Quay to the Docks:
An Archival Exploration of Surrey Quays and Rotherhithe
Excerpt from ‘Hauntology’
This new image archive reveals a desolation; a decay of a future that never arrived. The architectures, and extensive methods of planning: the delineation of public and private space, the inclusion of specific historical artefacts, the pseudo-folly architectures, and the forced townscape contribute to overall phenomena. One may suggest that this intangible effect of such urban design can be closely tied to the idea of the ‘Hauntology.’ First introduced by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx, the concept has been developed by many contemporary theorists and applied within specific fields. As Merlin Coverley writes, ‘the “failure of the future,” as a cultural time decelerated and went into reverse, overwhelmed by a nostalgia for the opportunity cultural artefacts of our recent past.’ There is a clear sense, moving through these spaces, of inexplicable melancholy, borne out of the disjuncture between the utopian optimism of architects and planners, and the reality of the space’s conception and use. These are architectures that appear to strive for a future that remains unrealised. Within this context, the more formal, or ‘artistic’ image illuminates the specific nuances of emotion. The conceived presence of the photographer in the framing and capture of the image, brings experience to the fore. The affect of each image is enhanced by photographic decisions; particularly the absence of other figures within each frame. Birkin discusses the notion of the ‘narrative pause,’ writing ‘The documentary status of the image intensifies the notion of the narrative pause: there is a story to tell here, but we do no know from the content of the image exactly what the story is.’ The haunting affect of these new images, it may be suggested, is partly due to this narrative absence. The viewer, subject to the strange topologies of the area, is left to imbue the scene with their own historical relation.
This is particularly true of the uncanny architectural features, such as a pagoda that interrupts the flow of the Thames Path in the image below (Fig. 1), or a monument without inscription (Fig. 2 (1) ). It is the intention of my own pictures to allow the viewer’s own ideas, own imagination, to project upon the image, producing a feeling of narrative displacement. There are no significant points of reference that may tie these isolated scenes to any given time or place. The image instead, is haunted by various fictions. Sekula notes this form of the generation of ideas within photography, writing, ‘A photograph communicates by means of its association with some hidden, or implicit text […] that carries the photograph into the domain of readability.’ As there are few points of contextual grounding present in these new archival images, the semiotic basis for their interpretation remains very broad. The frame abstracts the topology of the city, enhancing one’s emotional response to it. As Liz Wells writes, ‘Photographic meaning is partly determined at the moment of production, through choice of subject-matter, technical and photographic codings and so on. But it is also extensively influenced by particular situations of reception.’ To position these images as an antithesis of the formal archive, therefore, is to prepare them to be read in a specific context, that of opposition.
It may be important to consider the role of the monument more closely. Mark Alice Durant discusses the nature of monuments and their presence within the photographic frame, noting, ‘Monuments often serve as focal points for aspirational civic attributes such as honour, duty, sacrifice, while simultaneously reaffirming foundational values of the nation-state.’ There is something in the faceless monument, as a token of this nondescript history. The obelisk without inscription, the ground without the tree (Fig. 2), the plaque without inscription (Fig. 3). These sites invite this memorialising force, prompting a directionless sense of collective memory. The faceless monument emulates the codes of a deeply entrenched history; it is suggestive of the social foundation that Durant describes, but is without any true historical depth. It appears as an attempt to call up a collective sense of memory, that interacts with the present moment. This false history epitomises many of the key qualities of the surroundings. These monumental objects haunt the picture with their scale, and their material, but leave the viewer to derive their own meaning.
Excerpt from ‘Decay’
As alluded to, one of the dominating aesthetic values of the area is that of decay. The architectural forms captured in this new archive belong to another time, they are already subject to the same modes of wear and desolation that we are yet to associate fully with the post-modern moment. Ian Wiblin writes, ‘At the mercy of time, the physical world preserved in the photograph may be subject to decay or be destined to disappear.’ This tension, between preservation and organic evolution, itself containing decay, imbues each image with a sense of melancholy. The film stock, too, is subject to these same modes of decay over time. Unlike the digital image, there is a necessary materiality to the medium, which draws it like the architecture, into history. The previously described absences; the hauntology, the anti-social spaces, overwhelm each frame with a sense of ultimate mortality. As Wiblin notes, ‘The photograph is a physical residue retaining, within its material image, the vestige of an enactment.’
 Jacques Derrida, ‘Spectres De Marx: L'état De La Dette, Le Travail Du Deuil Et La Nouvelle Internationale /
Jacques Derrida,’ in the Collection La Philosophie En Effet (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1993).
 Merlin Coverley, Hauntology: The Ghosts of Futures Past (Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 2020).
 Jane Birkin, Archive, Photography and the Language of Administration (Recursions) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021).
 Allan Sekula, ‘On The Invention of Photographic Meaning,’ in Thinking Photography, edited by Victor Burgin (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982).
 Liz Wells, The Photography Reader, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 2003).
 Mark Alice Durant, ‘Notes on Photography and Monumentality,’ in Aperture, n. 196 Fall (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2009) pp. 36-41.
 Ian Wiblin, ‘Photography, Performance, Ruin: Performing Photography in Site of Architecture,’ in Performance Research 20, n. 3 (2015) pp. 126-34.
Copyright of image: © Charles Dixon
Fig.1. Pagoda (2021), author's own photograph.
Fig.2. Dedication (2021), author's own photograph.
Fig.3. Plaque (2021), author's own photograph.