Re-writing the Oldham Road
'The photograph is no longer based on charm and suggestion but on experimentation and teaching. It takes up the methods of painting, diverts them, and uses them for other ends. It also becomes a substitute for writing, and the future illiterate will be the person who is not knowledgeable about the use of photography. In the same spirit, all writers ought to be prepared to become photographers, a task Benjamin took on when he proposed to stop saying and start simply showing.'
- Pierre Missac, 1995 (1)
In 1981, Charlie Meecham explored and photographed the Oldham Road, one of Manchester’s arteries, for an exhibition and book. He returned to the area sporadically afterwards, and now presents a body of work made during a more intensive revisit. I spoke to him in November of 2011, at his studio, where he began by outlining some of the questions that arose from his first survey. For instance:
'How do you define this Lancashire mill town, in the mid-1980s, when everything is being demolished with all this re-development? The road itself, running between Oldham and Manchester, was rather like a film set for a western, there was a frontage of shops that hid what was really happening, and behind it large areas were being substantially changed with the removal of run down housing and abandoned mills. And it all linked into what appeared to be a rather heartless period, when the political will seemed to be one of "well you've just got to face up to reality, the old industrial model doesn't work anymore." So I thought I was looking at the fallout from that, and was intrigued, also, that the road has all sorts of histories and has been photographed before, ever since the inception of photography.'
Charlie’s insight about the film-set quality of urban development has a history of its own. Friedrich Engels wrote about the way in which the ‘facades’ of nineteenth century Manchester – essentially ‘decent’ middle class shops - served to cover up the grimy dwellings behind them, which were a key part of the urban machinery which produced the facades in the first place, as well as the goods which could be purchased there. The way that Engels conceptualized the city is seen as a precursor to later models of urban development, particularly the Chicago School sociologists, and their idea that decay and poverty can be found in rings around cities at certain points, away from both the centre and the suburbs (2). Crucially though, Charlie talks about the importance of getting behind these facades, something which again echoes the practice of Engels and the Chicago School:
''I felt that the remaining mills were becoming a backdrop to full-blown change, so symbolically I tried to have a mill in the background, and then look at something in the foreground that was changing, so that was my visual device if you like. I strayed a long way from the road, because I felt that, although I called it the Oldham Road project, things happening off the road were the proper story. I then revisited the area in the early 2000s, when they were building the new motorway link to South Manchester, the M60. It crosses the road at Hollinwood and there was a fair amount of destruction, which needed to take place, to allow the road to pass through, and that alerted me - maybe I should have another look. For instance, there was a very notable cinema that got torn down around about that time, called The Roxy. Various markers along the road were disappearing, which told you where you were. The cars have turned it into a strip.'
Charlie then explained his approach to methods, telling me that the way he works can actually inform the understanding of a place: It is important to somehow work how the area moves. This practice is also reflected in what became known as 'visual anthropology'. There are filmmakers at the nearby Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology who feel pushed to frame their subjects innovatively, at the same time as they work closely with the people they study, and try to translate the patterns of their lives into their films, in a kind of performative mimesis, to work alongside their subjects 'in a manner analogous to their own way of being and knowing in the world.' Anna Grimshaw describes her commitment to formal innovation and capturing experience, what she calls 'dailiness' (3). This practice can be traced back to Raymond Williams and his commitment to recovering and capturing 'experience' (4). Similarly, Charlie describes how images from the first survey, sidelined as research at the time, seem more important now, as the random encounters seem to say something about the area.
