As a photographer my method of critically engaging with the urban landscape is to walk. Through the process of walking I become alive to the world and receptive to everything around me. Solnit (2002) states that, ‘walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, body, and the world are aligned’ (Solnit, 2002 p.5) and likens them to ‘three characters finally in conversation together’ (ibid). I would add that with a camera in my hand, being visually attuned enables me to recognise and respond to specific moments that present themselves.
I usually plan where I intend to walk but frequently enjoy those moments of encounter when certain elements come together that suggest further investigation. For example, my first encounter with Woolwich occurred whilst walking the Thames Path when my eye was drawn to some contrasting scenes that visually drew my attention. In his work on the visual quality of cities, Lynch (1960) asserts that ‘legibility is crucial in the city setting’ (1960, p.3) and then provides a definition of ‘imageability: that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer’ (ibid p.9). Returning to my initial encounter with Woolwich, without doubt the strong spatial patterns of a riverside garden followed by a set of sculptures would suggest a level of imageability and explains my response.
The human experience of encountering a new place or knowing how to act or go on in a familiar place is intimately bound up with previous experiences. Places are always ‘read’ or understood in relation to others. (Tilley 1994 p.27)
Although Tilley (1994) is referring to a rural landscape, I tend to agree with him that our approach to new places is related to the experiences we bring with us that offer clues as to how we will read and understand them. However, Tilley’s comments don’t go far enough and I would contend that when we approach new places, we bring with us not only experiences, but also representations that have been presented to us via the mass media and other sources. Indeed, Balshaw and Kennedy (2000) point out that the ‘city is inseparable from its representations, but it is neither identical with nor reducible to them’ (ibid p.3) which for me begs two questions; is a first encounter really a first encounter and how do we address the fact that interpretations of place might be influenced by someone else’s imagination? Perhaps the answer to the latter question is to recognise that walking enables me to delve deeper into the fabric of the city thus scratching at the surface.