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Review: London Overspill at The Gibberd Gallery

Lifestyle / Sat 11th Jan 2014 pm31 12:12pm

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by Jo O’Reilly

ON Thursday night the Gibberd Gallery hosted a private viewing of British photographer, James Smith’s latest photography collection ‘London Overspill’.

Guests were invited to look around the exhibition before The Gibberd Galley’s Corrina Dunlea, introduced Harlow MP Robert Halfon to say a few words.

This is the first photography exhibition Corrina has put on in her time as curator at the gallery, and she is clearly excited by how thought provoking the images are.

Smith himself looked slightly less comfortable when invited by Mr Halfon to speak. He later admitted to me he found the experience of being introduced by a Conservative MP a strange one, “Two years ago, I was protesting against them at Millbank”.

London overspill focuses on New Towns and their architecture including, Hatfield, Luton, Peterborough and of course, Harlow.

The images are striking in spite of their familiarity, I recognise instantly the side of the distinct Shawbridge estate. It’s the road behind my childhood home, the backdrop to the familiar journey to and from the Staple Tie shopping centre. I would have seen this image everyday for countless years. I doubt I ever stopped to look at it like this.

The pictures here of course aren’t just Harlow, there’s a pictures of a roundabout near Hatfield I hear one visitor describe as gritty. It’s gritty if gritty is strangely, overwhelmingly normal. I know it’s not Harlow but it could be, place the PC world sign slightly to the left and it could well be Edinburgh Way Retail Park.

Towards the end of the night I get a chance to chat to Mr Smith about the work,

‘I’ve been photographing New Towns for around 8-9 years now. Harlow is a very special place, it’s the first new town and it is one of the prime examples of a new town for me.’

I wonder if his affection for the town is based on a personal connection, but Smith who splits his time between Northamptonshire and East London has neither lived, nor until this exhibition worked in Harlow. He does however express a fondness for the work of Harlow born photographer Paul Graham.

The strength of his feeling for the Bishopfield estate, subject of one of the most impressive pictures in the collection, is almost surreal,

“Harlow has the most beautiful new town, post war landscape I’ve ever come across and photographed, Bishopsfield was almost like a Mecca for me.”

Bishopsfield is many things to me, the place I had my first (and last) babysitting job for example, but I have never envisioned it as a Mecca. I must look unconvinced, so Smith explains,

“Yes it’s in a little bit of disrepair, a little bit shabby around the edges but you’ll find any housing estate from any era will be the same. The fact it is fifty years old, it doesn’t look that bad.’”

His enthusiasm for it is infectious, “Looking at the image as we are now on the postcard, it’s a shame they have almost turned it into a football stadium with those steps but, honestly it is the most beautiful piece of architecture I have come across.”

I start to feel a little bit smug about the town, I make a mental note to casually drop Harlow’s impressive post-war landscape into conversation next time sometime asks where I am from.

It’s an old cliché but sometimes seeing a place through someone else’s eyes can give you a new perspective, a new appreciation for it even, and that is what Smith has achieved here.

“I want my work to be known as a celebration of the architecture. I could seek out and hunt down some really run down places in any town but I don’t, I try to show the structural beauty of the area.”

The exhibition runs until the 31st of January at The Gibberd Gallery inside the Civic Centre.

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