Looking Up: Engaging with history and the built environment

Looking Up: Engaging with history and the built environment

I’m going to see it as a positive sign that the sun always seems to shine when it’s time for me to go out and do some participant observation… Last week I went out with my camera into the countryside, to explore some of the possible motivations and experiences for people who chose to photograph the rural landscape in connection with the theme of Sheffield. This week I decided to examine some of the themes that had emerged whilst observing a local University’s Instagram account (and I’ll be going into the specific details and characteristics of that photo feed at another time). The images of Sheffield on this photo feed were immediately interesting to me because of the dominance of one main theme— they focused on the built environment, specifically Sheffield’s town centre, and a variety of University buildings. So for this week’s photo walk I wanted to both engage with this topic and depart from it slightly; to photograph the built envioronment, but in a different way, that would perhaps tell a different story about Sheffield. Here are some of the notes that I made whilst I was walking.

As I began my walk I consciously thought that I should try to be extra alert to the things around me, and to notice things I might not have done otherwise. It is this heightened sense of looking which I find to be an especially valuable part of the process of taking photographs, as I am not just searching for the next picture, but rather spending a number of hours in a new, vigilant frame of mind, making time to notice, stop and consider.

That day, I found myself to be looking differently from ‘normal’ in two main ways — I was focusing on the details, and I was looking higher than my normal line of vision. Simply by looking up, I was astonished at the details of buildings I had walked past for years . I had no idea there was a huge seahorse over the entrance of the Town Hall. Or that the Library had what looked like an Art Deco interpretation of an Egyptian god on it.

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All around me, stone birds and animals and plants decorated the buildings just above eye level. This wasn’t just evidence of a different age — and a different construction budget — but it was also testament to a different kind of philosophy about the built environment, and what we could live and work amongst.

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Who would think to add gryphons to an office building now?

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Other markers extended this concept of an alternative— and older — way of thinking about space, in which houses came with names, and where areas bore different labels. I have never heard of Nether Hallam before, and would not refer to the city centre as the ‘Sheffield Township’. The marker was placed to show where these boundaries were, but as these divisions are in the minds of the people that live there, rather than according to official and physical demarcations, over time these distinctions shift and lose their meaning, and can only be reimagined through observing where these lines once were.20151202_094943_Richtone(HDR)

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As I walked, a similar theme to last week began to emerge: that of a sense of history, and the passage of time. On one level, this history was abundantly evident, as buildings bore their date of construction, and plaques commemorated the laying of stones, and the achievements of the city’s residents. I paused to read signs about Sheffield Plate, about the first dental X-ray, and about the mass tresspass on Kinder Scout that opened up public access to mountains and moorlands.

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But I was more interested in the history that did not come with a date, or even a clear message or purpose. The symbols carved above a doorway — a sun, moon and measuring insutruments — I knew to be associated with freemasons, but I knew no more than that. Equally, the symbols on the Library opposite were not readily obvious to me, beyond the inkwell and the theatrical masks. Both these buildings were built with a different kind of visual literacy in mind, whether for just their patrons or for passersby as well.

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An old street lamp stood flanked by two modern companions, in the form of a floodlight and a cctv camera — evidence of how technologies that enable seeing have shifted in just over a century.20151202_102033 (1)

At one o’clock a siren went off opposite the Town Hall. A few people stopped and looked around, but most took no notice. This siren was originally installed to allow Victorians to precisely set their clocks in line with Greenwich, and now exists as a curio, and as a testament to a way of working around unreliable technologies.

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Another, more recent relic takes a different approach to showing the time. Rather than tell the correct time — its hands are stuck showing a perpetual 5.45 — this clock exemplifies a much longer sense of time’s passing, in terms of its now outdated retro-futuristic styling.

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This sense of time passing reminded me of the University library, and the window filled with cacti to the left of the entrance. The slowest growing of plants, they seem to connote perseverence and quite progress — qualities apt for the location.

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As I walked along through the town centre, I continued to look up, and noticed that the world up there was full of faces. Why were they there? What did they mean? They seemed so specific — an eagle’s face, a pig — that they couldn’t be *just* decoration, and I was again struck by how I simply did not understand the visual lexicon of the past.

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As well as looking up, I also sought to look closely, to move beyond the slick exterior shots of the Instagram feed I had been studying. The City Hall exemplifies the importance of moving close, going in, and looking around. It is an imposing building from the front, but without going inside you would miss the ornamental ceiling and the icons of Sheffield heritage (the rose, the boar, the wheat sheaf). As I crouched on the floor pointing my camera up, people came in to use the box office and followed my line of vision, demonstrating that it’s easy to look differently and look again, once we think to do so.

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I used this perspective again in the cathedral, where one of the guides suggested that I lie down on the floor to get the best angle. This alternative view, borrowed directly from someone else, demonstrated the value of perhaps asking how we should look at something, and with what aims.

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I left the cathedral and began to walk home. The light was fading, my camera’s battery was nearly empty, and I began to feel tired after such a long period of being alert. In only a few hours, I had learned a surprising amount about a place that was already familiar to me. I saw that Sheffield was a palimpsest, with traces of the past’s way of building, thinking and seeing existing alongside us. This became apparent through a deliberate process of looking differently and focusing on the details. This way of seeing was different from that exemplified by the Instagram feed I am studying, in that it fostered an awareness of not just what was there, but what was not. But I would also argue that these kinds of detail need to be foregrounded in the presentation of ‘Sheffield’ as much as any grand vista, as by looking for and discovering the minutae that speak of a different time, we can come to understand and enjoy the richness of the places where we live.