Robin Maddock is an English photographer, based in London and San Francisco and he describes himself as a “social documentary photography … for now”. He’s published two books – Our Kids Are Going to Hell (Trolley, 2009), and God Forgotten Face (Trolley, 2012). Born in 1972, he studied archaeology at The University of Wales before going on to take an MA in Photographic Studies at the University of Westminster: he says that not only is photography a means of expression and a way of making sense of the world but that it can “connect us to the past and help us think differently about the future”.
Amongst other honours he’s been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Award in 2010 and selected by Martin Parr as one of the ‘rising stars of photography’ for the Smithsonian Institute: “Maddock’s views and snatches of life are both surreal and individual. He has the enviable ability to turn nothing much into something quite profound.”
He first came to wider public attention when he published Our Kids Are Going to Hell in 2009. This book was the result of 3 years following the Hackney branch of London’s Metropolitan Police as they raided the homes of suspected drug dealers in the borough. At a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery, given by Robin Maddock and Hannah Watson of Trolley Books, Robin came close to defining himself as a ‘Hackney photographer’ citing other photographers such as Stephen Gill: indeed the book was prefaced with an essay by Iain Sinclair, legendary Hackney writer and champion of photography and film. The power of the book’s images lies in the fact that the photographer has ignored or edited out the usual pictures of doors being smashed in, or police in riot gear – the images of newspaper reporting or television documentary – but instead focuses on the absurd – the policeman using a rainbow coloured disposable camera to record the crime scene, the shattered aftermath, the police boots on the family worktop.
God Forgotten Face, is a series of pictures taken over a number of years in Plymouth, a city in the west of England that was heavily bombed during the Second World War and subsequently the test bed for radical 1050’s utopian reconstruction. The target of the bombing raids, the Dock Yard, was drastically downsized in the 80’s with the loss of nearly 30,000 jobs. Maddock chose the city because of personal ties (his father was born there) and ” a desire to do a project about England”. Another factor was the fact that he “felt quite outside and alienated by the city.” There’s a video preview of the book here:
Looking at his pictures, some of which like Our Children Are Going to Hell, are reportage and some of which are street photographs, is like reading an Alan Bennet play. The camera has caught snatches of conversations, moments in the dramas of people’s lives, parts of events that are unfolding.
The book even includes snippets of overheard remarks or snatches of conversations with the photographer: beside a portrait of a striking young woman, the text reports,”On our first date ,getting cash out, you’re old but, you’re hot, guy behind, you’ll need a lot more than that mate.” Or next to a dark shot of an luxury boat floating off a dock is “We make boats for wealthy people we can’t be seen in a book with prostitutes.”
It’s this story telling ability that gives the book its joy and humour and also reveals Robin’s remarkable ability to insert himself into situations or people’s lives and reveal something common about human experience. It’s a skill that’s rare among photographers working today and invites comparison with Nan Golding, who drew insight and art from her own life and circle of friends.
In many of his pictures you’re given the sense that a story is being told and that Robin has caught the essence of that story in a single frame. He rarely goes for the visual pun or joke that many street photographs rely on and this means that many frames bear repeated viewing or continued examination and that the viewer can reconstruct the event or imagine alternative versions of the stories that might be unfolding.
In a shot of two couples in a tea room in the alleys behind Plymouth’s Barbican, you’re free to imagine at least 2 versions of the story: that the Elizabethan couple are caught in a waking dream of the future or that the bearded man is determinedly imaging away the modern world with its plastic chairs and tourists.
A shot of an unmade bed, a hole punched into the wall conjures either a passionate night in the purple sheets, that produced an ecstatic lashing out, or darkness filled with nightmares or even anger and domestic violence.
It also asks, what was the photographer doing there – was he the one who slept in the sheets, did he make the hole in the wall? The book is dedicated, “for and against Bianca” – apparently Maddock’s (now ex) girlfriend at the time. Or did he simple observe the scene in a visit to someone’s house?
Other frames capture moments of small drama that with wit and warmth reveal intimacy or absurdity. A shot of middle aged couples line dancing on the Hoe, shows not only the concentration and commitment of the dancers but also the slight absurdity of a dance imported from the southern USA, via television to the far west of England.
An older couple, captured as they sample the buffet in what appears to be a civic function room, reveals a moment of unthinking, perhaps even bored intimacy and familiarity, as the wife offers her husband a taste of something from her finger.
Neither looks at the other, both concentrating on the food in front of them: an odd little gesture that reveals what must be e a practiced and familiar habit, allowing us to read something of the essence of their relationship. Is he a fussy eater, who needs to be tempted with small tastes? Is she worried about unfamiliar food and needs his reassurance? Or are they just enjoying sharing the flavours of the snacks on offer?
On his blog – http://robinmaddock.com – Robin posted an essay he wrote for PhotoDoks about achtung/danger in photography and also links to an essay by Francis Hodgson “on the strange business of mattering“. Taken together they might offer an insight into the thinking behind his work: both essays try to understand what raises an image beyond the banal or the mundane and makes it a picture that ‘matters’.
Quoting Gary Winograd, “We should risk failure every time we press the shutter”, Maddock notes that it’s risk and the element of failure that lifts a picture from the mundane or prosaic and gives it individuality and perhaps meaning “work which lacks any risk is commerce, repetition of the same, that which had worked before.” It’s left to the reader whether that risk is personal safety or artistic failure but he in a video for the Smithsonian Magazine, he says that one of the reasons he chose to shoot in Plymouth was that he found it ” a strange and terrifying place, and that energy of terror was behind the reason to work there.”
Perhaps this is why his pictures matter to us, because they mattered to him, that the risk made it worthwhile. Francis Hodgson :
“The vast majority of pictures just don’t matter. The photographer had nothing to say, or has been unable to say something meaningful. Often it will be of the treatment: the subject is trivial, but the way it has seen (and shown) it grants it a pull on my concentration which it would not have otherwise had.
If it matters enough, it seems, the mattering is communicable. And that is pretty close to the heart of photography.”