During Sydney’s (first) COVID-19 lockdown, the gyms were closed, the outdoor exercise equipment was fenced off, and bodyweight training triggered a migraine, so I found myself with no way to exercise other than going for walks around the neighbourhood. It didn’t do anything good for my feet but it loosened up my lower back, a constant conundrum. As I wandered around, I started noticing patterns: interesting and everyday items that recurred more often than not.
I started collecting some of these things but quickly realised that the most interesting ones were those that I didn’t want to touch, so I pulled out my phone and started photographing them instead. The first one is a graffiti tag by Mako (I think; they’re hard to read sometimes – it could be Snaleo).
Look at those confident lines and beautiful sweeping curves.
Graffiti tags are ubiquitous and often stand out as damage to the built environment. At the same time, one glosses over them as just another part of the urban background, like anthills, bottle tops, and squashed paper on asphalt.
Meanwhile, I used one set of images for a uni assessment as I could guarantee to complete it: houses decorated for Halloween. It’s not an Australian tradition, but exposure to US culture has made it an unofficial celebration if you have children or want to have a costume party. On the day itself, there were storms in the morning, heat and humidity in the afternoon, and more storms in the evening so I had a window of less than five hours to traverse Sydney’s Inner East in search of opportunities. Fortunately, there are a lot of young families performing Halloween so there was always another house to photograph.
As I pursued these everyday items around the neighbourhood, I found myself staying out for longer and longer periods of time – my record is four hours – because every time I found an item I got a hit of dopamine – the main hormone responsible for addiction – and every time I took a photo I got another one. Once university finished, I had little else to do so I became seriously addicted, finding my feet walking out of the house before my mind realised it. Fortunately, this only lasted a couple of months because I’d found all the easy stuff and now I receive less reward for more pain. The addiction hasn’t completely gone but there’s less blind need and more considered ambition.
Five hours is a long time to remember a series of ever-changing numbers so I had to keep going to ensure I shot a full hundred before stopping; I reached 121. When I got home and processed the photos, I found that almost all had an underlying theme: the Victorian era terrace house; different colours (mostly grey or beige), different frontages, and different property values, but astonishingly cohesive in a visual sense (I discarded a few others which didn’t fit the aesthetic – see above). When I collaged the images I placed every photo right up against its neighbour to recreate the cheek-by-jowl, repetitious design of terraced housing.
Meanwhile, the splashes of greenery from street trees and small front gardens – decked out with adornments seemingly purchased from the same shop – brighten the collage. At the same time, the skewed perspective of each photo makes the houses look slightly unsettling as otherwise they are always seen as a row of identical architecture that recedes stolidly into the distance.
In case you’re interested, this collage represents more than AU$200,000,000 on the COVID property market.
When you’ve done one 10 x 10 grid of a hundred photos you realise that to be complete, you definitely have to do 99 more to make a round number. I was already dedicated to the task but it was only now that I realised a hundred times a hundred is actually 10,000 photos, not counting extras, mistakes, and a hundred collages on top of that. Twice my phone has refused to take more photos because the memory was full so I had to delete months of work (after I checked the backup!).
In the meantime, something that was unusual, omnipresent, and slightly surreal, was COVID detritus. Abandoned masks and gloves – black, white, or blue – were everywhere. My solitary walks were littered with the memorials of passersby so I couldn’t help but shoot them.
The grid assemblage places focus on the repeated image: discarded masks lying in gutters and gardens. Occasionally I’d see a reusable mask but people seemed to take a lot more care with them; the decorated ones were yet to hit the market or people were a lot more careful with them because they were a more intimate choice.
Pretty soon, I found that I was forgetting what I was photographing, what the orientation was, and which ones I’d finished so I made a shooting list on my phone and a spreadsheet on my desktop.
Remember the graffiti tags? Well eventually I realised that I was seeing two different types – dark text on light backgrounds and light on dark – so I separated them into their own categories. Then, because I was spending so much time looking for graffiti, I realised that there were a lot of places where the tags had been covered over with paint or counter-tagging so I started collecting erased graffiti, too.
The blandness of the altered walls makes me think that a little graffiti would brighten the place up, while some places with multiple layers of erasure show that it’s an ongoing battle between society and the “antisocial element”.
Speaking of which, I realised that these collages didn’t represent everything that I was seeing so I deliberately made myself add some abject typologies including one bane of my existence: used dog shit bags thrown into the street gardens, abandoned on the footpath, or squashed on the road. Your Dog, Your Dog Shit Bag, Your Responsibility!
This meant engaging with the subject by getting in close to fill the frame. By the time I had collected a hundred, I was feeling pretty abject myself. Unfortunately, I realised that I had copped out by not photographing the actual cause of my distress so I forced myself to shoot the faeces itself. Your Dog, Your Dog Shit, Use A Bag!
You’ll notice that I’m a lot further away from the subject because my artistic practice has limits and getting intimate with canine faeces is one of them. I’m happy to say that I finished all hundred shots and managed not to step in the theme during this time.
A topic just as non-salubrious is the used syringe. They stand out as a dangerous object so they make a strong impression which in turn makes them seem more common than they are. However, I keep finding myself wandering down the laneways and back alleys in search of more. I assume that lockdowns have reduced recreational drug use because so many venues have been forced to close.
As the summer wore on, two things happened: I came up with too many ideas and I committed to doing another set of hundreds. Thanks brain, that’s 20,000 photos I have to take and 200 collages to do.
Some gas access covers in my area have been painted in bright yellow, some cream, while others are bare steel. Yellow is my second favourite colour so I’m automatically drawn to them. After photographing a hundred, I corrected the perspective to square them up, which is the way I see them in my mind before I take the photo.
This is an homage to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Gas Tanks photographed over three decades.
The Bechers were much more formal in their approach, benefiting from their ability to line up each image identically, their freedom to travel around northern Europe and the USA, and having the time to shoot only on overcast days. In using a phone camera I have limited myself severely but it is more true to the lived experience. We all have a digital camera in our pocket and it’s the first one we reach for in everyday life. This is the only camera I own these days and it’s certainly the only one I can carry around for four hours. Also, the university’s equipment library was often closed because of COVID.
The gas covers made an interesting collage but I wanted them to stand out more so that it matches the psychological experience of focusing in on the target. I cut out each one and transformed the background to pure black then collaged them all again.
It’s like looking at a stained glass window. Transforming the photos really enhances the subject… unfortunately, staring at a backlit screen while working on a hundred images reactivated my screen addiction which meshed with my finding/photographing addiction. Ain’t life grand?
The second #AHundredHundreds is an over-commitment of time and resources but fortunately, it’s the summer holidays and digital photography is essentially free: a wonder to someone who grew up eking out every roll of film.
I also began interrogating my own archive of digital photographs, coming up with many images that could be grouped together, such as screenshots I made of Shazam results so I could remember to find the song later.
So this is the biggest and longest photographic project I’ve ever done and Part 1 is only three quarters finished. This may well take another couple of years depending on how well my back and feet and brain hold out, but I’m certain it will be worth it.