Bristol based photographer Peter Spurgeon takes us back to wartime England with his work Decoy.
With the aim of drawing intense German fire power away from real targets, the English created decoy sites and runways (to name but a few). Now abandoned, Peter Spurgeon uses night shoots and tailored lighting to bring these buildings to life. In doing so there is an eerie quality to the images juxtaposed with a sense that we are momentarily pulled back into war time England. In this step-back in time, the sounds of sirens and the thuds of bombs impacting on the ground resound for a brief, historical period.
We are aware your father was a photographer. Did that influence your decision to become a photographer?
My father was a Civil Engineer who specialised in water supply projects. He spent many years living and working outside the UK in Pakistan, Iraq and Bangladesh. As a family we often went for walks in nearby countryside in Hertfordshire. These experiences may have influenced my interests in landscape, travel and technical subjects. Curiosity about my father’s cameras attracted me to photography. I later went on to work in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) which in involves the management, analysis and presentation of spatial information.
In your work Darkroom you celebrate it seems the old process of photography but explain your thoughts on that from a technical point of view and of course from an emotional point of view.
Like many people I started with film before digital was an option. I borrowed by sister’s Kodak Instamatic 126 camera and then learned black and white film development in a darkroom at school. Documenting my father’s darkroom equipment reminded me of my school darkroom sessions. It also led me to contemplate how my father learned photography as a teenager. It was a partial view into the period of his life before I was born.
And talk about that initial journey into photography with the Camera Club as the genesis as it were.
Like a lot of people learning photography, my initial interest concentrated on technique. I attended a couple of traditional camera clubs, which can be great places to learn and share technical knowledge. At the London Independent Photography group, I was introduced to the idea of making a series of images about a subject. This is when I started working on my Lifelines project about the changing use of linear features in cities like the Promenade Plante in Paris and the Greenway in London.
my interest focused on the theatre of this ingenious visual deception.
What drives the work that attracts you?
I am drawn to photography that includes strong formal elements, conveys some form of message but that also incorporates ambiguity of meaning.
The K Border work has real relevance with the current political talks regarding North Korea and Kim Jung-what inspired the work?
Whilst studying for my MA in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales, I was asked to write about a photographer that interested me. I chose Mishka Henner who worked on traditional social documentary projects but later chose to obtain imagery and data from online sources like Google and forums. For his No Man’s Land series, he selected Google Street View images that depicted women working as prostitutes on the outskirts of Italian and Spanish towns. The work was made three years after the major economic downturn in 2008. Southern European countries like Spain, Greece and Italy were particularly badly affected. He identified online communities of men who used these images to locate sex workers.
But does that approach fall into the category of photography?
Initially I was resistant to Henner’s approach as he had not made the images himself. However, once I had studied his work I warmed to his ideas and could see links with my GIS background. I watched the BBC Panorama North Korea Undercover documentary and began to read about the history and current situation on the Korean peninsula. Given the impracticality of photographing the DMZ I looked at online aerial imagery of the border. I discovered that the South Korean equivalent of Google Maps includes images like Street View. This led me to produce my K-Border series. I chose locations near the border which had been partially censored by blurring the images.
Your latest project Decoy is a visually powerful collection of images. What drove the wish to chart these now disused buildings?
I was on a plane going on holiday and noticed the crude copy of a plane fuselage at the side of the airfield. These structures are used for training by fire crews. I thought that they might make an interesting subject for a photographic project.
An online search revealed that Richard Mosse had already documented them in his Airside Series. But at the same time, the search also revealed fake planes that were constructed from wood and canvas, used on daytime decoy airfields. This is what led me to discover the subject of this project. In addition to the wartime structures that remained in the landscape to this day, my interest focused on the theatre of this ingenious visual deception. It was a project driven by curiosity. The secret strategies during the war and what was achieved with limited resources.
Why did you choose night shots to capture the buildings and the surroundings?
Simply, most of the decoys operated at night. The initial German bombers were guided by radio beams. They dropped incendiary bombs to mark targets by setting them alight. Subsequent bombers were guided by these fires. The decoys used fake fires to divert the bombs from the intended targets. Dummy airfields used lines of electric lights to simulate illuminated runways. Also, the use of lights activated what are often visually unremarkable buildings and landscapes. Finally, my lighting refers to the theatre of the decoys which were designed by film studio technicians.
Talk a bit about themes present in the work-loss, disappearance seem central?
Most of the original decoy apparatus were cleared away at the end of the war. Normally all that remains is a small concrete air raid shelter. This simple building housed 2 men that operated the decoy site and diesel generators that supplied electrical power. Many sites bear no remaining traces at all and some have been replaced by newer developments of buildings or roads. Therefore, the theme of absence is apparent in the images. This can also be related to the loss of life during the war. My image of a shelter with a silhouetted blast wall is intended to suggest a tomb stone.