From the ethereal, otherworldly forms of discarded plastic on East London’s canals to abstract reflections on the serenity of life afloat – in the third part of our series investigating contemporary art of the waterways, we meet two photographers whose observations on the minutiae of canal life encourages us to see the world through a different lens.
Freya Najade: Along the Hackney Canal
At first glance one of the images in Freya Najade’s photo book, Along the Hackney Canal, appears ethereal, otherworldly, almost fragile – a delicate form floating through the air. But on closer inspection it slowly dawns that the translucent ghost-like organism is visual evidence of mankind’s detrimental impact on our waterways: a piece of plastic floating in water.
“[The image] is pleasing to look at, but it also shows the relationship between humans and nature,” says Freya. “You have traces of humans with the plastic, and also elements of nature with the water and the bits of algae.”
After moving to Hackney in East London in 2007, the German-born photographer first began exploring the local area on foot, often finding herself following the towpaths along East London’s canal network. It wasn’t long before her photographer’s eye was drawn to the textures, colours and details of the canals, and she started using her camera to capture what she observed as she wandered along the surprisingly bucolic banks of the urban waterways.
But what started as a long-term, personal project while studying an MA in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at London College of Communication, slowly developed and soon began to form the basis of a book about her affectionately named Hackney Canal, which was published by Hoxton Mini Press in 2016.
“I really love walking along [the East London] canals as it feels like an oasis in London,” says Freya. “You can really experience a mixture of things – sometimes nature is really dominating… and sometimes the urban environment dominates.” It’s this constant shift between nature and the urban landscape that seeps through her collection of photographs, from a feeding swan with its head submerged beneath the water to a cityscape that sees a relic from the industrial past share a frame with a skyline of London’s relentless development.
Although only a handful of the photographs in Along the Hackney Canal feature people, there are constant traces of human presence, through images of litter and waste: a discarded trolley, a plastic Iceland bag suspended underwater, an abandoned moped on a dried-up canal bed. “I love the area and I wanted to portray its beauty, but at the same time I wanted to show the impact of people,” explains Freya.
By zooming in on details of urban canals, Freya’s collection of images, with their painterly quality, muted tones and abstract textures, are aesthetically appealing and allow us to see a landscape that’s not usually known for its beauty in a whole new perspective. At the same time there’s a real rawness to her portrayal of East London’s waterways. “It was important for me not to just take pictures of flowers and trees, but also show the rubbish and objects lying around too,” she says.
If this beautiful photography has inspired you to do something about the litter on our canals, take a look at ways you can get involved.
Jim Cooke: Still/Sway
The canal network has also played the role of muse for artist and boater Jim Cooke, whose journeys aboard his narrowboat Alice Mary have inspired a whole body of photographic artwork. His latest body of work STILL/SWAY sees him turn his lens on the Coventry, Ashby and Oxford Canals – waterways he explored as a child, where he would walk, fish and birdwatch with his father. “[My work is] born from a fascination with water itself, the everyday components of these spaces, [and] a specific experiential relationship with my surroundings,” says Jim.
Jim is drawn towards the abstract, capturing images of bankside vegetation and the surface flow of water using an array of cameras, from large format to microscopes, as well as a range of photographic techniques such as photograms – producing photographs without a camera by placing items onto light-sensitive paper. He also objects he’s found on the waterways. “This might include plants, water, engine oil, my blood… anything that was part of my time on the water,” says Jim. As part of his creative process, he takes these items away from their source, the waterway, to another environment, such as his studio or home, where he observes, manipulates and then photographs each item.
STILL/SWAY is a very personal body of work that encapsulates Jim’s fascination with the waterways he’s spent a lifetime exploring and experiencing. His photographic artwork shows the elements, both natural and manmade, that draw him in while he is on the water, from a rusty flat bed iron to plants encrusted in engine oil. Each image holds its own unique space within the body of work, but throughout the collection there is a timeless and abstract nature, which Jim believes is “a reflection of the serenity of the locations and my feeling of belonging”.
The artwork produced for STILL/SWAY captures Jim’s connection to the everyday details that he observes when travelling by boat; in particular the many varieties of plants he notices lining the canals and towpaths. By sharing abstract representations of these plants, he hopes to provide the viewer with “the sense that, as a boater, there are times of only water, plant and sky.”
Freya Najade, Jim Cooke