On the path of urban nature

V&A East
July 22, 2020

The delicate lines of white flowers pushing through the cracks of concrete slab form a powerful focal point in Tim Walker’s cover image for the special August 2020 edition of UK Vogue. His photograph is one of 14 specially-commissioned artist covers for the ‘Reset’ issue – an edition in which landscapes, not models, take centre stage. The issue squarely addresses this poignant moment of re-emergence from months of Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, calling for reflection on the meaning of landscapes and a ‘reset’ of our relationship with nature. As Vogue Editor Edward Enninful puts it, it ‘highlights that at the core of everything is our planet’. The cover series and accompanying story ‘All Across the Land’ explore diverse landscapes – longed-for distant places, and those closer to home that became the daily lockdown world we explored with new eyes.

I was immediately struck by Walker’s cover image, not least because it felt familiar with my own urban wanderings during the lockdown in London. It also resonated as a document of the inner-city landscape surrounding the east London site of our new museum and collection centre project at V&A East.

Walker’s photograph was taken at his home in Hackney, east London, during the lockdown in April. It embodies the act of slow looking, and the framing of a poignant detail that the art of photography can render so powerfully. The image celebrates the beauty and resilience of nature, thriving against the many constraints of the urban built environment. As an image, it may feel familiar to many of us living in cities. During the lockdown, we went on daily walks exploring our local neighbourhoods. We too may have given more notice to the weeds and wildflowers piercing the fabric of city pavements.

Urban nature played a powerful role during the pandemic, as our reconnection with the natural world became an important source of calm and wellbeing. Public parks became a vital space of collective healing – a subject I explored in the V&A’s Pandemic Objects blog. As we slowed our activity, we also had an important opportunity to reflect on our impact on the Earth and our deep entanglement with the natural world. Walker dedicated his photograph to Satish Kumar, environmental activist and former Jain monk, who wrote to him on the importance of learning lessons from this time of pandemic. Holding on to a renewed connection with our planet is more vital now than ever as we build urgent responses to the progressing climate crisis.

This moment of reflection resonates powerfully with several areas of ongoing research for V&A East. We are continuously exploring new angles for reading objects in the V&A’s vast collections, from topical themes around environmental sustainability to the plural histories of our Stratford site. Notable among these has been the subject of urban nature. Many works in our holdings, from designs to photography, document the power of nature in city landscapes – and our experience of it.

Talking to Ants by Stephen Gill, 2009 – 13. Mus. no.
E.643-2014 © Image Victoria and Albert Museum

Talking to Ants by Stephen Gill, 2009 – 13. Mus. no.
E.645-2014 © Image Victoria and Albert Museum

Among them is a group of photographs from the series ‘Talking to Ants’ by Hackney-based photographer Stephen Gill. The work was made between 2009 and 2013, and like many of Gill’s projects from the period, it evocatively documents London’s East End. The series reads like a visual record of walking journeys that observe small, often overlooked details. In these, Gill captures the coexistence  of people, architecture and the local ecosystems of plants, animals, waterways and trees. Hackney landscapes and their literal physical fragments come together in single images through Gill’s experimental photographic technique that places found objects into the body of his camera. As he describes:

I hoped through this method to encourage the spirit of the place to clamber aboard the images and be encapsulated in the film emulsion, like objects embedded in amber. My aim was to evoke the feeling of the area at the same time as describing its appearance as the subject was both in front and behind the camera lens at the same moment. I like to think of these photographs as in-camera photograms in which conflict or harmony has been randomly formed in the final image depending on where the objects landed … This denial of information I believe somehow offers space for other things to pass through or the subject to make itself heard.

This theme of walking and observing nature in the city resonates in the work American photographer Mitch Epstein, also held in the V&A Collection.

American Elm, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn
Object by Mitch Epstein, 2012. Mus. no.
E.620-2019 © Image Victoria and Albert Museum

His photograph ‘American Elm, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn’ is part of ‘New York Arbor’ – a series documenting trees across the five boroughs of New York City. Here, a several centuries-old elm towers majestically over its surrounding street, growing tall while bounded to the pavement and resting on its concrete support. Epstein’s image shows the city as a realm that we share with other living systems, and explores the complexities of these human/non-human relationships. Much like Walker’s recent cover for Vogue, the photograph captures the enduring power of nature, as the tree thrives against the built environment that surrounds it. When reflecting on the photographs, Epstein spoke of his empathetic relationship with the tree, and his deep respect for its unique character. For him, ‘New York Arbor’ became a series of portraits.

Bringing such a lens to the inner-city landscapes of London feels timely, not least because its vast population of trees makes London technically a forest (with over 8.4 million and counting, there is a one per Londoner). As Poplar resident, London nature chronicler and author of ‘Ghost Trees’ Bob Gilbert put it:

For most of us, the city is our starting point. If we are to restore any connection with nature at all, it is in the cities that we need to begin. – Bob Gilbert

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