Embracing: A Hackney couple on their wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Stephen Gill
Embracing: A Hackney couple on their wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Stephen Gill

Stephen Gill’s oblique take on the local urban landscape has fascinated photography fans across the world. His latest books, bearing similar covers and published contemporaneously, treat very different topics yet are linked through reliance on happenstance.

Hackney Kisses is a collection of photographs printed from 1950s negatives Gill bought on eBay. The actual taker of this collection of wedding pics remains unknown, but their theme is one of universal relevance.

Even the camera-shy can rarely avoid being snapped on their wedding day, and matrimonial shots virtually all involve at least one kiss.
Most of these images follow convention: there is a multi-tiered cake standing at attention next to the happy couple, who are attired in the classic wedding gear of the time: a dark suit and slicked-back hair for him, lots of white lace for her. Some kisses are overtly lustful; others are nervous pecks for the camera. All are romantic.

Writes Timothy Prus of this collection: “Kissing can be quite like the reveries in a beautiful forest, it can also be end-of-pier theatre. Our Master of the Hackney Kisses knows how these traits combine.”

By contrast, Pigeons takes as its object one of the most unromantic topics imaginable.
The collection features dead pigeons, flying pigeons, nesting pigeons, pigeons out of focus, pigeons sheltering under bridges, fornicating pigeons and decaying pigeon body parts.

Though the birds inhabit a world made by us, we don’t normally notice them. They are also a less-than-endearing bird, and these photos do not seek to change that.

The images have been taken by a camera placed atop a pole, thrust up into the dark underbellies of bridges. The result of this process has a random element to it, and it also yields a completely deadpan muck-and-all survey of the species in its near-monochrome habitat.

An introduction by Will Self provides an evocative reflection on the place of pigeons in London culture past and present. He concludes by noting that “Stephen Gill’s photographs are devoid of sentiment or affectation – rather than showing the pigeon in our world, they take us into theirs.”

The pair of books reflect two of Stephen Gill’s long-established passions – Hackney and birds. What the volumes share is a formal structure of repetition on a theme. Another less obvious commonality is the element of chance that was involved in their making; both collections are, in their different ways, the products of what might be called stochastic photography. They are thus fitting pictorial archaeologies of the local imaginary, sampling bits of Hackney life from marital rapture to pullastrine domesticity.

Stephen Gill, Hackney Kisses, Archive of Modern Conflict, 2014. ISBN: 9780957049079. RRP: £40. Stephen Gill, Pigeons, Nobody Books and Archive of Modern Conflict, 2014. ISBN: 9780957536975. RRP: £38.

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