Charlie then explains how one can tell a story, but there is never a completeness to it, even though the form of the media which holds the story - for instance a book – often encourages a conclusion. The Oldham Road is always a process, and never an end point. Understanding this, Charlie consciously teases out the 'in-between' nature of the Oldham Road: 'You have the Oldham end, and the Manchester end, and neither of the two seem to have much of an idea what to do with that area', it is not fully controlled by one or the other authority, it is a borderland, an edge-zone, and it has 'rather been forgotten, as it isn't one of the prestige parts of Manchester'. Charlie quite likes this aspect, but tells me that 'there is nothing particularly noteworthy or special about it either, there isn't a story here that is easily told, it isn't news, unless some oddball goes there'. However, we then talk about how the Oldham Road is 'not nowhere' either, because what is happening to it, roughly, is happening in many other places. The key question for Charlie, though, is that of cultural change and community:
'...if you're trying to live in an area which has no plans, but was very structured in the past and is now having to re-invent itself, how do you as a resident develop some sort of a sense of place or ownership? There are bits of redevelopment still going on - quite large bits in the Ancoats area - but even those things have ground to a halt with the financial setbacks. So one wonders where enterprise is headed. I've been picking up on the leftovers from a nineteenth century past, and the way in which those now lie alongside the other schemes, some of which were new schemes in the mid-1980s, which have now disappeared, only to be replaced by another. So this modern day short-termism is playing alongside mill owners who built with the idea of longevity and prestige.'
Again, these ideas have a long history. E.P. Thompson explained how, during the 1770s, Oldham's population doubled, as did that of the surrounding towns, Rochdale, Bolton and Middleton. The economy changed radically, the early power looms drew agricultural labourers and skilled migrant workers into the large weaving workshops of the area, the early factories:
'In consequence, the wages of the best men steadily rose until by the 1830s and 1840s they belonged to a privileged elite. In 1845, at Messrs Hibbert and Platt's (Oldham), the premier textile machinery works in Britain, employing close on 2,000 workers, wages of 30s. and upwards were paid to good men. The engineers (a Methodist workman complained) spent freely, gambled on horses and dogs, trained whippets, and had flesh meat "twice or thrice a day"'.
Yet the increase in the numbers of skilled workers available in Oldham began to cause wage repression, and the rapid changes stirred up political dissent. Thompson explained how Oldham check-weavers tried to secure legal restrictions to apprenticeships, yet the Assize Judge over-ruled the attempt, saying that if apprenticeships were to be enforced, the 'liberty of trade' which gave Manchester its wealth would be threatened. These battles would flare up periodically over the next century, including a bitter lock-out in 1851, centred around Hibbert and Platt's in Oldham. (5)
This is not mere historical detail. In these accounts we have an example of protectionism versus laissez faire - free market capitalism. These questions, albeit in radically different forms, have recently been forced to the surface of western politics again, also with some dissent. I feel that Charlie's revisit is timely in this sense. His first visit coincided with another political and economic sea change. The Thatcher government, influenced by Hayek, were then operating a new kind of free market doctrine known as monetarism. There were protests and riots in England during that government’s tenure.
After the 1770s, a new and more competitive world was opening out, forcing living standards up - although the details of this are disputed by E.P. Thompson - at the same time as a more precarious, less secure way of life, had arrived. Again, this is a historical moment, but there is also something in these processes which is now universal: The model of capitalism and production founded in and around Manchester has moved to the new industrial cities of the Pearl River Delta in China, among other places (6). What began in the 1770s would eventually render the towns of Rochdale, Oldham, and Greater Manchester indistinct from one another, and the Oldham Road an artery, a ‘strip’. Raymond Williams, in the late 1970s, uses the unwieldy term ‘mobile privatisation’ to describe the increase in privatised forms of transport (cars) and privatised forms of leisure (television). After the 1770s, there would be no going back, despite the romantic yearning which followed the changes around like a mournful ghost, whimpering for a lost rural idyll, which probably never existed (7).
We can see this in excessively cosy views of the industrial past today, and a key strength of Charlie’s work is that he is never tempted to romanticise. It is interesting to note that one of Charlie's images ended up on the sleeve of 'Atmosphere', by the Manchester group Joy Division, who were often hailed as the authentic voice of post-industrial alienation, during the period when Charlie was first exploring the Oldham Road. We can also see a kind of romanticism in the massive psychological and cultural over-investment in lead singer Ian Curtis's death, which sometimes borders on necrophilia. But there is also a similarity here, I think, to the way that residents of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century invested heavily in religious practices to survive a harsh and ultimately precarious present.
