documents scenarios that most of us take for granted, giving us a chance to gain a revealing insight into the kind of fleeting details that usually pass us by. Gareth Gardener finds out why the Architectural Association is taking such an inte

Gill still undertakes commissioned work, but devotes the majority of his time to his own ‘field studies’ – inspired by the straight-faced Observer Pocketbooks published from the 1930s to the 1980s. His subjects are diverse, ranging from gallery attendants to the infamous car boot sale at Hackney Wick.

Images from these series will form the majority of the AA show, supplemented by new photographs taken for an open-ended AA commission. The resulting images of birds are surprisingly architectural, the creatures reduced to tiny specks perching on telegraph poles, lamp-posts or the roofs of suburban homes. They subvert traditional photographic representations of birds, placing them firmly in their habitat, celebrating the fact that wildlife can adapt and flourish in the most unlikely places.

Gill’s work reflects his own modest, warm and unassuming personality. His images feature muted colours, and often portray members of the public in a way that doesn’t mock or sneer. They show small truths, revealing behaviour, places and activities that people usually ignore. Why do pensioners need such large shopping trolleys? When people get lost, why do they behave furtively, turning to face walls or doorways? ‘I’m looking at things that we know very well, but rarely have the chance to stop and stare at,’ he explains.

Gill’s Invisible series shows workmen undertaking maintenance work – street cleaning, traffic direction, phone line repair. It reminds us of the vast, unremarked effort that keeps modern society afloat. The workmen are united by their attire: fluorescent high-visibility jackets, somehow rendering them more invisible. Gill says that he wears one when he takes pictures, partly because he cycles to many of his locations, but also because wearing a fluorescent jacket guarantees that no-one will give him a second glance.

When approaching a project, Gill sets parameters for shaping the final result. For Day Return, he travelled on trains between London and Southend at the same time each day, methodically asking every passenger if they would allow their portrait to be taken. ‘Usually, if the first person in a carriage said no, everyone else would follow suit,’ he says. The result is a set of intimate portraits, showing people asleep, reading, working or relaxing. They focus on our behaviour during travel, something most people rarely think about.

Gill’s work, believes Norwood, is instructive and encourages the AA’s students ‘to see beyond the obvious’. By photographing mundane places, objects and activities, Gill’s work reveals a rich and humane world that is at once there for all to see but usually ignored. His work is the perfect way of helping AA students – and the rest of us – see more clearly.

Stephen Gill, 29 April to 27 May, at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B. Tel: 020 7887 4145

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