Much is made in the preface to Discarded Sleeping Stations of connections between this new body of work by George Hields and Edward Ruscha’s iconic photobook Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963). The text states that Hields’ photographs are ‘an exercise in principles: perspectives weren’t considered, tone and balance left inconsistent and conscious framing decisions were banned altogether’. Hields claims to reject his photographs’ subject in favour of these guiding principles.
While these self-imposed rules, taken from the negative reception of Ruscha’s book on its initial release, have been followed, any useful comparisons between the two photographers are pretty much exhausted there. Unlike Ruscha’s choice of subject – generic, liminal, impersonal – it is difficult to imagine a much more intimate object than a used mattress, stained with life, or a more affecting object than an abandoned cot. These objects have been discarded but they have been sought out by Hields.
There are thirty-six photographs in the book, many taken at night, each titled with the name of the London road on which the ‘sleeping stations’ were found – predominantly mattresses but also bed bases, cots and quilts stuffed into bin bags. They are photographed in front yards, skips, on roadsides and on the back of trucks. All of these objects, for some reason or another, are no longer wanted. Narrative is inevitably projected on to this collection of photographs, though only Boundary Street and Stephenson Way contain people. Each of the remaining images is conspicuously absent of bodies – sacks of rubbish, drawn curtains and poorly parked cars are testament, however, to their (unseen) presence.
Social and political issues are underscored throughout the series. Hields’ photographs speak (loudly) of homelessness, bedroom taxes, overcrowding and the sky-rocketing costs of living in the UK, a cost particularly felt by those in London. They point toward the problematics of cheap production, cheap consumption and disposal. Any ‘discarded’ object – from a coke can, cigarette butt or newspaper – carries a weight of baggage with it, and in one way, a mattress is no different. In another way, nevertheless, the exposure of a soiled mattress to the lens of a camera and the gaze of a viewer is saturated with a far more personal, abject and complex range of reactions.
The photographs are, as Hields confesses, not technically perfect. They are often underexposed, one has the reflection of a flash bulb and another contains a finger lingering at the bottom of the frame. These flaws sit well with their subject. Though it is hard to follow Hields’ assertions of his non-conscious decision making methodology, it is true that the quality of the images lends them character. There are moments of humour too. The majority of the images convey a bleakness, melancholy or downright creepiness, yet the nestling, stacking, sagging and squashing of the objects, in their almost bodily depiction, renders each sleeping station a portrait of sorts.
This a complicated set of images. Provocative, political and problematic,Discarded Sleeping Stations is anything but innocent and anything but an exercise in principles.
Discarded Sleeping Stations
By George Hields
Softcover, 60 pages
Published by Hostem
Review by Anneka French
Published on Photomonitor, 17 March 2016