Places such as Oldham were becoming the centre of things in the early nineteenth century, but they have now moved from their status as globalizing centres, to simply being other territories within globalization. For my own research, in nearby Todmorden, I find much that is poetic in the statue of John Fielden, a local industrialist and factory reformer and first MP for Oldham, with Nike graffiti on his waistcoat and trousers. Such a small detail speaks of the new situation, of a region that has moved from being a globalizer, to being part of the globalized (8).
Charlie and I talk about the way in which capitalism moves very quickly to source cheaper forms of labour, rents and materials. Work is always a key organiser of space, but then Charlie moves onto its flipside - leisure - and the way the landscape of the Oldham Road is also changing in this regard. He tells me that:
'…all the entertainment centres have gone, there were cinemas and theatres and dance halls and it's all gone. This time I have tried to get much more involved with the people living in the area, and I have allowed their opinions to form some of my ideas, and I have tried to encourage some of them to take photographs and contribute.'
He tells me that the older residents have a sense of history, that they often frame the present in terms of what has disappeared. Charlie shows me images of vanished shops from his research. The opportunity for people to express themselves through small-scale capitalism has become partly buried under an essentially corporate landscape. The younger residents try to make the best of what they have got, dealing with the restricted areas they are allowed to roam in, being forced to stick to the main thoroughfares. Charlie tells me that 'young people can't muck around on spare land anymore, owners will somehow find the money for a good fence, even if they haven't got the money to do anything with the land.' Charlie gained a sense of the way the young people navigate their Oldham Road environment by giving some of them digital cameras, and then asking them to go out and photograph the way they negotiate their community. They photographed street names, providing something of a map of their world. Again, this is very much in line with current practices in visual anthropology and sociology. The young people also photograph each other in a way that Charlie now couldn't, which also speaks volumes about how public space has changed for photographers and researchers over the intervening years.
We look at some of the larger prints for the exhibition. Charlie shows me images from the 1980s, and more recent pictures. The digital printing renders both sets of images with a kind of equivalence, flattening the intervening years somewhat. This is a very interesting effect. It seems to foreground real change and illuminate continuation at the same time. I showed Charlie's Oldham Road work to my students often over the last five years, because I could explain a range of big subjects at once, via just three or four of his images: formalism, composition; juxtaposition; colour; a subtle negotiation of critique and showing. In one of his shots of social housing, there is a compositional quality, which is closer to cubism than the more classical formalism of the early documentary traditions. It brings a real strangeness to the matter-of-fact and everyday, and this can be said of many of his images.
This said, much documentary work from the time of Charlie’s first Oldham Road project juxtaposed elements in the landscape to make it strange in an ironic way, and some of it now looks like a cheap shot. It seems to be tugging at your sleeve and winking at you, there is a jokiness about it. But there is a confidence in Charlie's representational practice - his approach to formalism, essentially - which doesn't feel the need to do this. Of course, any discussion of irony is usually only a breath away from the subject of postmodernism. A key theorist of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, described irony as essentially a political cop-out, as it allows the consumers of the west to 'deny what we affirm, while affirming what we deny'. This is joined by a second symptom, a 'waning of affect', which usually characterises postmodern culture (9). Charlie’s work has ‘affect’, in fact, it has an aura, he certainly juxtaposes elements of the landscape to make them re-signify, but he avoids the simplistic rhetoric of 'ironic juxtaposition' (10). It is postmodern if we accept that he is documenting and commenting upon a landscape which has left modernity behind, but its language is not that of glib postmodernism.
