The 'decorative degeneracy' of Louis Porter's urban fabric forms a discordant social critique
Crap Paint Jobs is a visual record of the kind of badly bodged brushwork you probably come across on a daily basis without it barely registering your attention.
But for Louis Porter they are one of numerous obsessions he documents and collects in his exploration of the vernacular of the terrain vague of the city. Put them together and they take on a mischievous quality, disrupting the mundane urban status quo with their jarring colour contrasts and can’t-be-bothered attention to detail.
The series is part of a larger body of work, The Small Conflict Archive, for which the 36-year-old photographer, currently living in London, goes out in search of a collection of objects or phenomena, documenting “the subtle ways in which conflict permeates modern life”. He begins with a set of headings and topics as the starting point of his collecting habit: “Some of the subjects are quite blunt, like Suburban Swastikas or Bad Driving. Others are whimsical – Emergency Assembly Points. By ‘conflict’, I don’t mean the type that makes the evening news; I’m interested in the perforations in everyday life that accumulate to become broader social patterns.”
The inspiration for Crap Paint Jobs came from a source close to home while living in Melbourne, he says: “I went into our studio toilet one day only to discover that the shockingly bad blue paint job we all complained about had been replaced with an even sloppier yellow one. There was something so utterly dreadful yet so aesthetically marvellous about this example of decorative degeneracy that I immediately added it to the list of topics for the archive.”
The images are almost entirely devoid of people, their presence replaced in part by strong directional daylight and flash, which almost become protagonists in the work. “When I arrived in Australia, I was struck by the searing clarity of the light,” he says. “I’ve always tried to acknowledge the force of Australian light in my work by eschewing the morning and evening and instead photographing at midday. The use of flash in broad daylight levels out the built environment and exposes it to enquiry… I like to pare down the city as much as possible without losing a sense of its cacophony,” he adds. “I wanted to create images that, when viewed in the context of the broader archive, maintain the thread of social critique.”
Of the notion of ‘the archive’ and what it means to him, Porter alludes to archaeology, the present, what exists and what no longer exists. “In a sense I see the archive and the subjects it contains as a form of reverse archaeology – ‘digging up’ the future from remnants in the present. It seemed natural to deal with things that create an image of human presence by the way they imprint themselves on their environment.”
Porter recently released the first instalment of The Small Conflict Archive, including Crap Paint Jobs, as a self-published book, Conflict Resolution (under the imprint Twenty Shelves, priced at £28), with plans for more chapters to follow. “I like the idea that the topics in the archive are site-specific, so I haven’t been looking for examples of crap paint jobs in London, though there are plenty,” he says.
But he is keeping his eyes open to the absurdities of life that often go unnoticed, finding great material within the capital’s transport network. “The London bus system is a fascinating illustration of how fraught with unnecessary danger modern cities are,” he says. “I’m particularly taken with the tendency of some people to perform delicate acts of grooming with sharp implements while travelling on erratically moving vehicles. I’ve seen more than one person trim their nose hairs with scissors, and even seen a woman trim her eyebrows with a razor blade.”
Find more of Louis’s work here.
First published in the May 2014 issue. Want to complete your collection? Buy back issues at the BJP Shop.