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Why I love gloomy pictures: Interview with Aidan O'Rourke

Alexandra King, third year undergraduate student of Geography at Birmingham University did an e-mail interview with me on the subject of 'gloomy photographs'. Find out why there is beauty in what some people regard as ugliness!

Alex: I have a few questions regarding the photograph 'Barbed wire fence and townscape' Did you take this picture in the early hours of the morning when it was foggy or has the greyness been enhanced to exaggerate the urban environment?
Aidan: I took the photos on a misty, drizzly day. I just happened to be driving along a narrow lane near Daisy Nook to the east of Manchester, and noticed a blackened burnt fence. The fence reminded me of drawings and paintings by Trevor Grimshaw and I decided to stop and take some reference shots. The view behind was taken on another day from Dukinfield south of Ashton.

Did you take this image for your own personal reasons or was it for someone else?
I took it purely for my own reasons. I like to experiment with montage, and I love dark gloomy images of the North. In the 80's I started a photo project I entitled 'Darkside of the North' I was fascinated by the old industrial scenes, townscapes, railway views, cobbled streets. Many of those views have since disappeared.

Did you intend this photo to be viewed by a particular audience or for anyone?
I would like everyone to see and appreciate it, though I have found that gloomy images appeal only to a more select group of people. I can tell which photos people are clicking on, and not many have clicked on this one, by comparison to, say, sunny contemporary views of Manchester.
Is it displayed anywhere else other than the internet? Is it usually in a frame on the wall?
No, it is a purely digital image. I have not yet printed it out, and nobody has ordered it as a print for framing. It is a contradiction that this gloomy, old fashioned image, inspired by pencil drawings and old black and white photographs, is actually produced on an Apple Mac Powerbook G4 and was taken on a digital camera.

Barbed wire fence and townscape
Barbed wire fence and townscape: Photomontage by Aidan O'Rourke

Have you tried to illustrate the positive or negative side to living in the town?
I wanted to recapture the atmosphere of the old north of England, as I remember it from my childhood. It was often dark, gloomy and dismal, with a blanket of fog or smog, and a smell of coal in the air. This atmosphere left a strong impression, which will always stay with me, and I wanted to try and conjure it up from my memory, using visual elements available to me in today's landscape. It is both positive and negative. I want people to be affected by the view, I would like them both to feel a sense of melancholy, but also gain an awareness of the beauty of the northern English townscape.

Were additional buildings inserted to exaggerate dense landscape? Was the other steeple added to highlight religious and cultural values of the town and the community?
I added in an extra couple of chimneys and an extra steeple. In the past there were many more chimneys and steeples visible. Most have been demolished. These landmarks were symbolic on the one hand of grim weekday toil in the factories, and on the other hand of Sunday worship in the various churches. I wanted to artificially restore the chimneys and steeples to try and recreate how it used to look. The townscape in the background is the Werneth district of Oldham, with the church on the top of the hill. The extra steeple is St George's Church in Stockport. L S Lowry and Trevor Grimshaw used techniques of collage, gathering elements from various sources and combining them to make imaginary scenes which capture an element of many places.

Have you produced any other similar images?
I have done one other townscape combining various elements, the foggy view of Chadderton mills seen from next to the High Point Hotel in Oldham. I also did a misty view of the River Irwell behind Victoria Station. I would like to do lots more. I love the gloomy, atmospheric look of old mills and views over towns. It provides a counterpoint to today's brighter, more superficial world. But I don't get many calls from design companies wanting to use them on the front cover of brochures. Having said that, my misty Irwell view was used in the brochure for the Tempus development. They wanted to put across the idea of old and new Manchester.

Does the barbed wire fence suggest a green belt boundary? or 'urban alienation'?
It is mainly just a compositional element which I have taken directly from the paintings and drawings of Trevor Grimshaw. The fence partially blocks the view of the town, forcing us to use our imagination to make up the missing bits. It's the kind of thing you might see on a hillside walk above the town. As you walk up the dirty footpath, the town starts to become visible through the fence. It implies motion and highlights the action of looking. This 'posterised' technique can also be found in Japanese woodblock prints, which I also find visually captivating.

If there is any other information you would like to add it will be gratefully received. I think the picture displays powerful imagery of life in industrial urban towns today and how actually this can be quite beautiful.
I would only say that it is intended to capture an imagery of the past, not the present. I am trying to recreate the look and atmosphere of the industrial era from the 19th century up to the 1950s, when modernisation started to transform the environment. It created generally a better world, but cut us off from our past. It's true, there is beauty in what people regard as ugliness, and I'm very glad you like it!

Thank you for your time and help. I have really enjoyed looking at your work.
Thanks, I enjoyed answering the questions!

Aidan O'Rourke was interviewed via e-mail by Alexandra King, third year undergraduate student of Geography at Birmingham University 11 Nov 2005

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-11-11

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