Leafing through the large prints, Charlie explains some of the changes, how redevelopment in the 1980s was knocking out every other street, giving a sense of space. He describes how usable social housing has been torn down, but also shows me images of new allotments, and the return of the rhetoric of localized production. He then talks about a green space, part of the 1980s redevelopment, which has become very overgrown since his initial visit, and describes how this zone was advertised as 'Greater Manchester, bringing the countryside to your doorstep'. But ‘it isn't really the countryside’, he warns, ‘it's wild’. Charlie’s work provides a counterpoint to the way more rhetorical forms of representation function, for instance council advertising such as this. I am reminded at this point of Patrick Wright’s comments on nostalgia and historicism. Wright says that ‘the past' is an imaginary object, and an imagined countryside is a key part of this in Britain: 'Purged of its leading political tensions, the past can then be offered to one and all in newly inclusive ceremonies of collective identification.' Wright says that the English country landscape is part of the cliché of ‘collective identification’. Later, Wright outlines a way to avoid such nostalgias:
'History should be the name of a future-oriented project: history which-is-to-be-made rather than stately history-which-is-already-made and demands only veneration in what it also dismisses as an abjectly inferior and declining present.'
That's what I get from this work, it presents history in open process, a slice of reality which is neither cosy or romanticised. There is no simplistic applause or table-thumping here, and what photography can do is provide historical contradictions without making excessively heavy judgements. It is, potentially, a much more opened-out, poetic form of representation, in the hands of thoughtful practitioners like Charlie. All this macro-theorizing is useless, unless we can connect it to real people and communities today, in a future-facing dialogue, as Patrick Wright once urged us to do. Charlie's work does this by representing the surface of change in communities in a way that forces us to look again, and then think again. It writes. It tells by showing.
(1) Missac, Pierre (1995) Walter Benjamin’s Passages. MIT.
(2) See Engels (1987 ) Condition of the Working Class in England. Harmondsworth: Penguin, and Marcus, Steven (1973) 'Reading the Illegible' in Dyos & Wolff (eds.) The Victorian City. London: Routledge.
(3) Grimshaw, Anna (2001) 'Teaching Visual Anthropology. Notes from the Field'. Ethnos. Vol. 66, No. 2: 237-258. London: Routledge.
(4) Higgins, John (ed, 2001) The Raymond Williams Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
(5) Thompson, E.P. (1963) The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Pelican. Page 273, and pages 303-4. I think that Thompson is right to nuance excessively whiggish versions of history, but I also think that he occasionally attempts some of the 'special pleading' he abhors, in his own counter-arguments to the curve of prosperity through industrialism.
(6) Harvey, David (2010) ‘The Geography of it All’, from The Enigma of Capital. London: Profile.
(7) Williams, Raymond (1974) Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana. This book contains his comments on ‘mobile privatisation’, but see also The Country and the City (1973) for some of his best work on nostalgia.
(8) Peck and Ward (eds,. 2002) City of Revolution - Restructuring Manchester. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
(9) Hardt and Weeks (eds., 2000) The Jameson Reader. London: Blackwell.
(10) Dawber, S. (2004) ‘Martin Parr’s Suburban Vision’, in Third Text, Vol. 18, Issue 3. London: Routledge. Page 254: Dawber draws on Allan Sekula, who claims that ‘at a time of political upheaval, MoMA’s promotion of the so-called "New Photography" marked a decisive shift towards a more stylised and expressive form of documentary in the United States, with Szarkowski proposing that “serious photography could only have an ironic and fatalistic relation to the social world”’. Perhaps one other irony here is that Factory Records were overseen by that arch-postmodernist Tony Wilson, who regularly lifted works of art out their original context, along with the designer Peter Saville. This is essentially what happened to Charlie’s image for the sleeve of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’.
(11) Wright, Patrick (1985) ‘Everyday Life and the Aura of the Modern Past’ from On Living in an Old Country. London: Verso. See also Raphael Samuel’s wonderful essay which refigures the real English landscape as wild and harsh, against its generative, soft, ideological version: Samuel, Raphael (1998) ‘Country Visiting: A Memoir’ in Island Stories, Theatres of Memory, volume II. London: Verso.
Steve Hanson is a writer and critic. He is a PhD research student in the Sociology Department, Goldsmiths, London.