Ever since seeing the distant outline of Oldbury Power Station from the Severn Bridge when out with the camera a few weeks earlier, I have been quietly obsessing over the idea of photographing disused nuclear power stations to form the body of work for my final show and MA submission. As a subject they feel eloquent, aesthetic and charged with meaning on many levels. Firstly, they would provide the perfect subject to create a typology around – similar to my work with water towers earlier in the year, but with a subject more loaded with significance, import and narrative. Secondly as a signifier the concept of the nuclear power plant, particularly a disused one, is overloaded with meaning in the context of my quiet earth narrative – being at once itself in decline, but also having borne the such potential for destruction. Finally, on a purely aesthetic level there is something spellbinding about these structures. As I research them from the comfort of google maps I fall in love with the peculiarities and distinctiveness of their design, highly functional and brutalist in harsh contradiction to the beautiful natural environs of the landscapes they inhabit. Monolithic monuments to past optimism and faith in our nuclear future.
Chatting at the mini-print private view I am warned of the risk of approaching such facilities without the right pieces of paper, so I draw up a plan and contact the press office of Magnox – the organisation responsible for decommissioning – who reply that this will be no problem, providing I contact security at each site to let them know I will visiting. I make arrangement to visit the nearest site, Oldbury on Severn, the following weekend.
In total I plan to visit 9 sites, spread across much the length and breadth of the UK. I am keen to photograph them from public land, to reflect their context in the landscape so my research includes looking at OS maps in quite some detail to plan walking routes up to and around each site. I am intrigued by the idea of in some way folding this research element, the concept of the journey and the intriguing marks of the OS map topology into my work in some way.
On a decidedly brisk Saturday morning I make my way down to my first power station and announce myself to the security gate before making my way to the permitted path that surrounds the site and weaves its way through the surrounding wildlife reserve. The building is everything I hoped it would be, deserted and dormant, yet at the same time alive with a dull machine home that permeates and surround the whole building. The building’s ominous size makes it a challenge for the mind to establish a sense of scale and the blank windowless walls create an intrigue as to what might be inside – the vastness of empty turbine halls, a carcass, I love the narrative it’s blank facade and sheer volume force into being, a narrative made all the more eerie by the early morning mist and splendid isolation of the wetlands that surround it.
I can’t wait to begin photographing, and I’m glad that I sought permission so that I can feel confident in taking my time and find the angles and details I want. It takes a while to find the right distance and angles to frame the cooling towers effectively. A few steps to close and the building swamps the frame completely, a few steps back and it instead becomes insignificant in the frame. I have to remember to remove myself from the composition as much as possible, it is too easy to become engaged in dramatic angles and deliberate framing with this much freedom and such a dramatic and loaded subject. As successful as the shoot is, I have the unnerving feeling that something of the sense I have of this place is being lost in my images. I am used to the pinhole lens being transformative, of taking the everyday and making it other, but here it seems to be capable of creating only a poor facsimile of its surroundings, flat and workmanlike. In hindsight I think much of this comes down to my decision to use a much higher end camera – our work’s Canon 5d, whose larger sensor is simply too good at capturing the image presented by the pinhole. Nothing is lost to it and there are no happy accidents of film grain, camera shake or light aberration. Only when I use the very smallest pinhole lens I have; on the highest ISO; do I finally find a hazy vignette around the image (caused by the miniscule size of the laser engraved pinhole) and a level of digital noise in the image that creates the level of remove that I am looking for.
I leave the site feeling buoyed by the experience, but more by my direct action in seeking it out, and the physicality of the site itself, than by the images I capture. Reviewing the images in Lightroom later that night, and on subsequent occasions I struggle to put my finger on just exactly what is missing from them and come to the conclusion that is simply that they are so specifically of something. They have an undeniable sense of place, and if I were to continue this series, so would their successors, and I realise that whilst this might be an end, or a body of work to be explored it is not what I am seeking to create deep down in my work at the moment. As much as I am fascinated by the idea of creating a typology around this subject, I feel that it would lack a soul, and be at odds with the narrative and fictions that the pinhole camera encourages in the viewer.